Many homeowners love the warmth and atmosphere a wood-burning appliance brings to a home. Yet when it comes to safety and maintenance, in-home wood stoves and fireplaces require a little more attention than typical oil or gas furnaces.
While installing and maintaining working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are important in homes that enjoy a wood stove or wood-burning fireplace, there are several other things homeowners should know about their safety and maintenance.
1. Correct Installation Is Critical
If you’re considering installing a wood stove in your home, it’s important to get familiar with your local and regional regulations regarding wood-burning appliance installation. Make sure your stove complies with all local fire and building codes, such as proper clearance around the stove and acceptable venting. Also ensure your stove pipe dimensions and flue/damper specifications meet the necessary requirements.
Whether you heat your home with a wood-burning fireplace or a wood stove, it’s critical to make sure there’s enough ventilation to direct smoke and carbon monoxide out of your home. Inadequate ventilation could lead to the buildup of carbon monoxide, a silent, odorless, yet deadly, gas inside your home.
Also take a look at what’s surrounding your chimney on your home’s exterior. Remove tree branches that are within 15 feet way from the top of your chimney. Ensure there’s a chimney cap installed on top of your chimney to prevent debris and small animals (like squirrels) from falling in and blocking the smoke flow from your wood stove or fireplace.
2. Maintain Your Wood-Burning Appliances
As with all areas of your home, proper maintenance of your wood-burning appliance helps prevent potential problems like overheating, which could lead to fires, and leaks that could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Keep an eye on your wood stove doors’ seals to ensure they aren’t crumbling. Also monitor your chimney for wear and tear on pipe, stone, mortar, or chimney bricks that could pose a fire hazard.
Schedule annual inspections and cleanings of your chimney by a qualified chimney services technician. Keeping your chimney clear of soot and debris can help prevent both fires from starting in the chimney and potential carbon monoxide poisoning. In addition to a thorough cleaning, a professional will look for and remove any other chimney blockage that could pose a chimney fire hazard, like birds’ nests.
A professional can also help you determine if you’ve already had a chimney fire, which often goes undetected, yet can damage a chimney, endangering your home and family. Signs you may have had a chimney fire include:
- “Puffy” or “honey combed” creosote
- Warped metal damper or chimney/stove pipe
- Cracked or damaged flue tiles with missing pieces
- Damage to the exterior roof or nearby metal TV antennae
- Damaged and/or discolored chimney cap
Add monthly smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector checks to your schedule and test them to ensure they’re working. Install new batteries in each annually.
3. Create a Safe Environment
Developing good safety habits around your wood stove and fireplace is a wise idea for everyone in your family to help prevent injury and unwanted fires.
While you want to keep a fire extinguisher within easy reach of your stove or fireplace, don’t store matches, lighters, or lighter fluid close by — they could quickly catch fire and/or explode if they get too hot. Also pay careful attention to where you store your wood for burning — don’t put it within three feet of your wood stove or fireplace or you could risk a random spark starting your indoor wood supply on fire.
Your fireplace or wood stove area also should be clear of anything flammable on the interior of your home, such as drapes, carpets, furniture, or newspaper, to avoid potential fires. And though you may love the idea of curling up by the fire with a hot drink and a favorite book, try to keep chairs and other furniture at least three feet from the fire. In addition, choose fire-resistant furniture when it’s time to redecorate.
Consider the type of wood you burn in your stove or fireplace. Green or young wood has a high moisture content that results in not just a lot of smoke, but also a buildup of creosote. Instead, choose wood that’s been seasoned or dried for at least six months to produce an even, safe fire. And, wherever possible, choose hardwood over softwood, as it produces less creosote.
4. Safety Accessories for Wood-Burning Appliances
Invest in a few key accessories to improve safety around your wood-burning stove or fireplace. If you’re enjoying a brand new stove, keep the safety manual handy (but not close enough to catch fire), as well as a fire extinguisher. And when you’re adding wood to your wood stove, protect your hands with non-flammable gloves.
Consider purchasing a fire screen. This not only helps prevent sparks from flying out of a fireplace, but also it’s useful for keeping small children and pets from getting too close and getting burned. A portable fire screen is a stand-alone, foldable screen with two or more sections.
5. Always Correctly Dispose of Ashes
Don’t let the ashes from previous fires build up in the bottom of your fireplace or your wood stove. Anything more than one inch of ash could lead to smokier fires, as it becomes more difficult for oxygen to find its way to the wood.
Shovel the ash out, once your fire is out and the ash is completely cool. Use a shovel to scoop it out into a metal container with a lid. Don’t throw your ashes into your indoor (or outdoor) trash bin as it could lead to a fire. Instead, store your fireplace or wood stove ash outside and away from your home in the metal container with lid. This reduces the chance of unexpected fires.
6. Insuring Properties with Wood-Burning Appliances
While most insurers do provide homeowners insurance for properties that have wood stoves or fireplaces, expect to answer questions about your wood-burning appliances. Your insurer will expect the wood stove or fireplace to be installed and/or built to current fire codes. You are also expected to maintain and operate it safely.
7. Additional Resources for Maintenance and Safe Operation of Wood Stoves and Fireplaces
There are several excellent online resources that address the maintenance and safe operation of wood stoves and fireplaces in the home. Visit these sites for more information:
- Chimney Safety Institute of America
- National Fireplace Institute
- Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Burnwise
When enjoyed responsibly, a fireplace or wood stove can be a welcoming and relaxing center of your home that provides warmth and comfort on chilly days. However, if you don’t maintain it properly, it could also be a danger to you, your loved ones, and your property.
By taking the time to learn about the proper operation, cleaning, and safe use of your wood stove and fireplace, you can help avoid damaging and potentially fatal house fires or carbon monoxide poisoning — and enjoy your wood-burning appliances for years to come.
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