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From LDN's Fall Home Improvement Magazine

Getting your fireplace ready

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[September 26, 2013]  Who among us doesn't enjoy the comfort and coziness a lit fireplace can bring on a chilly day? But one thing to remember is to prepare your fireplace for the coming season with safety in mind. Oftentimes this needs to be done by a professional.

The U.S. Fire Administration recommends that you have your chimney inspected at least once a year. Tar buildup inside the chimney can cause the chimney, roof and the whole house to go up in flames.

A trained chimney sweep, Rodney Kneller, owner of Klein's Chimney Sweep in Springfield, shed a lot of light on the proper maintenance that a professional can bring to keeping your home and family safe.

What does a chimney sweep look at during inspection?

Kneller explained that it's a top-to-bottom, inside-and-outside inspection of the entire system.

While inside looking at the firebox, he checks the integrity of the metal liner, checking for any seams that may have come apart due to an extra-hot fire. In masonry fireboxes, he checks for loose bricks and looks at all the mortar joints, making sure there are no loose stones or joints that need tuck-pointed. Then, looking up the flue, he examines for signs of creosote and checks that all the joints of the sections are properly sealed.

External inspection involves removing the cap with bird screen and a look-down in a similar evaluation of what might need to be addressed. Not only does Kneller look for debris and creosote, but oftentimes there are spider webs. Those just take a quick sweep and you are good to go for another year.

Maybe you don't have a fireplace yet. In that case, there are a number of choices in types of fireplaces, and each one has its own maintenance regimen. There are the traditional wood-burning, wood-burning converted to gas logs, and gas only. Newer to the market are the hybrid fireplaces. Hybrid fireplaces provide a gas source to ignite the kindling, and then the homeowner uses wood to continue the burning process.

The wood-burning fireplace is evaluated for buildup of creosote. Creosote is a natural byproduct of combustion. It is a tar-like substance that collects on the walls of the flue and is very flammable. Creosote is evaluated on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being the most critical.

It is recommended that pine and the "sappier" woods should not be burned, because these produce the most creosote, which can result in chimney fires. In our region, red or white oak is the recommended hardwood to burn. It has the highest number of BTUs due to its density and is a cleaner, longer burning wood.

The wood should be seasoned -- that is, cut and split preferably for one year for optimal performance. Your wood should be stored off the ground and uncovered. Many homeowners achieve this by laying two steel posts on top of concrete blocks and driving a couple more steel stakes at each end to prevent the wood from rolling off.

Wood is oftentimes purchased by the pickup load, but a full measure is known as a cord. A cord of wood measures 4 by 4 by 8 feet, and a pickup load is usually less than a cord.

One important question to ask when purchasing firewood is if the price includes stacking it properly upon delivery. Imagine the homeowner's surprise to come home and find the wood simply dumped in the driveway.

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Another piece of advice from Kneller: Some things that should never be burned in the fireplace are paper or plastic. Oftentimes a chimney fire is started by someone burning all the wrapping paper from gifts. The scenario usually unfolds with someone wadding up the gift wrap and igniting it in a cold fireplace, resulting in a huge fire. When creosote is cold, it will ignite easier, and chimney fires can reach temperatures of over 2,000 degrees. That is a situation no one wants to find themselves in.

Other things to avoid are the "newspaper logs" because they emit toxic chemicals from the printing process and are harmful for the environment. Starter logs are OK to use, but overuse can result in a paraffin buildup.

One other tip from the U.S. Fire Administration: Keep the fire inside the fireplace by making sure you have a fireplace screen large enough to stop flying sparks and rolling logs.

A wood-burning fireplace converted to gas logs also requires maintenance. Your professional will inspect the gas connections for leaks and the proper air-to-gas ratio. A gas fireplace that is not properly adjusted will also create a creosote issue. And a well-adjusted gas-air mix makes for a more appealing fire.

Some gas fireplaces are sealed from the indoors and generate heat for the room by radiation, while providing an attractive, real-looking dancing fire. Oxygen for combustion is obtained through a part of the flue system that draws from the outdoors, while the other component allows for the extraction of gases from the firebox.

There are a variety of options to choose from in gas fireplaces, and the homeowner should consult a professional, reputable fireplace dealership.

As a last bit of advice, if you are considering adding a fireplace to your home, it is recommended that you visit a few dealerships to research your options.

Fireplaces are a wonderful addition, and with attention to safety, they really add to the comfort of a home.


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