Monday, November 21, 2011

Fireplace Safety!

It’s starting to get colder and colder here in the Midwest, and we’re all looking at ways to get our homes even toastier.  My husband and I just moved into a new apartment that features a FIREPLACE, and we’re pretty excited. Though between visions of chestnuts roasting over the aforementioned open fire, one question still nags at me.

How do I start a fire in my fireplace without burning down the house or getting carbon monoxide poisoning?

 Good question. 

I vaguely remember something called a “flue” being important, but googling “flue” gets you a list of sites from the Center of Disease Control. Hm. 

I try googling "starting a fire in a fireplace.” There we go!

After reading several articles—WikiHow has a good one here—it’s clear that there are really two important words one needs to be familiar with when trying to safely start a fire in one’s own home:
  • Damper
  • Draft

The DAMPER is a sheet of metal, basically, that blocks the chimney, or FLUE (there’s that word!) when it’s not in use, therefore preventing cold air from flowing into the house.  You will want to open this BEFORE you start, or else the smoke won’t be able to escape out the chimney. 

Aside from the general unpleasantness of having a smoke-filled living room, you’ll want to open the damper before you start the fire beCAUSE the damper lever is located inside the chimney. A difficult place to reach if you have to maneuver past a small fire. 

After you open the damper, make life easier for yourself and make sure the smoke is actually going upwards by lighting a match. If the smoke isn’t going upwards, then you’ve got to deal with the draft. 

The dreaded draft. This is the tricky part, because sometimes, you can do everything right, you can open the damper and STILL, STILL the smoke will refuse to go up the chimney, preferring instead to float around your home. 

This happens, according to WikiHow, because the upper part of the fireplace is too cold. You’ll have to warm it up, which is a bit of a trial. 

WikiHow suggests that you use one of those “commercial wax logs” (a la Duraflame), which will be relatively smokeless—important as you’ll have to start this one out with the damper CLOSED.

You then
“Put the [lighted Duraflame or whatever] on the back of the fireplace shovel, light it and place it up inside the fireplace near the flue opening. What you are trying to do is to heat the upper part of the fireplace. When you have heated it (you will need to use trial and error to determine how long this process is) slowly open the damper and with luck and skill you will find that the heat and fire from your little block will force the air up the chimney. When the draft has fully reversed (you will hear the air sucking the fire and heat from the starter block), then you can light your fire.”
It stands to be repeated that you should NOT hold the lit Duraflame in your hand. This is an awful idea.  Use a tool like the fireplace shovel or the fireplace tongs.

Tim Ferriss agrees with this, saying on his blog
“One tip for a smoke free start is to light the end of a rolled up newspaper hold it up the chimney for 10 or 15 seconds before lighting the fire to get the airflow moving and avoid any back draft.”
Once you get the draft moving in the right direction, it’s a question of how to position the firewood inside the fireplace. If you don’t have any of those fancy Duraflame logs hanging around, or would just like to do it cowboy-style with real wood, then I’d look at Martha Stewart’s Step-by-Step Guide for Starting a Fire.

She gives an especially good tip on Step 5:

Don't overfeed the fire, which can smother the fire or cause it to blaze out of control.

Yes! Please don’t let your fire blaze out of control. Oh my goodness, that would be bad. It’s better to err on the side of less wood rather than more wood when adding fuel to your fire. It’s easy to add MORE wood, but not so easy to take wood AWAY.
Once your fire has burned down to ashes, Martha suggests that you leave them to cool for a day or so. Once they have cooled, she writes (in true Martha Stewart fashion)

“Ashes can be deposited onto flowerbeds around the garden, since they benefit roses and other flowers."


I’ll let you all know how starting a fire works for me, though after reading through all of these how-tos cautioning against fires blazing out of control, I may be too scared to try it. Yet winter is no place for cowards! Onward!

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