Stay warmer, and safer, every winter season with these simple tips for maintaining your wood-burning fireplace.

When winter takes hold in Michigan, and the cold winds are blowing in across the lakes, there are few things better than curling up inside by the glow of a wood fire in a fireplace.

What better way to sit and enjoy the winter than from the comfort a fire?

It’s safe to enjoy it as long as you’re maintaining your fireplace regularly. Without the right maintenance, a wood burning fireplace can be a potential source for a house fire – and fire damage is difficult to recover from.

Embers popping from your fire are one hazard, but creosote build-up within your chimney is another hazard you need to attend to. Likewise, if smoke is rolling into your home instead of going up the chimney, that can create another hazard.

According to Burn Wise, a program of the US Environmental Protection Agency, “Smoke may smell good, but it’s not good for you.”

Backdrafting can also occur when negative pressure builds in your home. The fireplace can consume a lot of oxygen, and if the pressure becomes to great along with poor ventilation for your other appliances, it can draw air back into your home through appliance vents for things like your furnace and water heater.

This draws flue gases, like carbon monoxide, back into your home and can be deadly for you and your family.

Ashley Eldridge, a veteran chimney sweep and director of education at the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) says, “Safety is the best reason to have a professional chimney sweep inspect, clean, and test any fireplace when you move into a home. While it is possible for homeowners to clean and maintain their own fireplaces and chimneys, it’s unlikely that they possess the requisite knowledge or experience to spot all potential problems during an inspection.”

Staying Safe and Maintaining Your Wood-Burning Fireplace

Most wood-burning fireplaces are designed to be far safer than the hearths of ages past. Today, your fireplace has features including sturdy masonry built to withstand the heat, high-efficiency EPS-approved metal inserts, raised lips and glass doors to contain embers, tight-sealing dampers and more.

Still, you need to maintain your fireplace and chimney to keep your home and your family safe.

1. Never trust that ventilation is working properly. Outfit your home with smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Test them regularly and keep extra batteries on hand to ensure they are all in working order.

2. Be aware of everything that is around your fireplace that is combustible. When you build a fire in your fireplace, move everything flammable including drapes, carpets and furniture. Keep in mind that hot embers can pop and leap several feet from the fireplace, though most land within a foot or so of the hearth.

3. Always use a guard in front of the fireplace to prevent embers, and to keep both children and pets safe.

4. Be mindful of what is placed on the lintel (the metal plate at the top of the fireplace opening). Don’t hang or place flammable objects in this space.\

5. Allowing some ash to remain at the bottom of the fireplace can make it easier to maintain a fire, but don’t let it pile up. Clean ash away when it reaches the bottom of your grate (the piece holding your firewood.)

6. Always wear a dust mask and gloves when cleaning ash from the fireplace. Put down plastic or something to catch dust as you clean the fireplace. Remember, ash and soot can be corrosive to finished surfaces, so protect the space (and furniture) around your fireplace. Handle ash carefully to prevent it from blowing out and circulating into your living space.

7. At least once a year, either at the end of the cold season in Michigan or just before, have your chimney cleaned and inspected by a certified professional. This is a minimum; it’s best to call for a cleaning if you notice soot and creosote buildup greater than 1/8”.The Chimney Safety Institute of America, a nonprofit formed in 1983, lists almost 1,500 chimney professionals in 49 states that actively carry the Certified Chimney Sweep credential.

8. Always test your chimney by burning a small piece of seasoned wood, lit from the top. This test is to ensure that smoke and combustion gases are rising properly and exiting through the chimney. If the smoke rolls out of the fireplace into your home, troubleshoot the issue and find out what is impeding proper ventilation. Check for things like nests blocking airflow, a closed damper, or creosote buildup.

9. Don’t burn green wood, use only seasoned lumber. Seasoned wood is properly chopped and prepared logs that have sat for 6 to 12 months. This rest period dries the wood, reducing the moisture content to 20% or less.

Cured or seasoned wood burns cleaner. Green wood, or recently chopped lumber with a high moisture content, creates more soot and creosote when placed in a fire. You can easily differentiate the two by banging them together; seasoned wood will make a sharp ring when banged together. Wet or unseasoned wood makes a dull thud.

10. Try to burn hard woods in your fireplace. Hardwoods like ash, maple and oak are much denser and heavier woods. This is a benefit to Michiganders, as denser wood providers far more heat than soft woods (like pine or cedar.)