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You're in front of your fireplace, in your favorite chair, enjoying the feeling of radiant heat warming up the bottom of your feet. You tip your head back and close your eyes. You slowly drift off, soothed by the sound of the crackling fire. It's almost like you can smell the smoke. Then you open your eyes and realize why: Smoke is filling the room! Paint on the wall above the fireplace starts to discolor and peel off. You spring to your feet. Grabbing the phone, you call 911. Minutes later the fire department arrives and goes to work.
The fire races through the attic. The firefighters cut holes in the roof and fire belches out. A few bursts from the hose and the fire retreats. The firefighters take a saw and cut away your wall to finish the job. Steam fills your home, and you start to think, how did this happen? What could I have done to prevent this? The answer lies in understanding how a fireplace operates, what kind of care and maintenance it requires and who to trust to work on it. Fireplaces have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. What worked and what didn't was likely determined by trial and error. If it worked that was great. If it did not work, property was damaged and people were injured. Today we know what will work, but due to neglect or lack of education, we still have unintended fires starting from fireplaces. The National Fire Protection Association has produced a document called the NFPA211 that is intended to show manufacturers, installers and chimney sweeps the best way to install and service fireplaces and chimneys. Still, people discount this document and the manufacturer's instructions when installing and servicing fireplaces and chimneys. Solid-fuel fireplaces can be divided into two types: Pre-fabricated (zero clearance) and solid masonry construction. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. If properly installed and maintained, each has an excellent safety history. Yet improper installation and a lack of proper maintenance may result in disaster.
Let's begin by looking at one type of fireplace common across the country and how to use it properly. Solid masonry fireplaces are built of brick, block or stone. Occasionally the firebox (the area where the fire is built) has an insert of cast iron. These typically use refractory firebrick laid in a bed of refractory mortar. A firebrick floor supports a cast-iron grate. Solid Masonry Fireplaces Solid masonry fireplaces are connected to a masonry chimney. This chimney is lined with a refractory clay liner. Some units have a gas burner running inside the firebox to assist in igniting the wood. Wood is piled up on this grate and ignited. With the screen closed, you can sit back and enjoy the warmth of your creation. The fire you construct may have three to five average-sized pieces of wood. Once the fire is reduced to coals, more wood may be added. Keeping the screen closed will assist in keeping sparks inside the firebox where they belong.
A fireproof rug kept in front of this type of fireplace is suggested to protect the floor area from the sparks that escape and land in front of the hearth. Combustible material, such as magazines, newspapers and decorative objects, should be kept away from the opening of the fireplace. One elusive spark coming to rest in the wrong spot could be the end of a good evening. Also important is how we start a fire in our fireplaces. Chimneys and fireplaces need to be warmed up slowly. Rapid temperature changes in the unit may cause serious damage. As you produce heat inside of the unit, the fireplace components start to expand. If the interior of the chimney is heated too rapidly while the exterior is cool, it can fracture and split. This can allow the products of combustion to enter the chimney chase. This damage usually occurs in one of three ways. First, a homeowner may stuff newspapers and cardboard into the fireplace, place wood on the pile and ignite it.
In no time, the temperature in the fireplace rises from a room temperature near 70° F to over 600° F. Second is the "Christmas morning" scenario. The presents are opened and the wrapping paper is stuffed into the firebox. One properly placed match and 20 minutes of cleanup is averted. Once again, the chimney is heated dramatically and flue tiles split and separate. The third case occurs with a creosote-fed chimney fire. Creosote is a byproduct associated with burning wood. Smoke cools and adheres to the cooler walls of the chimney. If allowed to build up, creosote will thicken to the point that it covers the walls of the smoke chamber and chimney. One hot spark or a flame that is allowed to rise into the damper area may ignite this material. The result is a rapid fire that burns out all of the material stuck inside of the chimney. Temperatures from this event have been measured at over 2000° F, more than enough to destroy your chimney, liner and possibly your home.
All of these scenarios can be averted with proper knowledge and maintenance. Pre-fabricated Fireplaces Pre-fab, or zero-clearance, fireplaces are factory-built units that have layers of metal creating the firebox with air spaces between the layers for insulation. They are connected to a double- or triple-walled metal chimney. These fireplaces come commonly 36 to 42 inches wide and include a considerably smaller grate on the floor of the firebox. The sizes of these grates indicate that it is not designed for the larger fires generally associated with masonry fireplaces. A refractory panel lines the inside of the firebox. The unit may also have gas service connected to it to assist in igniting the fire. Consider these things when using a pre-fab fireplace:
These units are not constructed to handle the heavy fires of their masonry counterparts. It is recommended that only three average-sized pieces of wood be used. When these are reduced to embers and ash, more can be added.
The screen should be kept shut when burning. Care should be taken not to let flames rise to the top of the firebox. Excessive flame height may ignite any creosote buildup lining the area.
The back refractory wall should also be inspected prior to lighting a fire. If it is cracked and split open, it should be replaced before using the fireplace. This split, if opened, may let direct flame contact the metal wall. This can conduct excessive heat to the wood framing on the outside of the firebox.
A layer of ash from the previous fire should be allowed to accumulate on the floor. Ash is a great insulator and will assist in reflecting the heat back up, making better use of the heat produced by the fire. This ash will help inhibit the heat from penetrating the refractory floor and spalling or cracking it. One inch of ash is enough to do the job.
Excess ash should be removed and safely discarded. Remember that embers may be present for days after you think the fire is out. Hundreds of people each year set fire to their home because of failure to remove these products properly. All ash should be placed in a non-combustible container (a special "ash bucket" with a raised bottom is ideal) and removed from the home entirely. Place them outside the home in a safe location. Ashes can be placed in your favorite garden; they contain many nutrients that are great for the soil.
As is the case with masonry fireplaces, combustibles should be kept a safe distance from the opening. Take care not to close the glass doors when the fire is burning aggressively. The doors may shatter, sending glass throughout the room. Also, closed doors limit the combustion air from entering the fireplace and can result in heavy creosote accumulation.
This will increase the chances of a chimney fire before your next scheduled cleaning. Maintaining Fireplaces When should you call for maintenance, whom should you call? The NFPA states that all fireplaces and chimneys should be inspected yearly, with cleaning and maintenance as needed. During the annual inspection, the chimney should be checked for damage, creosote accumulation, problems with combustibles in close proximity to the fireplace, and burning practices from the previous year. Looking inside the fireplace will reveal a history of the burning practices of the users. Are the windows covered in creosote, indicating they burn with the glass doors closed? Is the creosote thick and tarry, a sign that they are burning green or damp wood? Is the refractory wall split in two and the grate damaged from using too much wood? Early on in the career of a chimney sweep, fireplaces may all look the same. Not too long ago, books were unavailable on how to be a chimney sweep.
Even with all the resources available today, some people call themselves chimney sweeps without any real training. Although years ago many sweeps got their start this way, today there is no excuse. There is more to the profession of a chimney sweep than ever imagined. Customers have many questions and concerns, and a sweep is expected to know the answers. The National Chimney Sweep Guild is an excellent source of information. The network of experts found in this organization is invaluable. You can learn about draft and what affects it, what type of wood gets the best results, and what is evaluated while conducting an inspection. The guild's Certified Chimney Sweep program offers an in-depth study of fireplaces and chimneys. When you hire a sweep, certification should be the minimum requirement. Tim Bradley is the owner of Advanced Chimney and Fireplace Consulting Services (www.chimneyfire.com). He is a certified chimney sweep and past president of the Illinois Chimney Sweep Guild. He conducts inspections and video scanning of fireplaces. Robert Toth is a certified fire investigator and president of the Colorado chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators. For five years, he was the supervisor/investigator of a five-person public fire origin and cause team, investigating over 300 fires per year. He currently manages Professional Investigative Engineers' fire origin and cause department and can be contacted through its website at www.callpie.com.