As the winter wind howls outside, few things compare to cozying up by a roaring fire. But before you strike that match, let’s chat chimney safety.
You’ve heard the horror stories — creosote build-up igniting explosive chimney fires or unseen cracks letting smoke back inside. With a little know-how, though, you can stay toasty and smoke-free. From wood selection to flue maintenance, we’ll cover everything you need to safely enjoy that fireplace all season long.
So, pull up a chair, pour yourself a mug of cocoa, and get ready to learn the secrets to keeping your home warm and toasty this winter:
- Choose the Right Type of Wood
The type of wood you burn significantly impacts chimney safety. Softwoods like pine and fir release more smoke and creosote, while hardwoods like oak and hickory produce comparatively less smoke.
Beyond just hardwoods versus softwoods, the specific type of fuel you use can impact creosote build-up and require different handling. For example, fruitwoods like apple produce more creosote than other hardwoods since the natural sugars don’t burn as completely.
Wet or freshly cut wood can contain 50% or more moisture and even if dried, causes more smoke and creosote issues. A moisture meter, while not pinpoint accurate, can provide a good general read. Wood should be below 20% moisture content for safe, efficient burning. Mixing seasoned and unseasoned wood is risky as wet fuel causes creosote build-up.
Make sure the wood you use is fully seasoned or dried. This usually takes 6-18 months for hardwood, depending on storage. And wood stored indoors will take longer to season than if kept outside and covered.
As winter approaches, make sure to cut and prepare wood for burning. Split logs allow moisture to escape faster than rounds, so accumulate such logs and store them in dry places for easy access.
- Take Proactive Steps to Facilitate Proper Ventilation
Proper ventilation is key to removing smoke and preventing creosote build-up or carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter. There are a few things you can do to help with ventilation.
Proper size of chimney flue: The chimney flue should be the right size for the appliance, typically 6 inches for 6-inch wood stoves or more.
Proper functioning of damper: Make sure dampers open fully for airflow. Close the damper when not in use to prevent dangerous backdrafts. In extremely cold weather, leave the damper open slightly and have a small fire to prevent condensation and creosote build-up inside the flue from the temperature differential.
Use chimney cap: Install and maintain capping and screens on terra cotta flues to block rodents and debris from entering. A chimney cap and rain collar to prevent moisture/snow entry that could cause cracking or damage. Inspect the cap periodically for damage or gaps, as rodents or bird nests near the chimney cap can become a fire hazard that can also block smoke from exiting.
Strategically install vents and windows: Consider installing an intake vent near the floor and an exhaust vent near the ceiling to encourage airflow through the home. Open windows slightly during operation as well. Negative pressure in tightly sealed homes can pull smoke down the chimney instead of up.
- Monitor Indoor Air Quality
One of the most critical yet hazardous gases to look out for is carbon monoxide. It’s an invisible, odorless gas that can be deadly within hours of exposure. Install at least one carbon monoxide detector on each level of the home, especially near bedrooms where family members spend long periods.
Look for detectors certified to the latest UL 2034 standard, and never ignore low-battery chirps. Replace batteries twice annually, such as during daylight saving time changes. Detectors should be replaced every five years.
Place detectors at least 15 feet away from fireplaces and stoves to avoid false alarms from temporary spikes in CO levels during use. Mount them high up, such as on the ceiling, to catch any gases that may stratify near the roofline.
While carbon monoxide detectors near floor level are a must-have, consider additional sensors placed higher to catch any leaks. New photoelectric detectors can also monitor other air pollutants from incomplete wood combustion, like particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.
If you’re using an air purifier, you can also install a sensor connected to an air purifier that automatically turns on as levels rise. This proactive solution can improve indoor air quality on smoky or cold days when extra draft is needed. You can even go as far as pairing detectors with ventilation and filtration for comprehensive indoor air monitoring during fireplace season.
- Master the Art of Layering Logs
How you load wood into the fireplace or stove can affect draft and burn efficiency. The standard advice is to use a tic-tac-toe log layout, but there is an art to it. Experiment with different crisscross and log cabin patterns, varying the direction logs point and size of air gaps.
Pay attention to how each pattern influences the burn. More open designs may smoke less but require more frequent stoking. Closed patterns may burn slower and hotter, but they produce less smoke. Experiment with different log sizes and arrangements to find the optimal setup.
Tighter configurations hold heat longer but could cause creosote build-up. Master various layouts to suit your fuel moisture, weather conditions, and desired burn time or intensity.
- Don’t Forget Annual Inspections
No matter how well you maintain your fireplace or stove, cracks and damage can still occur in the chimney over time. An annual chimney inspection by a certified chimney sweep is essential for safety.
Look beyond essential creosote removal to check the flue, damper, and exterior termination for signs of corrosion or cracks that could allow carbon monoxide to enter the home. Catching issues early prevents costly repairs and potential accidents down the road. Make sure to schedule inspections before winter use each year so that your chimney and fireplace are ready and prepped to keep you warm.
Hire an Expert Chimney Sweep for Proper Winter Inspection
Keep your home warm, your family safe, and your chimney clean this winter with a professional inspection and cleaning.
Southern Chimneys has been keeping the chimneys of Atlanta in tip-top shape for decades. Our certified and insured sweeps can inspect your entire flue system, clean out any built-up creosote, make any necessary repairs — and ensure safe, efficient operation all season long.
Don’t risk a dangerous chimney fire: call us today to schedule an appointment. You’ll enjoy peace of mind knowing your home’s heart is in good hands, and you’ll extend the life of your fireplace for many cozy winters to come.
Stay toasty safely; call us at (678) 744-4046 to schedule your inspection today.