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Check Condition of Fireplace Before Cold Sets In


With the holidays and cooler weather, most of us are looking forward to spending time with family and friends around a comfortable fire. Keep in mind, though, that every year there are many devastating house fires and injuries that result from unsafe conditions and usage of the fireplace.

Here are a few safety suggestions to keep in mind before using your fireplace this season:

* Is it clean? A flammable residue builds up on the wall of the chimney flue with repeated usage of the fireplace. Also, the smoke does not draw properly when the flue is dirty. Use a flashlight to look at the rear wall of the fireplace and up into the "throat" area. Shiny or velvety deposits indicate a problem. Contact a chimney sweep to have it cleaned. If you are not sure, have a professional check it before lighting a fire.

* Is there a spark arrestor? Amazingly, there are still thousands of homes that do not have a proper spark arrestor on top of their chimneys. Fire departments in every community can attest to the danger of sparks becoming airborne, landing on flammable materials on the roof or elsewhere and starting a blaze. Make sure you have a secure spark screen, or much better, a spark arrestor chimney cap. Most licensed handymen or chimney sweeps can install these.

* Use care lighting the log lighter. Light the match first and place it near the log lighter pipe before turning on the gas. If you do the opposite, you are likely to cause the gas to ignite with a small explosion, possibly injuring yourself.

* Don't overbuild your fire. Putting excess wood into the fireplace is likely to cause harmful smoke and fumes to enter the living space. Also, try to build the fire toward the back of the fireplace.

* Use a proper spark screen at the fireplace. Never burn a fire without one. As the wood burns, expanding gases can cause sparks to be thrown out of the fireplace onto flammable surfaces nearby.

* Make sure you open the flue damper before starting the fire. If you forget this step you will be reminded very quickly as the room begins to fill with smoke. When the fire is 100% out, remember to close it again to keep cold air from entering the house through the flue.

* If you have a gas log set (looks like wood burning but actually burns only gas), you must have a safety damper block in place to keep the damper from closing fully. The idea is that if the gas set is inadvertently lit without opening the damper, deadly colorless, odorless carbon monoxide fumes could enter the home from the fireplace without the occupants knowing it (no wood means no smoke). With a block in place, the damper stays partially open at all times to allow the fumes to vent out, thus keeping the room air from becoming toxic.

Use a flashlight to view the damper. You should see a metallic clamp attached to the edge of the damper keeping it open about an inch or so. If it is not there, contact a chimney contractor or licensed handyman to install one.

* In choosing firewood, keep in mind that hardwood smoke does not produce as much harmful buildup of deposits on the inside of the chimney flue as do softwoods.


Gary Abrams is a general contractor who has written about home improvement for The Times for 10 years. Comments and questions can be sent to him at

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