I recently received an email from a woman who purchased a home with a family room addition whose only source of heat is a wood-burning fireplace. Her husband is nervous about safety issues. This is a pretty common — and important — concern among owners of old homes.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, over one third of Americans use solid fuel-fired appliances, including fireplaces, as their home’s heat source. All combustion appliances have some degree of risk if not installed or maintained properly, including the possibility of burning down a home or harming the occupants with carbon monoxide. Here are some of the more important issues to consider for fireplace safety.
It’s very important to have the chimney and flue initially inspected by a sweep that has a recognized national certification. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has now set minimum chimney inspection standards that are classified in three levels. Ask for a level II inspection for the initial inspection. If expensive repairs are recommended, be sure to get a second opinion from an inspector that does not do repairs.
Install a cap on top of the flue with a spark arrester screen and keep branches trimmed away from the chimney to reduce the possibility of igniting a fire on the exterior of your home.
The chimney must also be constructed to terminate a safe distance from your roof or any other part of the house.
· Be sure the fire resistant hearth extension (floor protection) extends at least 16 inches in front of the opening — 18 inches for fireplaces with large openings
· Keep combustible decorations, toys, kindling, etc. well away from the fireplace
· Use an approved screen to contain sparks and embers
· Don’t use gasoline or other flammable liquid to start a fire (I could tell you a story)
· Never leave the fire unattended
· Never close the damper until all the embers have completely cooled — usually well into the next day
It’s also very important for homes with a fireplace, or any type of combustion appliance, to have a carbon monoxide detector installed. Be sure to buy and install one that specifically states that it detects low levels of CO. Long term exposure to low levels, not detected by many popular detectors, can cause illness and permanent injury. All homes should have updated smoke detectors (less than 6-years-old) on every level of the house and in every bedroom. Check and replace the batteries as per the manufacturer’s instructions. At least one fire extinguisher should reside in every home. Check the pressure gauge regularly, be sure everyone knows where it’s kept and knows how to use it.
If the fireplace is relied on as a heat source for your home, consider installing a high efficiency stove insert to increase heat output and reduce heat loss up the flue. This can be a safe and efficient option, when installed, operated and maintained as per the manufacturer’s instructions.