Fireplace safety

It’s important to make sure both the fireplace and chimney are safe throughout the year. Before lighting the next fire, follow these steps to make sure it’s in proper working order.

Examine the fireplace

Look for any cracks, gaps, or signs of wear in the lining of the firebox (the interior of the fireplace). “If the lining has deteriorated to the point where the steel structure beneath it is visible, it’s time to have it professionally repaired," said Tom Spalding of the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA). "Otherwise, excessive heat can build up inside the fireplace and cause permanent damage.”

Look for the telltale signs

Smoke stains can be another signal the fireplace isn’t functioning properly. According to Spalding, if there are visible stains on the ceiling, smoke could be escaping from a gap between the hearth and the firebox. This is most likely because the hearth has settled—not an unusual occurrence in an older home. When settling occurs, sparks that fall into the gap can send up smoke, essentially acting as a secondary chimney. Spalding recommends hiring a professional chimney sweeper or a skilled handyman to repair the firebox.

There may also be smoke stains above the fireplace opening. In this case, the problem may be the flue damper, a mechanism with a hand-operated lever that helps control the air flow into the fireplace. If the lever is damaged or dirty, the damper may not open or close completely; this can cause smoke to leak out of the fireplace. A chimney professional can determine if the mechanism needs to be fixed or replaced.

Proper grate size

When it comes to the fireplace grate, bigger isn’t necessarily better. According to the CSIA, a metal grate used to hold burning firewood should be no more than two-thirds the size of the fireplace opening. An oversized grate may be a temptation to pile on too much wood, and the resulting flames can dangerously overheat the fireplace. Be sure to replace the large grate with a smaller one that’s more appropriate.

Check the chimney

It’s not exactly a great idea to climb up the roof and peer into a chimney; however, that doesn’t mean ignore it. A chimney inspection is one of the most important steps to take before using a fireplace. “The biggest mistake homeowners make is to simply assume their chimney is in working order,” Spalding said. Unfortunately, those assumptions accounted for an average of 22,700 chimney fires annually between 2010 and 2012, according to the CSIA. The National Fire Protection Association recommends an annual chimney inspection by a qualified professional.

Double-check the fire extinguisher

Always know where the fire extinguisher is, and make sure it’s fully charged and ready to use. The CSIA recommends a five-pound model with a flexible hose.

Remember to open the flue before starting a fire, and close it when not in use to save energy. Finally, keep stocked up on seasoned firewood so you can enjoy the fireplace whenever the mood strikes.

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This article provided through a partnership between the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis REALTORS®.

About the author: Lisa Kahn writes extensively on home improvement, interior design, luxury real estate, and travel for media outlets including About. com, The New York Times, The Ledger, and New York Spaces. She has also edited dozens of books on home design, landscaping, cooking, and travel.