Fireplace Care and Cleaning

There are simple things you can do to make sure you get the best, safest use out of your fireplace. You want the wood to burn cleanly with strong but not shooting flames. And you want the smoke to go up the chimney rather than into your home. If these 6 tips and tricks don't help accomplish that, you may have a more serious design problem.

Open the Damper Fully

This seems like an obvious solution, but sooner or later many people forget. The billowing smoke and shrieking fire alarms can help you remember in a hurry! Avoid this by finding some other way to remind yourself. Establish a routine for lighting a fire that involves checking the damper both when you first open the doors and right before you light it. Check to make sure the damper is fully open. Water damage and soot buildup can make this difficult and finally impossible. A professional cleaning will solve the problem.

Open the Doors Fully

Closing the glass doors while the fire is lit is a bad idea. It impedes air flow, making for a small, weak fire that's likely to result in creosote buildup on the inside of the chimney. Open the doors all the way.

Use Dry, Seasoned Firewood

Green firewood can produce more smoke than heat. So can firewood that's been out in the rain or snow. Make sure that your firewood has been properly seasoned and is well-dried by the time you light it on fire.

"Prime the Pump"

On a cold day, it can be difficult to get a fire going. With a large, masonry, exterior chimney, the effects of a cold day can linger for another two warmer days. Smoke needs hot air to rise. If the air in the chimney is cold, the smoke will condense into creosote on the sides or will fall back down the chimney and sneak out into your living room. You can help avoid this by lighting a rolled up newspaper and holding it up the damper for a minute or two. That can get the warm air moving upward in a cycle that will continue when you light the wood on fire.

Close up the House

Open windows and doors (even ineffective weatherproofing) can create a competing chimney effect. Some smoke may be drawn out into the home by the air currents set up in a non-closed house. Since heat rises, it's especially important to make sure that upstairs windows and the attic access are tightly sealed.

Get Regular, Professional Cleaning

Layers of soot and creosote put you at risk for a chimney fire. They also constrict the chimney's area, making it more difficult for the air flow to set up properly. Even half an inch of buildup can restrict the air flow by 15 to 30%, depending on the size of the chimney. A professional chimney sweep can fix this and can also install a chimney cap to prevent birds from nesting in the top.

If these tips don't work, you may have a more difficult problem. A too short chimney can keep a fireplace from functioning properly. A too small flue can restrict the air flow even when fully open. A too tight home can also dampen the air flow, leading to sluggish, smoky fires. Have a professional examine your fireplace system for these and other design problems and see what can be done to fix them.