The Complete Guide to Fireplace Safety
Do you love the idea of a cozy fireplace, but wonder if it is safe enough for your family? Families with young children are often concerned about the possibility of accidental burns, but other common concerns include chimney fires, fire or explosion from a gas fireplace, or gas leaks. The good news is that proper maintenance and safety precautions can make a fireplace or stove a safe feature for any home.
Electric models are generally the safest type of fireplace, and are a great option for those who want a safe, low maintenance appliance. Well-maintained wood burning fireplaces with a barrier screen are another good option since the barrier prevents embers from escaping and also keeps children and pets from getting too close. Gas appliances have more safety issues to consider, but current models have a wealth of safety features and are built with ample internal clearances. In short, any modern fireplace that is properly installed and maintained can be safe.
Fireplace owners should always make sure that family members and guests understand that the glass and screens on appliances can get very hot. If you have young children in your home, instill in them a sense of respect for the fireplace and teach them that it that it should not be approached or touched, even when it is not burning. The fireplace can remain hot long after the fire is out, so it is better to make it off-limits at all times than to let them think it is safe when they can't see a fire.
Depending on the model, various screens and barriers are available to help ensure safety. However, even with all of the proper safety measures in place, it is important to supervise young children at all times.
Traditional Wood Burning Fireplaces
Whether the fireplace is new or an existing model, familiarize yourself with all the operating aspects of the fireplace. We recommend that you call our technicians to discuss any aspects of the fireplace that you do not fully understand.
What to Inspect
The first step is to determine what type of damper the unit has. In most models, the damper is clearly visible above the fireplace opening, but some have a top mount damper located near the top of the chimney. Top mount dampers usually feature a spring tension system that is controlled by a chain running down the chimney and attached to a retaining bracket inside the fireplace.
Traditional dampers use what is known as a poker style control (a stepped handle with different positions) or a rotary control (a knob attached to a drive rod that rotates a gear to open the damper). Two people may be needed to observe the operation of a rotary control damper. Determine what type of damper you own and how to operate it.
Always fully open the damper before starting your fireplace. Failure to open the damper can result in the release of harmful gases or particulate matter into your home. You can even place a reminder note near the damper control or on the mantel.
Next, you should check the flue. With the damper open, look up the chimney to see how clean it is. Light ashy buildup of soot is fine, but if you find dark glazed creosote or bubbly outcroppings of buildup, you should wait to use your fireplace until after it has been serviced. Otherwise, the excess creosote could ignite a chimney fire.
Any fireplace that is used regularly throughout the burn season should have the vent system swept at least once a year and the flue lining inspected for cracks. Make a habit of checking the flue before each burn to make sure it is reasonably clean and free of debris. A chimney cap is recommended to keep birds and other animals from entering or building a nest in the chimney.
For manufactured models, the metal chassis of the fireplace should be inspected periodically and before the first use after a prolonged idle period. Any corrosion that has eaten through the metal chassis will render the unit unsafe for future use and it must be replaced. Most models have brick liners that cover this metal chassis and generally make it last longer. For masonry (brick or stone) models, ensure the fire brick interior is in good shape with no cracks wider than a dime. Any damaged bricks should be repaired or replaced by a mason or NFI technician.
Safety and Maintenance Tips
The crackle and pop of wood burning fireplaces are part of its charm and appeal; however, it's important to have the proper setup to protect your home and family from sparks and embers that might fly out of the fireplace.
A hanging wire mesh screen works to prevent flying embers from escaping the fireplace, while a free standing screen is even more durable and would also help stop a shifting log from rolling out. For a household with very young children, it's wise to use a reinforced 3-panel fireplace screen. These types of screens use a spreader bar that makes it difficult for a child to knock the screen over. If your fireplace has glass doors, you must wait 15 to 20 minutes after starting the fire to allow the doors to adjust to the heat before closing them. Use the mesh screen for the period of time that the doors are open.
Always use fireplace tools when adjusting the fire, and never move the logs with your hand. Fireplace gloves should be worn when adjusting hot doors or screens to prevent burns. A nonflammable rug in front of the hearth will protect your carpet or wood floors from any sparks that could escape when someone is tending the fire.
During the burn season, scoop out the ash from the firebox periodically. A little bit of ash will act as insulation, so it's a good idea to let an inch or so remain in the fireplace throughout the burn season. Don't let it build up too much though — you should always maintain 2 to 3 inches of open air space below your grate.
Remember, coals from the fire can stay hot long after a burn; make sure you wait long enough and do not dispose of the coals and ash where they could reignite and start a fire. When you remove the ash, close the damper to prevent any drafts from blowing the ash around.
After the last fire of the season, clean out the firebox and remove all of the ash. Ash is very alkaline and can also retain moisture, so it will damage the masonry if left in the firebox during the off season.
Finally, ensure that firestarters, kindling, and fuel logs are stored away from the fireplace so that there is no way that an ember could escape and ignite the extra logs or kindling. Draperies and other flammable material should also be far enough away that they will not catch a random spark.
Gas Burning Hearth Appliances
Gas appliances have more automatic features than traditional wood burning fireplaces, but there are still safety precautions to take. As always, you should obtain the model information and manual so that you fully understand how to operate the appliance and what to do in case of an emergency.
What to Inspect
The damper inspection will be similar to the steps described above for the traditional wood burning fireplace. Direct vent and B-vent appliances do not have dampers, but you should still check the flue termination to look for bird nests or the buildup of spider webs. Lawn debris can also clog up a horizontal direct vent.
If the gas appliance has not been used before or is new to you, it is highly recommended to contact a local NFI certified technician to inspect the appliance and teach you how to operate it properly. The technician will look for issues like leaking seals, loose gas fittings, dirty burners, and anything else that might affect the safety and operation of your fireplace.
Be fully aware of the gas shutoff location for the fireplace and make sure the control key is nearby. The gas shutoff should be clearly accessible and within 6 feet of the appliance. For direct vent and B-vent fireplaces, practice operating the valve before the fireplace is used for the first time.
Keep the controls for the gas fireplace out of reach or install a switch lock to keep young children from accidentally turning on the appliance.
Gas log lighters are used to ease the starting of wood burning fires. The lighter is essentially a gas pipe with a series of drilled holes that emit gas. When lit, the gas burns beneath the fuel logs until the logs ignite. This system works well, but can be dangerous if the gas control valve is not fully shut. When lighting the system, ensure your match or lighter is already lit and hold it above the log lighter before opening the gas valve. This will result in a quick lighting, without the possibility of flash combustion. When not in use, the gas key controlling the shut off valve should be removed from the valve so that it cannot be accidentally opened and allow gas to flow into the room.
With all gas appliances, if the unit fails to light immediately, turn the unit off and allow the system to air out for 5 minutes. This will dissipate any buildup of combustible gases. After airing it out, attempt to light the unit again. If no ignition or delayed ignition is experienced, stop and seek the help of a qualified professional.
As with wood burning models, glass doors and screens will be hot during and after the burn, so care should be taken to avoid burns. Gas appliances are controlled, so there aren't flying embers and screens are only decorative. However, direct vent gas appliances are required to offer a barrier screen to prevent accidental contact with the hot glass front. It is highly recommended to use the screen, especially if children are present in the home.
Free standing gas stoves require even greater precautions to prevent accidental contact with the hot exterior. A free standing barrier on all sides of the stove is highly recommended for young children and infants. As with wood burning fireplaces, children should be educated about the danger of these appliances and should be monitored closely.
Wood Burning Stoves
Wood stoves and wood inserts are similar to their gas counterparts, but they are capable of much higher combustion temperatures. As with all appliances, it is important to become familiar with how the stove operates.
What to Inspect
Modern EPA stoves usually do not have a damper, but older models likely will. Chimney inspection on wood stoves can be more difficult because there is not always a way to see directly into the flue opening; however, properly assembled stove pipe runs should have a slip connector that will allow access to the inside of the system for inspection.
It is recommended to have wood burning stoves inspected once a year to check for leaks or creosote buildup. Also, if your wood burning stove has begun to warp, it may be a sign that it's time to get a replacement. Steel that has warped will likely let in more air than the stove was designed to use and may be far less efficient.
The metal chassis of the stove will become quite hot while burning, so do not place anything flammable next to the stove. You should also consider installing a barrier around the stove to protect small children and pets from accidentally getting too close.
Although pellet stoves do not achieve temperatures as high as the wood models, the front glass and metal chassis still get hot and should be avoided while the system is operating. The vent system should also be inspected and cleaned regularly, since ash buildup can cause the system to clog.
Pellet stoves are equipped with a multitude of safety switches to prevent access to parts of the stove that should not be opened while operating. It is wise to have the system inspected annually to verify proper operation.
Electric stoves and fireplaces are generally very safe and require few precautions. The heating element is usually built deep within the unit, and the warm air coming from the appliance is not hot enough to cause a burn.
Ensure that the unit is connected to a properly grounded outlet and is on a circuit that has the load capacity to support the appliance. Also, take care to keep liquids away from the unit at all times. If the electric fireplace is equipped with a testable circuit breaker, you should test the circuit once a year to verify that everything works properly.
Fireplaces and stoves are a wonderful addition to the atmosphere of your home. By choosing an appliance that fits your needs, taking care to operate it properly, and exercising safety precautions, you will be able to enjoy all of the charm of a fireplace while avoiding hazards.