Each year I hear about multiple house fires at the start of winter. Almost all could have been avoided if the residents took the time to do a few safety checks and/or used common sense. Two recent fires that destroyed homes were due to improper disposal of smoking materials and fireplace/woodstove ashes.
If you have a standard fireplace as shown in above photo, you can do some quick checks before using it each year. Most fireplaces have all the basics components. A foundation, hearth, firebox, smoke shelf, throat, outside air intake, flues, shell, profile, damper, clean out, ash dump, chimney, rake, flashing, cap. Some have a thimble aka round flue where a woodstove is connected.
If you don't feel comfortable doing a check yourself, then hire a chimney sweep or a mason with experience in building fireplaces.
If you do want to do your own check first, here are some tips to follow. You can do a basic check from the ground, so no need to climb any ladders or get on the roof if you don't like heights. Get a good flashlight.
(1) Go outside and look for cracks from top to bottom. Cracks can be an indication of another problem. Maybe a lightning strike, earthquake, foundation settlement, hot fire started on a very cold day, etc.
(2) Check to make sure the air intake is not clogged. Bees might have built a nest in it, or something could have been put inside of it from the inside. You might not be able to check the flashing from the ground unless you have a pair of binoculars.
If you don't see any signs of problems outside, good. Now go inside. Start at the bottom.
(3) If you have a woodstove connected to a round flue in basement, you need to check that. Clean out the woodstove. Open clean out door if you have one and see how much soot has accumulated. It's a good idea to remove it each year.
(4) If you can, disconnect the stove pipe from the stove, then pull it out of the thimble. Take is outside and clean it out. Use flashlight to look inside of thimble. If you notice a build up of soot and creosote, you might decide then to stop and call a chimney sweep. Just put everything back together. This is a good exercise for homeowners so they can become familiar with what maintenace is required if you burn firewood.
(5) Now go upstairs to your fireplace. Check to make sure the air intake is clear of obstructions. Then look for cracks in the firebrick. A common place for cracks to develop are where the firebrick meet the profile. Next, lay on you back and look on the inside of the fireplace opening. This is another common place for cracks. (you might want to wear some safety glasses to keep stuff from falling into your eyes).
(6) Now it's time to check your damper. It should slide open and closed fairly smoothly, and should lock into one of the 4 or 5 notches on the damper handle. Check the bolt as well. With the damper fully open, shine your light up the chimney. You should be able to see the throat, and some of the flue liners. Look to see if they are clean or cracked. Also, while damper is fully open, you should be able to lift it upwards enough to slip your hand in behind it. That is where your smoke shelf is located. Things like birds, nests, leaves, etc can accumulate there. Remove whatever you find there, then reset the damper in it's proper position.
If you do all that, you will be very familiar with what is required to maintain safe fireplaces, woodstoves, and chimneys.
(7) Never put hot ashes into plastic buckets. Get yourself a metal bucket for ashes. And never set the bucket out on your deck or in your garage.
(8) Make sure you have up to date smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house.
(9) Clean your dryer filters and the dryer exhaust pipe. Those are another common source of house fires.
(10) If you use any type of space heaters, go room to room, and make sure they are not located near any curtains or flammable materials. That includes kids clothing on the floor. If any extension cords are used, make sure they are heavy duty cords, but avoid using them if you can.
Jeff Pearl | Lic in VA
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