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Indoors Or Out, Fireplace Safety A Must

In Local News on August 24, 2011 at 8:28 am

By Gery L. Deer

Deer In Headlines

As the weather begins to cool in the Midwest, people will begin to use indoor fireplaces more often. Attractive and warming, a fireplace can provide inexpensive supplemental heat while adding to a home’s value. Unfortunately, it can also cause a potential danger if not properly maintained.

According to the most recent statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 25,000 chimney fires each year are responsible for 30 deaths and an average of $126.1 million in property damage.

During the off season chimneys can become damaged or clogged with any number of contaminants including bird nests and storm debris. In order to guard against potential chimney fires, The National Fire Protection Association (www.nfpa.org ) recommends that fireplaces and chimneys should be inspected annually and cleaned after each cord of wood burned.

Incidentally, a cord of wood is a considerable amount, possibly more than many people realize. It measures 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long with a volume of 128 cubic feet. Since a single family might burn two or three cords over a winter season, fireplace cleaning becomes even more important.

Properly cleaning the fireplace and chimney takes more than just removing the ash from below the fire grate. Regular cleaning helps to prevent the build up of creosote, a highly flammable material that starts out as liquid residue from condensed components in smoke including tar and soot. Because of heat, the liquid dries into a solid, flaky glazed form.

Glazed creosote is recognizable by its shiny, tar-like appearance. It is essentially wood tar that has baked onto the walls of the chimney flue or liner. This is also the most flammable and hardest to extinguish once it gets burning.

A hot fire of around 1000 degrees Fahrenheit can easily ignite the creosote deposits into a roaring chimney fire. In addition, burning embers from the substance can land on rooftops or in dry brush or leaves, endangering surrounding property.

Despite some urban legends to the contrary, there is no such thing as creosote-free burning and the kind of wood makes no difference at all. In fact, the danger lies, not so much in what is burned, but how.

A low burning fire will result in incomplete combustion, which is the number one cause of creosote accumulation. An improperly installed fireplace or insert can cause the smoke to cool too quickly and allow the airborne particles to settle inside the chimney flue.

If contaminants begin to build up inside the chimney, they will produce a smell in the house smell similar to a campfire on a damp, wet day. If that odor is present, it is probably time to have an inspection done by a qualified chimney sweep. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Lighting up the fireplace also triggers some folks to start building outdoor fires. In some areas it is illegal to burn yard waste or other items, but for those people who live where it is permitted, the same attention to safety should be paid to outdoor fires as to using a fireplace.

Burning leaves is almost never a good plan. No matter how dry they might seem, leaves retain some water and rarely burn but instead just smoke. A really hot, blazing bonfire can incinerate leaves and lawn material but also creates a danger to nearby homes because of falling embers or excessive smoke.

In addition, outdoor fireplace units, whether metal or ceramic, were not designed for burning trash or yard waste and are often placed too close to trees or buildings. Above all, be considerate of the neighbors if you live in a densely populated area. Many people suffer from allergies during the fall and smoke from yard fires can create serious health issues. Smoke from burning yard waste can trigger allergy and asthma attacks.

Whether sitting around the fireplace or a back yard pit, safety and common sense should always come first. With yards, brush and fields so dry for lack of rain this season, extra care should be taken whether the s’mores are toasting indoors or out.

Questions or Comments? Email Gery L. Deer at gery@deerinheadlines.com. Read more at http://www.deerinheadlines.com.

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