What Homeowners Should Know About Wood Fireplace Maintenance

What To Know About Wood Fireplace Maintenance

There's a good reason why wood-burning fireplaces are such desirable amenities in homes throughout Ontario and the rest of Canada—who doesn't love the thought of curling up in front of a crackling fire while the snow falls and the cold winds howl outside? But they're not just for aesthetics, as a wood fireplace can also provide enough heat to efficiently warm a house or at least seriously reduce the heating power required by your HVAC system, saving you a lot of money in the long run.

As desirable as fireplaces and wood stoves are, they do need regular wood fireplace maintenance to continue operating safely without causing damage to your home or even health issues for the members of your household. Here are some tips for fireplace maintenance and the benefits of keeping your wood-burning fireplace well-maintained.

Benefits of Wood Fireplace Maintenance

You're probably already well aware that you should maintain your fireplace, but why? There may be benefits to keeping up with wood fireplace maintenance that has never crossed your mind. Here are a few of the biggest reasons why ensuring that fireplace maintenance is taken care of regularly is so important.

Prevent House Fires

This is the biggest reason for diligent wood fireplace maintenance because no one wants to deal with the consequences of a house or chimney fire. Without regular maintenance, your fireplace and chimney can become clogged with creosote build-up that can catch on fire inside the chimney, sending flames shooting out the fireplace opening. Proper wood fireplace maintenance will eliminate that possibility, so you don't have to cross your fingers when lighting a fire.

Prevent Other Types of Property Damage

If you don't use your fireplace very often, you may not be too worried about fireplace maintenance—but leaving a fireplace untouched for long periods of time can lead to other problems. For example, pests or wildlife like rats and squirrels can reside inside the chimney. Their nests definitely present a significant fire hazard. Still, they can also cause significant issues that have nothing to do with fire, such as damage to the exterior siding of your home, exterior chimney defects and pest infestations inside that will make your home less comfortable and sanitary. Fireplace maintenance also goes a long way toward keeping the bricks of your fireplace and chimney in good condition so they won't need repair or replacement for much longer.

Prevent Health Issues

It's no secret that emissions from wood smoke are bad for your health and can cause respiratory distress, so if you go to light a fire in a fireplace that hasn't been adequately maintained. Smoke starts billowing out; it can be a problem for allergy sufferers and anyone else in the building. But it's also important to note that without proper wood fireplace maintenance, it's possible for your fireplace to emit carbon monoxide. This colourless, odourless, tasteless gas is difficult to detect. Still, it is very toxic and can cause severe health problems or even be fatal, so it's well worth preventing with simple maintenance steps.

Improve Energy Efficiency

This benefit is particularly important for using your fireplace as your main or supplemental heat source. The dirtier and more blocked up your fireplace is, the less efficiently it will operate. That means you'll need more firewood than you otherwise would to keep the temperature up to an acceptable level, and firewood generally does not come cheap. Whether you're using your fireplace as a heat source or just recreationally, it pays to keep it in good condition with fireplace maintenance. Hence, it can operate with greater energy efficiency, and you can keep your firewood costs down.

Avoid Insurance Claims

If something goes wrong and your fireplace causes damage to your home because it wasn't properly maintained, you'll need to file an insurance claim on your home insurance. There's nothing inherently wrong with that—it's why you have insurance coverage in the first place. However, it can cause an increase in your insurance premiums or cause you to lose claims-free status, so it's preferable to avoid it if possible, and wood fireplace maintenance is one simple way to avoid the need to file an insurance claim. If you feel like you may need additional coverage for a wood fire appliance in your home - such as a wood stove, you can look into adding wood stove insurance to your coverage policy.

Best Practices for Wood Fireplace Maintenance and Safety

All that being said, what exactly do you have to do to keep your fireplace in tip-top shape? After all, you installed a fireplace or purchased a home that featured one because you wanted to use it, not just look at an empty, cold firebox. By following some best practices for wood fireplace maintenance and paying attention to safety precautions, you can enjoy your fireplace any time you please and have the peace of mind that comes with knowing it's safe for your property and the members of your household. Here are some tips on going about wood fireplace maintenance and staying safe while enjoying those cozy, roaring fires.

Annual Professional Maintenance

First, it's important to invest in professional chimney and fireplace cleaning annually or potentially more frequently if you use your fireplace a lot. Chimney sweeping is more complicated than many people suspect, and it requires professional tools—not to mention that it can be dangerous if you're not experienced and are unsure of how to get the job done. For those reasons, it's not a task that most homeowners are able to manage on their own adequately. Along with removing dangerous creosote buildup and other potential problem-causers, maintenance service allows your chimney professional to complete annual inspections by checking your fireplace and chimney for damage. They may be able to find and correct issues before they get worse and cause problems for you.

Pro Tip: Keep the receipts from your professional maintenance services on file for a few years. While it's unlikely that your insurance company will ask for proof that your fireplace was maintained correctly, the receipts could be useful in a claims situation.

Install and Maintain Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

This isn't directly related to wood fireplace maintenance, but it's a simple thing to do that could save your life and prevent severe property loss. Make sure to install fire alarms near the ceiling in your fireplace room and in other recommended locations, such as near bedrooms. You should also install carbon monoxide alarms that can alert you to the presence of carbon monoxide gas. They must be installed lower down, close to the floor, and on every level of your home near fireplaces and sleeping areas. But of course, just installing them isn't enough—you also need to change the batteries at regular intervals and ensure that they are working correctly by testing them regularly.

Use a Fireplace Guard to Keep Children and Pets Safe

If you have children and pets roaming around, and even if you don't, it's a really good idea to put a fire guard in place whenever the fire is burning. It's all too easy to stumble and fall into the fire or accidentally let a tail get too close to the flames. No one wants children or furry friends to suffer because they are just doing what kids and pets tend to do and not paying attention to the possibility of danger. A fireplace guard will help prevent accidental injury and help stop sparks from jumping out of the fireplace.

Keep Fireplace Area Clear of Combustible Material

This one may seem obvious, but it's actually very easy to become complacent and allow combustible materials to creep into the area around your fireplace. Curtains, carpets, furniture, toys and other materials that can catch on fire need to be kept well away from the fireplace while a fire is burning. You should also keep combustible materials at least 12 inches above the lintel, which is the metal plate that sits at the top of the fireplace opening and includes wood fire mantles. This is because sparks can jump a surprising distance from the fireplace opening and start a fire in seconds.

Remove Excess Ash

When the ash gathered at the bottom of your fireplace is piled up to the bottom of the grate, it needs to be removed so it doesn't block the flow of air in your fireplace. This can be a messy task, so putting down a drop cloth in front of the fireplace first for an easier cleanup is not a bad idea. Rather than sweeping it out with a hand broom, which can cause ash to billow everywhere and get all over the room, use a heavy-duty shop vacuum or just the handheld attachment for a regular vacuum cleaner to vacuum the ash up. If you're using a regular vacuum cleaner, sift through and remove big chunks that may get stuck in the nozzle first.

Deep-Clean the Firebox

While you don't have to deep-clean as frequently as you remove ash, it's a good idea to do it occasionally. After all the ash and other debris have been removed, put on rubber gloves and use a large bucket to mix up a cleaning solution that consists of a gallon of warm water, a cup of bleach and about six tablespoons of trisodium phosphate. Using a spray bottle, saturate the inside of the firebox with the cleaning solution and let it sit for a few minutes, then use a cleaning brush with stiff bristles to scrub the walls, floors and top of the firebox. Rinse the cleaning solution thoroughly and let it dry. You can then moisten some clean paper towels with water, then dip them in your discarded ash and use it as a mild abrasive to remove any remaining residue from your fireplace doors or glass screen.

Check for Signs of Deterioration

Every now and then, take the time to look over the visible parts of your fireplace and chimney to check for signs of damage or deterioration that need to be repaired so they don't worsen over time. That could include issues such as spalling bricks, which is cracking, crumbling or chipping on the surface of the bricks. Other potential signs of trouble include:

  • Cracked or crumbling fireplace mortar between bricks
  • Efflorescence, which appears as a white stain on the surface of bricks
  • Cracks in a glass fireplace screen
  • Unusual odours like constant burning or sulphurous smells
  • Water or smoke leaking from the fireplace

If you notice the above problems or other signs that your fireplace or chimney looks damaged, deteriorated and like something's not right, call a professional experienced with chimney and fireplace repair so they can take a look and resolve the problem. You don't want just to ignore damage and let it slowly worsen until it causes a catastrophe.

Burn the Right Kind of Wood

When your fireplace is clean, well-maintained and ready to use, make sure to burn the right kind of wood. Most people know that it's not a good idea to burn damp or wet wood, so it's important to make sure it's completely dry. You also don't want to burn "green" wood that was recently cut from a living tree. It needs to be "seasoned," meaning it has been stored in a dry place for several months after being cut to give it a chance to dry out its natural moisture completely. Green wood does not burn completely and causes more creosote and soot buildup than seasoned wood.

You should also make sure to burn hardwoods such as maple, ash and oak rather than softwoods like cedar, pine or poplar. Hardwood is much heavier and denser, so it burns longer and more efficiently than softwood—though if you only have softwood available, it won't hurt your fireplace to burn it as long as it's seasoned and dry.

This content is written by our Morison Insurance team. All information posted is merely for educational and informational purposes. It is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. Should you decide to act upon any information in this article, you do so at your own risk. While the information on this website has been verified to the best of our abilities, we cannot guarantee that there are no mistakes or errors.

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