Homeowners’ Guide to Fireplace Safety - Everything You REALLY Need to Know
Maybe you have a fireplace you’ve never used. Or maybe you just bought — or are strongly considering buying — a house with a fireplace. Are you gonna use it? Or just let it sit there looking pretty?
As apartmenttherapy.com soberly lays out, wood-burning fireplaces aren’t terribly practical or energy-efficient, losing up to 80% of the heat they produce up that chimney. They contribute to air pollution. And despite homeowners’ gold-toned visions of cozy nights spent cuddled up to a flickering hearth, many don’t end up using their fireplaces that often.
Here at Covered, we’re all about homeowner empowerment. So, while you’re under no obligation to use that fireplace, we want you to have the option. That means having all the information you need to safely and successfully use and maintain that fireplace. Welcome to your guide to fireplace safety, telling you exactly what you need, what to do, and what not to do. We’ll also help you understand the insurance considerations of having a fireplace.
Have the Right Equipment
Fireplace safety begins with making sure you’ve got all the right tools and equipment.
- Fire extinguisher. If a giant ember suddenly flies out, setting the rug aflame, you need to be ready to fight that fire quickly and effectively. Store the extinguisher in the same room as the fireplace. (While cooking fires are still the #1 cause of home fires, heating equipment fires are #2, with chimney fires most common. The National Fire Protection Association breaks it all down.)
- Smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, or combination detector. It’s crucial to know if your fire is causing unsafe levels of smoke or carbon monoxide to accumulate in your home.
- Spark guard. Designed to keep hot embers from shooting out, this can take a couple of forms:
- Fireplace screen. Generally a three-paneled metal screen or a flat screen held aloft on metal legs, this portable device is set up in front of the fireplace.
- Fireplace curtain. Some fireplaces have a metal mesh curtain that can be drawn.
- Andirons and/or fireplace grate. Used separately or together, these items help your fire burn more evenly while keeping burning logs from rolling out of the fireplace. What’s the difference?
- The andirons include two horizontal metal supports held aloft on short legs, as well as vertical metal supports positioned toward the front of the fireplace.
- A fireplace grate looks like a metal cradle on short legs.
- Fireplace tools. Most sets come with three items:
- A poker (also known as a stoker), the rod with the bent or curved end used to move logs
- A spade, the tiny shovel used to move embers and logs and collect post-fire ash
- A broom, used to collect ashes once a fire has burned out
- Ash bucket. This metal bucket equipped with a handle and a lid is used as a depository for ashes. After ashes have cooled completely, sweep them into your spade and put them in the ash bucket. Store the bucket outdoors at a safe distance from your home. (Putting ashes straight into the trash is a common culprit in home fires. Hence the need for an ash bucket.)
- Supplemental fireplace tools. Consider adding these tools to your fire-tending arsenal:
- A pair of metal fireplace-use tongs, used to pick up and position logs or embers
- A bellows, used to deliver a controlled amount of air to kindle your fire’s flames
- A blowpoke, an extra-long poker that has a hook on one end (used to move logs) and a nifty hollow passage through its center (used to blow air onto specific areas of the fire)
- Fireplace safety gate. These purpose-built gates help keep small kids and pets at a safe distance from the fireplace, avoiding fire-related accidents and injuries.
- Fire-resistant hearth rug. Those embers, they will shoot. Why not give your fireplace rug an advantage?
Use the Right Fuel
It genuinely matters what you burn, so don’t be indiscriminate:
- Burn only hardwoods. This Old House recommends burning only dense wood (e.g., oak, maple, beech, hickory, mesquite, elm) that’s been split and stored in a dry place for at least six months. Lower-density softwoods like cedar and conifers have more sap and thus produce more creosote (more on that below). Don’t burn your Christmas tree — it’s not only the wrong wood (coniferous!), but it’s far too flammable. Don’t burn plywood, painted wood, or treated wood, either, as doing so can give off toxic fumes.
- Avoid moist or rotten wood. It will produce more smoke as well as more creosote.
- Don’t burn trash. Things like wrapping paper, pizza boxes, and other trash will burn too quickly and risk spilling out of the fireplace. Burning foam or plastic will create toxic smoke. Need convincing? Let the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) show you.
What about chemical fire starters and firelogs (e.g., DuraflameⓇ)? It depends. Basic guidelines:
- Make sure chemical fire starters are intended for indoor use. For example, Duraflame manufactures single-use “firelighters” intended for this purpose. Read all packaging before using.
- Duraflame firelogs should NOT be used to start a wood fire. You can burn a Duraflame firelog by itself in your fireplace, but not in combination with a wood fire. Never break apart chemical firelogs prior to use, as that can release dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
- Never cook food over a chemical firelog. Nobody should eat chemically fumed s’mores.
- Charcoal lighter fluid or other flammable liquids should never be used in your fireplace.
- The best fire starters are natural ones. Dry kindling, pine cones, and newspaper all work well.
Get to Know Your Damper
Your fireplace’s damper helps control the flow of air into your chimney’s flue. It must be fully open before you light your fire, or you’re likely to end up with a house full of smoke. (And trust us — it’s much easier to open the damper before you’ve got that fire going.) The airflow also helps get your fire going, too.
If you’re new to dampers, watch this short CSIA video to get a handle on how to open and close your damper. They showcase several different damper types; one is likely to be similar to yours.
Once your fire is going strong, you can close the damper partway to reduce the fire’s intensity and keep it burning longer. Wear fireplace safety gloves or an oven mitt so that you don’t burn yourself. Finally, remember to close your damper when there’s no fire going. This prevents heat loss.
Perform Regular Fireplace Maintenance
That chimney ain’t gonna clean itself. Without proper annual cleaning, fireplaces become hazardous to use. Creosote and soot can build up inside your chimney, catching fire. And it’s waaaay easier to remove creosote when buildup is still in its early stages. That’s why you need to:
- Have your chimney annually inspected and cleaned by a certified chimney sweep. Every fall, before using your fireplace, hire a certified chimney sweep to check and clean your chimney. In addition to removing any debris and creosote or soot buildup, they’ll check that everything is operating properly and help you address any issues.
- Supplement annual cleanings with self-inspections:
- Set a monthly reminder to pull out a flashlight and look for debris and buildup. At minimum, open the damper and look up the chimney. If it’s possible to do so safely, get on the roof and look down the chimney, too. What does creosote buildup look like? Check out this video from Ask the Chimney Sweep to see its appearance at different stages.
- Check your chimney cap every so often. Did you know your chimney has a hat? Made of metal and wire mesh, it keeps rain, snow, leaves, branches, and critters from entering your chimney. Ensure timely repair or replacement of a damaged or missing chimney cap.
Practice Fireplace Safety During Every Fire
These nine simple tips will help you ensure optimum fireplace safety every time you light up that fire:
- Don’t overload your fire. Keeping fires smaller helps them burn more efficiently and create less smoke. This Old House cautions that fires that are too large or hot can even crack a chimney.
- Only use fireplaces for short-duration fires. HGTV recommends limiting fires to no longer than five hours in duration.
- Never leave fires unattended when children are nearby. Not even for a second. And resist the urge to let your kids tend the fire. Set the standard that only adults are allowed to tend fires.
- Always use fireplace tools to tend the fire. Never use your hands or anything not designed specifically for fireplace use.
- Maintain a safe zone around the fireplace. Keep any flammable items (e.g., books, magazines, newspapers, furniture, curtains, decorations, extra firewood) out of the zone.
- Ensure proper ventilation. Again, make sure the damper is open before lighting. Experts also recommend opening a window. It increases airflow and prevents your home from getting smoky.
- Prime the flue. When you first open the damper, a rush of cold air comes in. To counteract it, light the end of a long roll of newspaper and hold it up into the damper for a spell. This warms up the chimney’s flue, preventing smoke from rushing in when you first try to light the fire.
- Build your fire properly. There are several good methods. Basically, if you’ve never built a fire in a fireplace before, start by watching a couple of videos on YouTube first, like this 60-second one.
- Make sure the fire gets fully extinguished. Before you go to bed or leave the house, it’s got to be 100% out. Use baking soda or water if needed. Make sure to close the damper, too.
Is Your Fireplace Covered by Homeowners Insurance?
Typically, standard homeowners insurance policies do not cover fireplaces. So it’s crucial that you tell your insurance advisor or agent if you have one. Most insurers offer fireplace insurance that can be added to your homeowners policy. Even if you don’t use your fireplace, you still need fireplace coverage.
Having a fireplace does mean higher homeowners insurance premiums. Given the increased risk of a home fire, insurers see an increased risk that they’ll have to pay out a claim. Pricing will vary from insurer to insurer. An inspection may be required, but if your fireplace passes, it could lower your premiums. Other factors include how close you live to a fire station or a fire hydrant, as well as any safety measures you’ve taken (e.g., sprinkler system installation, fire extinguishers, detectors).
Finally, note that standard homeowners insurance policies MAY cover chimney repair in some cases, subject to common exclusions. For example, a lightning strike that damages your chimney structurally may be covered. But if the damage was caused by a chimney fire, it’s likely that only fireplace insurance will provide coverage. As always, the best course is to talk to your agent about your specific policy.
So You Gonna Use That Fireplace or Not?
If this all sounds like a big headache and hassle, then you have your answer. And truly, it’s totally cool if you decide that your fireplace’s unique destiny is limited to holding up family photos. If you want to get mildly creative, an LED candle display can help it look a little less like a cold hole in the wall. If you’re willing to invest some cold hard cash into turning it into a functional but lower-maintenance heating solution, consider a gas fireplace insert. Gas fireplace inserts give you cozy fires at the flick of a switch.
Regardless of your choice, we hope we’ve succeeded in convincing you that you CAN use your fireplace successfully and safely — if you want. It’s not as mystifying or difficult as you may think, and it’s all completely within your capability.
Want to learn more about fireplace insurance or find out if you’ve already got coverage? One of Covered’s insurance experts can do a free policy review. Call us at (833) 487-2683 or drop us a line.
Cover Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash