Tending To Your Fireplace
There’s nothing better than snuggling up to a crackling fire in one’s fireplace on a chilly day or a cold winter’s night. A fire excites several senses – the warmth of the flame; the rhythm created by the sizzling and crackling; the aroma produced by the burning wood and the simple mystery of the phenomenon this is fire.
Unfortunately, beyond beauty and the emotional benefits, most fireplaces are extremely energy inefficient and one of the poorest means of heating a home. The average fireplace has a heating efficiency of about 10 percent. More simply stated, about 10 percent of the heat produced by the fire acts to heat the surrounding space. Fireplace inserts and energy efficient Home Heating Stoves can, however, be exceptionally good sources of heat.
There’s more bad news on the fireplace front as studies by the Environmental Protection Agency show that wood smoke (the smoke produced from burning wood in one’s fireplace) produces carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds — pollutants that are potentially damaging to one’s health and our environment. Thus, the days for your traditional wood fire may sadly be numbered.
The good news is that there are several steps you can take to reduce the threat that your fireplace may pose to the environment and at the same time improve its safety and efficiency.
The heating efficiency of a fireplace depends on two factors: how completely it burns the firewood (combustion efficiency) and how much of the fire’s heat gets into the room rather than going up the flue. Greater combustion efficiency equals less pollution.
The heating efficiency of a fireplace depends upon its construction or installation (in the case of modern prefabricated zero clearance metal units) and the way in which it is operated (what and how you burn in it).
The first step to having a healthy fireplace is by burning the right fuel. Never burn garbage, plastics, foil, coated paper, or painted or chemically treated scrap wood. In addition to causing an unfavorable build up of potentially explosive material on the interior of the firebox and chimney, these also produce noxious fumes which pollute the air (in & out of the home). Burn only a mixture of seasoned split of hardwoods such as maple or oak and softwoods, such as fir and pine.
When first starting your fire, use softwoods. They ignite easily and burn rapidly with a hot flame. Hardwoods provide a longer lasting fire and are best used after pre-heating the chimney. If hardwoods are unavailable, you can control your fire’s burn rate by using larger pieces of wood. Seasoning allows moisture in wood to evaporate. Forty-four per cent more heat can be generated from a seasoned log. A clean burning fire is a hotter fire with good drafting conditions that produce cleaner combustion and less smoke from the chimney.
The next step is to have your chimney inspected by a professional chimney sweep annually and, if necessary, cleaned of soot and creosote which is a chemical substance that forms when wood burns. It is the heavy creosote build up that becomes highly flammable often resulting in explosive chimney fires.
According to the National Chimney Sweep Guild, a national trade association for chimney sweeps, an annual visual inspection is all that is required for most chimneys.
In the case where a visual inspection is not adequate, many chimney sweeps are now equipped to do more elaborate inspections with a video camera and monitor referred to as a “chimscan”. The chimscan will reveal significantly better information about the condition of a chimney. This is especially important when the integrity of the flue is in question due to age or damage from an earthquake or chimney fire.
Finally, as part of his inspection and cleaning, the chimney sweep will also make comments relative to the condition and operation of the damper and spark arrester. Frequently, these will either not exist or are in such a state where they need replacement.
The damper is a steel or cast-iron door that opens or closes the throat of the firebox into the flue. It regulates draft and prevents the loss of heat up the chimney.
The spark arrester is a cage-like device which is secured to the top of the chimney. It prevents sparks and ash from escaping and causing a fire on the roof or other potentially flammable substance. It will also keep squirrels, birds and raccoons from nesting in the chimney. Nesting materials can cause a serious safety hazard. Their droppings pose health risks because diseases may be transmitted through their fecal materials. A spark arrester will prevent this.
For more home improvement tips and information visit our website at www.onthehouse.com or call our listener hotline 24/7 at 1-800-737-2474 (ext 59).
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