Make sure your fireplace is safe before you use it

Whether you have a gas or wood burning fireplace, you must be sure that it is safe to use before lighting it.  The biggest concern when using either type of fireplace is to ensure the flue gases are drafting properly.  If they do not have a clear path to the outside of your home, it could create a hazardous condition, which includes the infiltration of harmful flue gases and carbon monoxide into your living space. These gases can be deadly when not resolved immediately.

Large pieces of debris at the base of your chimney, excessive soot or heat, and strong odors are warnings that your fireplace may not be burning or firing properly.  If you experience a smoky smell or see a smoky fog in the air in front of your fireplace, it is a sign that you may have a blockage in your chimney and should immediately call a service professional to evaluate your chimney system.  

A properly operating gas fireplace will have a safe and secure glass enclosure, will ignite without delay 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 have a visual inspection and check your fireplace system.  Your fireplace may be located inside your home, but the chimney and termination of your chimney are on the outside and are the most critical components of your fireplace with respect to its safe operation. As there are so many moving parts with the safe operation of a fireplace, it is recommended that you enlist the services of a professional service company.

They will check to make sure your chimney is in good condition and has proper height above the roof. They will make sure the chimney cap is securely attached to the top of the chimney. These caps keep the animals, rain and snow out of the chimney while acting as a spark arrestor.

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. 

If you suspect that the termination cap or your gas fireplace may get blocked during heavy snow storms, consult with a professional, as you may not be able to use your fireplace during heavy snow fall; or, the alternate would be to have a fireplace professional assess if the termination of the chimney can be extended or altered to accommodate elevated snow levels.

Homeowners should make an annual inspection of their grounds. 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, visually 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 by a professional.

Before starting your wood burning fireplace for the season, have a professional check the operation of the flue damper to ensure 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.  While inspecting your chimney, the service professional will open the flue and check to see if there are any obstructions or animal nests blocking the path. 

It is also important that during your inspection that they check for creosote inside the chimney.  This material builds up each time you light a fire.  It is highly flammable and can cause a fire inside the chimney.  It is also important they 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.  They will 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, they will check to make sure the glass is secure and free of cracks. They will turn the gas off at the shut off valve and check to see that the igniter is properly sparking and that all burner holes ignite to ensure they are not blocked.  If they are blocked, this may require further cleaning.  Debris can accumulate in the burner jets and create a dangerous condition if not properly serviced.  Once your service is completed, the gas logs are placed back in the proper position and the fireplace is ready to use.

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

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