How Do I Know If My Fireplace Is Safe To Use?

Whether you have a gas or wood burning fireplace, you must be sure that it is safe to use.  Falling debris, water streaks, excessive soot or heat, and strong smells from your fireplace are warnings that you may have a problem with your fireplace.  If you experience a smoky smell inside your home when you light a fire, it is the most indicative sign that you may have a blockage in your chimney.  

With either a gas or wood burning fireplace, you must ensure that the flue gases draft properly.  If they do not, it could be hazardous and cause harmful flue gases to infiltrate your home.

A properly operating gas fireplace will have a safe and secure glass enclosure, will ignite without delay, have a clean blueish color flame and will vent properly out through a termination cap that is clear from debris or obstruction.  A properly operating wood burning fireplace will have a clean flame, will exhaust the smoke and flames upward into the chimney and will not cause any burning odor or smoky conditions to enter your home. 

The best way to identify if your fireplace is working properly is to visually inspect and check your fireplace system.  Your fireplace may be located inside your home, but the chimney and termination of your chimney are the most critical components of your fireplace and its safe operation.

To start your inspection, go to the outside of your home.  If your chimney extends to the roof, make sure the chimney cap is securely attached to the top of the chimney. If you have a multi-story home or a steep roof, use a pair of binoculars to check the chimney cap from the ground. These caps keep the animals, rain and snow out of the chimney while acting as a safety, to ensure hot embers do not land on your roof and start a fire.

The termination cap on your gas vent should be checked just the same.  It should be safely secured to the flue piping that exits your home.  The bird screen inside the cap should be intact to ensure that small animals do not make a home inside your chimney flue. The absence of the screen can leave you vulnerable to unwanted pests that can block or damage your flue pipe, and render your fireplace unusable until it is repaired. 

It is also important that you make sure the termination cap does not get blocked during heavy snow storms.  If you are concerned that this may be a possibility, you have two choices; the first is to not use your fireplace during a big storm; and, the second is to consult with a fireplace professional to assess if the termination of the chimney can be extended or altered.

While you are outside, make sure there are no tree limbs above or near the chimney.  Also check to make sure that the roof flashing is secured around the chimney to avoid leaks into your home or freezing between the roofing material and the sheathing.  With a brick chimney, check to make sure there is no crumbing or missing bricks or mortar.  Also check if the chimney is plumb and not leaning to one side or the other.  If your brick chimney suffers from any of these problems, your chimney should be repaired immediately.

When inspecting a wood burning fireplace inside your home, check the operation of the flue damper with a flashlight to insure it opens, closes and seals properly.  If the damper does not seal well, when the fireplace is not in use, you will lose a tremendous amount of heat from your home.  When you open the flue, check to see if there are any obstructions or animal nests blocking the path.  You should be able to see daylight when looking up the chimney.

It is also important to check for creosote inside the chimney flue.  This material builds up each time you light a fire.  It is highly flammable and can cause a fire inside the chimney.  Inspect the firebox and hearth to ensure that the base is secure and that there are no cracked bricks or missing mortar that will compromise fireplace operation.  Also check for signs of moisture in the firebox which can be the result of a faulty chimney cap.

When inspecting a gas burning fireplace check to make sure the glass is secure and free of cracks. Turn the gas off at the shut off valve and check to see that the igniter is properly sparking.  Once you are complete, turn the gas valve back on and start the fireplace.  Make sure all the burner holes ignite to ensure they are not blocked.  If they are blocked, call a qualified service company for a proper cleaning and inspection.  Debris can accumulate in the burner jets and create a dangerous condition if not properly serviced.  Once you are complete, make sure the gas logs are placed back in the proper position.

We enjoy gas fireplaces because they are relatively low maintenance, but that doesn't mean they are no maintenance.

The best way to ensure your fireplace is safe to use, whether it be wood burning or gas fired, is to have a professional inspection annually.  The lack of proper maintenance of your fireplace can cause many hazardous conditions including fire, carbon monoxide poisoning and toxic fumes. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure", especially when it comes to the safety of your family and home. 

Daniel Ragusa, President – Firebird Sweep Inc.

(718) 356-1747      www.firebirdsweep.com