Though chimneys and fireplaces are highly desired assets for cold weather, they're also common sources of potential home disasters. In recent years, a reported 41 percent of single-family homes in the US were built with fireplaces. The southern region of the US reportedly has the most fireplaces installed, with 320,000 newly constructed single-family homes reportedly having been built with one fireplace in a single year, and another 38,000 built with two or more.
With chimneys and fireplaces being so common, there are several tips and tricks all homeowners can follow to prevent general wear and tear and possible fire disasters. It’s also handy to get equipped with enough homeowners insurance, and an independent insurance agent can help you find the right coverage long before you ever light a match. But for starters, here’s a crash course in chimney maintenance and indoor fire safety 101.
Cold-Weather Maintenance Tips for Gas & Wood-Burning Fireplaces
Though gas is known to be a clean-burning fuel, gas-burning fireplaces still require routine maintenance just like wood-burning fireplaces do. Debris or bird nests can accumulate and block the flue no matter what type of material is burned in your fireplace, potentially leading to disaster.
Take these routine maintenance steps to help protect your fireplace, chimney, and home:
- Clean the fireplace regularly: Throughout the cold-weather season, your fireplace needs to be cleaned at least weekly to reduce ash buildup. About one inch of ash can be left in the fireplace to act as insulation.
- Clean the exterior hearth regularly: About every six weeks during the cold-weather season, wash your exterior slate hearth and finish it off with lemon oil for a sleek shine. Exterior brick hearths require a special brick cleaner.
- Clean the glass doors when necessary: The glass doors of a fireplace may get stained over time due to extreme heat. Only clean the doors when they are completely cool, with liquid dish detergent and warm water, or warm water and vinegar. Excess buildup on the doors can be scraped off with a razor blade. You can also buy special glass cleaner for fireplace doors.
- Get the chimney swept annually: It’s recommended that chimneys, fireplaces, and vents should be professionally inspected at least on an annual basis. Even if you don’t light many fires in your fireplace, it still needs to be inspected for things like bird nests or deterioration that could provide unsafe conditions for future fires.
Regardless of whether your fireplace is wood-burning or gas-burning, it needs to be kept clean and maintained. Dirty or blocked fireplaces can cause chimney fires that become out of control quickly and can destroy your whole house, and potentially your neighbor’s house, too. Don't skip routine chimney and fireplace maintenance no matter how often or seldom your fireplace gets used.
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Warm-Weather Maintenance Tips for Gas & Wood-Burning Fireplaces
Summer is the perfect time for fireplace and chimney maintenance since you’re unlikely to be lighting any indoor fires throughout the season. Proactive maintenance during the warmer months helps homeowners to prepare for smooth fireplace usage in the colder months.
Take these proactive steps over the summer to help maintain your fireplace and chimney.
- Schedule an inspection: A professional inspection should be performed each year before a fireplace is used for the first time, making summer the perfect opportunity to get this done. Chimney sweeps remove unsafe debris and report damage that could lead to future unwanted fires.
- Clean the fireplace: With a shovel, clean the ashes out of the firebox. Once the ashes are gone, clean the fireplace with a non-flammable cleaning solution and water. Make sure to clean the doors, too.
- Close the damper: The damper needs to be closed in order to prevent your home’s air conditioning from escaping through the chimney. Closing the damper also prevents drafts from coming down the chimney.
- Schedule professional service for gas fireplaces: If you have a gas fireplace, it’s helpful to have a professional inspect it at least annually for any loose connections or gas leaks.
Even though the fireplace might be the last thing on your mind when it’s hot outside, it’s helpful to use the warmer months to your advantage when it comes to maintenance. Proactive measures taken during the summer help provide peace of mind during fireplace use in the fall and winter.
Essential Indoor Fire Safety Tips
Cleaning your fireplace and chimney alone isn't enough to protect your home from serious potential damage and destruction. It’s also helpful to practice fire safety measures anytime you light a match, let alone a group of logs.
Follow these essential indoor fire safety tips every time you use your fireplace:
- Burn only well-seasoned wood: Though it may be tempting to burn other materials like wrapping paper, make sure to stick to using only well-seasoned wood in your fireplace. Burning other materials creates too much fire to be contained by the fireplace screen, which could result in stray flames and sparks escaping into your home and starting another fire.
- Don’t vacuum ashes: When cleaning around your fireplace after using it, never vacuum up the ashes. Ashes can contain live coals that are still burning, which could lead to disaster when vacuumed.
- Place a non-flammable rug in front of the fireplace: Purchase a nonflammable rug to put down in front of the fireplace in order to protect your carpet or other flooring from stray sparks.
- Always use fireplace tools to handle hot contents: Never use your hands to handle burning or recently burned logs in your fireplace. Only purchase tools specifically made for fireplaces like pokers and log lifters.
- Install and test smoke alarms: Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, as well as within every bedroom and outside of each sleeping area, and make sure to test them regularly. Test your carbon monoxide detectors regularly, too.
- Create a family emergency plan: Long before disaster ever strikes, make sure that all family members know how to react in case of a fire, including how to evacuate your home and where to meet up outside.
- Buy a fire extinguisher: Make sure to keep a fire extinguisher close to your fireplace year-round.
- Make sure your insurance is up-to-date: Work with an independent insurance agent to ensure that your coverage is optimized for fire protection.
When a clean fireplace and chimney are combined with the proper fire safety measures, homeowners can more easily create a safe environment for enjoying indoor fires with a much lower risk of potential disasters.
How to Make Sure Your Insurance Is Ready for a Fireplace Emergency
Talk to your independent insurance agent about your family's usage of your fireplace, as well as the safety measures you currently take, how many smoke alarms you have, and other relevant details. Your agent will walk you through your options and find the right amount of coverage for your situation. They can also help you add or reduce your home insurance coverage at any time if anything changes, such as getting your fireplace removed or replaced.
How Homeowners Insurance Can Protect Your Home from a Chimney Fire
According to insurance expert Jeffery Green, your home insurance can cover chimney structure collapses as long as the incident was due to a covered peril like a lightning strike, unseen decay or insect damage, or the weight of snow or rain. If a chimney fire got out of control and caused a fire to spread through your home, your home insurance should most likely cover the incident because fire is a covered peril.
Taking preventive action steps before using your fireplace can end up saving you big time. Properly maintained fireplaces and chimneys can not only save property and money but can also save lives. If you’re still unsure of how to properly care for your fireplace or chimney, ask your professional chimney sweep for tips when they perform their annual inspection. You can also check out the American Red Cross's website for more home fire safety and prevention tips.
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TrustedChoice.com Article | Reviewed by Jeffrey Green
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