Making Your House a Home

Woodstoves and Fireplaces

Fall is here and, if you’re lucky enough to have a home with a fireplace or woodstove, you have probably been enjoying the comfort of a cozy fire in the evenings.

It’s always a good idea to refresh our memories on the safe operation and maintenance of any wood-burning hearth or stove. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

For Fireplaces:

  • An open hearth is not an efficient heat source since it draws not only smoke and combustion gases up the chimney, but also warm air from within the home.
  • Open hearth fireplaces can also be unsafe, as sparks and embers can pop out of the firebox into the room. Because they burn inefficiently, there is also a risk that creosote can build up in the chimney, creating a chimney-fire hazard. If you are using a furnace to heat other parts of the home, there is also a risk that flu gases can be pulled back down the chimney and into the home, creating an air quality hazard.
  • Your best bet for using your existing fireplace safely and efficiently, and even save a few bucks on the heating bill, is to have an insert installed. These give your fireplace the safety and efficiency of a woodstove, allowing you to enjoy a wood-burning fire that is well contained and won’t let all of your home’s heat go up the chimney.
  • If you still want to burn a fire now and then in your fireplace, make sure that you have your chimney inspected and cleaned by a certified professional and only burn dry, well-seasoned firewood.
  • Keep fireplace screens closed to prevent embers from flying out into the room and always keep flammable materials, such as kindling, papers, furniture, people and pets at least a metre away from the fireplace.
For Woodstoves:   
  • If you have an older woodstove, consider replacing it with a newer, more efficient model that is EPA rated to burn secondary combustion gases. A modern, high-quality stove will will last for years since most of the parts can be replaced, while an older, cheaper stove will not burn as efficiently and its parts will wear out more quickly and are very often not easily replaceable.
  • If you are thinking of installing a woodstove, make sure to buy a stove that is the right size for your home. A stove that is too large will often provide too much heat, causing you to damper down the fire, making it burn less efficiently. A stove that is too small, on the other hand, won’t make enough heat, and constant overfiring will wear out the parts more quickly.
  • Make sure your woodstove has been installed by a W.E.T.T. certified professional who has ensured that the stove is situated with all the proper clearances required by the manufacturer. This is not a job for the do-it-yourselfer and may, in fact, void your insurance if you were to have a house fire.
  • Have your chimney and firebox inspected and cleaned yearly. Replace any loose or broken firebricks and replace the gasket every few years to ensure a tight seal between the door and the stove.
  • Make sure smoke detectors area installed throughout the house and test them regularly to make sure they work. The same thing goes for a fire extinguisher. Keep one handy to your woodstove area and make sure everyone in the house knows how to use it.
  • Keep young children away from any wood burning fireplace or unit. Fire-safety fences are available at good woodstove stores. Don’t allow children to play with the fire. When they become teenagers and want to use the stove themselves, be sure to train them how to use the stove safely.  
  • Clean ashes out of the stove regularly. Wait until they are completely cool and scoop them into a metal ash bucket - NEVER in a plastic container or cardboard box and never in your compost bin. It can take up to three days for embers and ashes to completely cool. Place ash bucket on a sturdy, non-combustible surface outside, well away from your home and in a place where it won’t be knocked over. Never place the bucket on a wooden doorstep.
Now for the fun part, enjoying the fire itself!
  • Open the damper fully. Place five or six sticks of dry kindling wood in the firebox and place crumpled newspaper around the kindling. Light the paper and close the door slightly to protect yourself from any sparks that may fly. Once the kindling is burning nicely, add three small pieces of dry, well-seasoned firewood to the kindling. There’s an old saying: One log won’t burn, two logs might burn, three logs will burn.
  • Never use any sort of accelerant such as gas or barbeque starter fluid to help start the fire. Plain newspaper is the best, but do not burn glossy flyers or magazines and definitely not gift-wrapping paper.
  • For firewood, burn only dry, well-seasoned firewood. Freshly cut (green) or wet wood will smoulder and won’t burn efficiently. And never burn scraps of pressure treated or painted wood as these will emit dangerous chemicals into your neighbourhood and possibly into your house, too.  
  • Leave the stove door ajar slightly until the fire gets going well. Shut the door, latch it tightly and ensure that the fire is burning well by checking that the flames are bright orange and yellow. Dull, slow flames are a sign that the fire is starved for oxygen and not burning efficiently.
  • Use a magnetic stack thermometer to help you keep an eye on flu temperature. It will tell you when the fire is too hot or too cold. If the fire isn’t burning hot enough, you are likely smoking up the neighbourhood while also adding creosote buildup in your chimney. Too hot, and you’re risking a chimney fire, plus it’s not good for the stove itself.
  • Another very good way to check whether your stove is burning efficiently is to go outside and look up. Smoke coming from a chimney is a sign that your woodstove is not burning efficiently or hot enough. An efficiently burning woodstove will not produce any visible smoke.
  • Adjust the air intake to control the fire. Damper down the fire just enough to get the stack temperature in a safe efficient range, but not so far that it chokes the fire. 

    If you need a referral to a good WETT certified woodstove installer or inspector, please get in touch with me any time.

    John Pearce, REALTOR®