Tips for Fireplace Safety this Winter

If you own a wood burning or gas fireplace, the cold winter months provide many opportunities to enjoy the cozy warmth they provide. Since these fireplaces haven’t been used during the summer, it is a good idea to review the following safety considerations for home fireplaces.

Chimneys should be inspected annually, and cleaned as necessary, to ensure that they are clear of obstructions and creosote. This should ideally be done at the beginning of the winter season to be sure the chimney will be safe for use over the coming months.  Look for a professional sweep in your area that is certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

In addition to inspection and cleaning, this professional should install or repair a cap, fitted with wire mesh sides, at the top of the chimney. The cap is designed to keep debris and animals from blocking the chimney and preventing smoke from escaping.  The chimney sweep also can inspect the chimney for any structural problems that need to be addressed before use.

Inside the home, it is important to keep several items on hand any time you will be burning wood in your fireplace. Have a fire extinguisher in close proximity to the fireplace, and always keep operational smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Use a mesh metal screen or glass fireplace doors to prevent sparks from leaping out and creating a hazard.  Keep flammable materials such as books or newspapers clear of the space surrounding the fireplace, and check for any items hanging down from the mantle.

Proper use of a wood burning fireplace

When building the fire, use seasoned hardwood that is split and cut to the right length, and do not overload the fireplace. And don’t forget to open the damper! It is very important to start the fire using newspaper and kindling, or a manufactured fire starter, rather than flammable liquids such as lighter fluid. Never burn plastics, as these can release toxic gases into your home’s air. Similarly, do not burn charcoal in the fireplace because this can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.

Maintaining a gas fireplace

A professionally installed gas fireplace requires regular maintenance to ensure the system is in good working order. Specialty retailers in your area can provide these services by factory-trained or nationally-certified staff. These professionals will check the safety pilot, adjust the millivolt output, clean the fan and related air circulation passages, and ensure the vents are unobstructed.

The presence of carbon monoxide is one of the biggest safety concerns for gas fireplaces.  Check to be sure your carbon monoxide detector is working. If your gas logs are vent-free, keep in mind that they can deplete the oxygen in your home.  Limit their use to no more than a few hours at a time, and open a window to help replace the oxygen. With vented gas logs, fumes are directed out of the house through the chimney, so be sure the damper is clamped open to allow the carbon monoxide to escape. Special pipes can also be installed to help vent the air with these kinds of logs.

Enjoy the warmth and beauty of your home fireplace this winter, and be sure to follow these tips to stay safe all season long!

About the Author: David M. Irvine is an experienced trial attorney focusing his practice on personal injury law in the Allen & Allen office in Charlottesville, Virginia. He has handled cases involving car accidents, catastrophic injuries and wrongful death and has litigated cases across the Commonwealth on behalf of deserving clients. David has published on topics related to litigation in wrongful death cases and trial procedure, and regularly speaks on litigation topics.