Old house maintenance: firing up an old fireplace

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer

There are few things more enchanting than an old house with a huge fireplace. It immediately conjures up dreams of sitting in front of the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, or enjoying the holidays with friends and family, all gathered around that warm glow. It is enough to make a new homeowner want to build a fire the moment they move in.

That's what I craved when we moved into our new home. But as I sat in front of the stone hearth and looked up at the chimney, I realized that there could be problems lurking in there that would turn my lovely fire into a disaster waiting to happen. So the fire was put on hold while I called the chimney sweep for a thorough inspection and cleaning.

Keeping the fireplace safe

Here are a few lessons I learned from the chimney sweep who made sure our fireplace and chimney were safe to use. Take heed if you are thinking about a nice fire this winter:

  1. Screen your fire. The necessity of a good fire screen cannot be overstated. It can be tempting to remove the screen to better enjoy the fire, but never walk away without putting the screen back in place -- not even for a quick run to the kitchen for another cup of that delicious hot cocoa.
  2. Keep it small. The fire doesn't have to be huge to heat the room. A small, "romantic" fire can be enough to get things cozy. Keep the fire small and if you need more heat, grab some comfy throws or blankets.
  3. Learn how to use it. This might seem obvious, but if you are just moving into a new house, you don't yet understand the quirks of your particular fireplace or chimney. Ask a chimney sweep to walk you through it all.
  4. Know your woods. Just picking up any old wood from the forest isn't a good idea (a lesson I learned the hard way, but that's a story for another day). Look for woods that burn with low creosote, such as oak. Wood should also be dried for at least six months before use.
  5. Keep safety in mind. Have your chimney and fireplace inspected every year. Install carbon monoxide detectors that detect the poisonous gas at very low concentrations and teach everyone in your home what to do when the alarms sound. Have a fire extinguisher nearby just in case things get out of hand.
  6. Hire the best. Look for a professional who has been in business for a good amount of time and has earned certification through the Chimney Safety Institute of America. If repairs are indicated, be sure to get three estimates from qualified professionals before proceeding with any work. Don't burn a fire until the situation is resolved.
  7. Get a Level III inspection. The National Fire Protection Association recommends three different levels of chimney inspections. The most in-depth inspection is the Level III, and should be requested when you first move into your new (old) house. This will help ensure that everything is up to code and there are no surprises. After that first year, a Level I or II inspection should suffice.

Always remember that fire can act in unpredictable ways. No matter how comfortable you are with your new fireplace, always adhere to safety measures and never leave it unattended. Once a year, get that inspection and cleaning to help ensure that your chimney holds strong and your fireplace stays safe.