Nothing adds cozy comfort to your home like a crackling fire on a winter night. However, nothing can ruin that coziness like a rogue family of bats or a spontaneous chimney fire! Lighting and tending a fire can be quite easy, but several fireplace experts and agencies encourage proper inspections and installations before you spark up the kindling. From ensuring chimney safety and upgrading your ventilation hardware to clearing out any squatting chimney critters, there are some important preparatory steps you should take to ready your fireplace for this cold season.
The first step is to check on your chimney. Your chimney is likely dormant for more than half of the year, and much can go awry if you do not have it inspected. Chimneys.com contributing author Oliver Beauchemin discusses how the National Fire Protection Association's Code 211 pertains to the average homeowner. Beauchemin cites the NFPA's strong recommendation to have your chimney thoroughly inspected before each burning season. Inspectors can look for any obstructions, identify any resident animals and further investigate any potential damage from chimney fires in previous years. Before lighting new fires, it is crucial to check your chimney's infrastructure.
In addition to checking chimney integrity, it is important to have your chimney cleaned during your inspection. HMS Home Warranty, an online resource for homeowner maintenance, emphasizes that frequent cleaning and limiting fire size can prevent chimney damage. It's possible that, during previous years' fires, a compound called creosote (and many other combustible chemicals) accumulated and are lining the walls of your chimney. Without proper cleaning, this buildup can drastically increase your chance of chimney fires this year. If you do not have a go-to chimney sweep, Shyra Peyton of ThisOldHouse.com recommends referencing the Chimney Safety Institute of America (http://csia.org). On the CSIA site, homeowners can search a database of chimney sweeps to find one nearby. The site also offers information on chimney fires, guides on wood use and storage and many other useful articles on owning and operating a fireplace.
Once you have had your chimney and fireplace inspected, it is very possible that you will need to do some minor maintenance. Most chimney work will require a certified professional, but CabinLife.com notes several common fireplace upkeep projects that you can tackle on your own.
--Clean your blower: Many wood-burning fireplaces have air blowers to increase flame quality and heat. Using a Shop-Vac, clear out any dust and debris that has accumulated in the blower.
--Inspect and replace any deteriorating brick lining: High heat or overloaded fires can cause fireplace damage. "A fire that's too large or too hot can crack the chimney," Peyton writes. Cabin Life recommends purchasing fireproof brick lining and recoating any damaged or cracking surfaces between bricks in your fireplace. Do this at the start of the season and in a completely cooled fireplace.
--Empty, clean and inspect the ash dump: Beyond cleaning out any of last year's ashes, make sure that all the gaskets and airtight seals for the ash dump and the flue are intact. Leaking can cause inefficient burning or over-aeration (leading to overheated fires).
If that seems like a lot to deal with, don't hesitate to call in professionals, as they are equipped with the skills and tools to handle most of your fireplace preparation for winter. However, with ample knowledge, you can keep an eye on your fireplace, inspect for damage and maybe even manage some of next year's minor maintenance on your own.