Whether or not a house has a fireplace might be the difference between buying the home and moving on with your search. Clearly, fireplaces are great selling points for homes, and many people don’t want to live in a home without at least one fireplace. Many homes even have multiple fireplaces, so people in different areas of the house can take advantage of their benefits.
Some people want to have a fireplace simply because they grew up with a fireplace in the home, and it reminds them of pleasant, comforting times. People who’ve never had a fireplace in the home might envision their lives with one now, though. Fireplaces offer beauty and style to any room, providing a sense of warmth and relaxation even when there is no fire. Fireplaces provide heat at an affordable price, helping you to save on high utility bills caused by space heaters in the middle of a long, cold winter. They’re also economically and environmentally friendly, producing low emissions while making your home more comfortable.
When maintained properly, fireplaces are safe, too. Anyone who is interested in using a fireplace to get all these advantages should make sure to learn all about fireplace safety before using a fireplace.
The Importance of Fireplace Maintenance
There are many possible dangers when using a fireplace. This seems obvious because live fires are always potentially perilous. Because they seem controlled, it is easy to forget that your comfortable fireplace could be dangerous. From carbon monoxide poisoning to excess smoke to actual fire hazards, dangers can be minimized with proper fireplace maintenance.
Small children and pets are especially vulnerable to fireplace dangers. Just like with any other potential hazard, it is important to take precautions and watch children and pets so they don’t get hurt. Teach them a healthy respect for what could happen when they aren’t careful.
Common Fireplace Dangers & Malfunctions
Some of the most common dangers include carbon monoxide poisoning, chimney fires, and even whole house fires. Other activities your family does could increase the danger, such as smoking or using other electrical equipment too close to the fireplace.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, fireplaces, chimneys, and chimney connector accidents made up 22,300 out of the 358,800 residential home fires in 2013, resulting in 20 deaths and almost $100 million in damages. While not being close to one of the top hazards, fireplaces clearly have the potential to be dangerous when people aren’t careful and vigilant.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
According to the Mayo Clinic, carbon monoxide poisoning occurs when carbon monoxide builds up in the air and eventually starts replacing the oxygen in your blood with carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide has no color, odor, or taste, so you have to understand the dangers so you can protect your family. You won’t be able to sense when there is carbon monoxide in the air, so you need to understand how carbon monoxide builds up and prevent it from happening. You should also install a detector so you can get a warning if carbon monoxide is building up in the air.
You may not even realize when you have carbon monoxide poisoning, which is one of its most dangerous aspects. Here are some of the symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Blurred vision
- Loss of consciousness
Symptoms may come on slowly, and someone suffering may not notice until it is too late. If you suspect you or a loved one may be a victim of carbon monoxide poisoning, get outside to fresh air and call for help immediately.
Cracked Fireplace Walls
The structure of the fireplace is vital to its safety. Wood-burning fireplaces can burn at between 1,100 and 1,500 degrees. The air around the fireplace with good air circulation will keep the temperature down to about 1,000 degrees. It’s only natural that heat so intense could cause cracks in the structure, and the cracks might start out as hairline fractures. You can also cause cracks by hitting the hot area with a poker or splashing water onto a very hot surface, causing a thermal reaction. You may even have defective panels you weren’t aware of.
Small cracks may not cause problems, but you should still repair even minor cracks when you find them so they don’t grow into large cracks. If you have large cracks, you should get chimney repairs by someone who understands chimneys and knows how to safely repair the area.
Chimney fires are another hazard you might not recognize right away if you don’t know what you’re looking for. When you have a fire burning in your fireplace, it should be a relatively quiet and calm affair. Sometimes substances, like soot and creosote, build up in your chimney, or debris from outside may fall in, such as material from birds’ nests or plant or tree matter. When those substances catch fire, they can cause a fire in the entire structure.
Your first sign that the chimney is on fire might be a loud popping or cracking sound, such as you would hear if you were sitting around a loud bonfire and people were throwing wood onto it. You might also see a cloud of thick smoke coming back down toward you and into the room, possibly even accompanied by bits of material that are still on fire. A chimney fire even has an odd hot smell and may be accompanied by a roaring sound. If you suspect you have a chimney fire, get everyone out of the house and call for help right away.
One problem that may lead to fires is the failure of your chimney. It may wear down from the outside because of constant exposure to the elements, such as sunlight, rain, and ice. The damage may build up from the inside, caused by everything from shifting foundations to corrosive emissions from your home appliances to moisture that could build up from a number of sources inside your home.
Once you have actual chimney failure, you will probably need to replace the entire structure. Just like with any other important structure, your chimney must be solid and built on a solid foundation. Otherwise, you could end up with a disaster as soon as you try to have a fire in your fireplace.
Fires in the House
Unfortunately, your house and the rest of your things are in the same house as the fire. When there is a problem with your fireplace, it can affect your entire home and family. Fireplaces can turn into ground zero when sparks from the fireplace get out of the fireplace and travel around the room to land on flammable materials. Just like with a campfire, any fire in your fireplace should be constantly monitored.
Most adults won’t get burned because of a fireplace, but children and pets might have to learn the hard way to stay away from the flames. They might find the fireplace so comfortable and cozy that they sit too close, thinking more is better. Also, when there is a fire in the home, everyone is vulnerable to injuries like burns and smoke inhalation.
Smoke inhalation can cause temporary or permanent injury, including death. More than half of all fire-related injuries are because of smoke inhalation, and the condition can make it difficult to get away from the fire and get help. It occurs when you breathe in dangerous smoke particles and gases produced by the fire, injuring your skin and mucous membranes. Smoke can also cause asphyxiation by taking away the breathable air from a room.
Safety Tips for Your Fireplace
Most people who have fireplaces never experience a serious problem. With careful attention, regular maintenance, and perhaps even a fireplace fan, most of the accidents and injuries attributable to fireplaces can be minimized or avoided altogether. The most important rule is to always watch any open fire, whether you’re inside or outside, it’s just a candle or a fire in your fireplace.
Install Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Every home should have a working smoke detector. Ideally, these detectors should be placed at every level in the home, outside every sleeping area, and in any area where there is a particular danger, such as in the kitchen and by a fireplace. Batteries should be replaced every year as a habit whether or not they are beeping, and the detectors themselves should be replaced every 8-10 years. When it comes to your family’s lives and safety, this is an easy way to protect them, but most people don’t realize how important it is to keep the detectors in so many places.
Carbon monoxide builds up to dangerous levels in spaces that are improperly ventilated and enclosed spaces. Anyone who has gas appliances or a fireplace should have a working carbon monoxide detector. In addition, a range hood can provide more ventiliation to a kitchen and may help if there is a fireplace nearby. Installing an exhaust fan, bathroom exhaust fan, or attic fan can also be beneficial and ensure proper ventilation. Again, the biggest danger of carbon monoxide is that people aren’t aware when they are experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning. The loud detector installed in your home will make sure your family is alerted to any danger.
Keep Combustible Materials Away from the Fireplace
You can start a fire simply by having the wrong materials too close to the fireplace. Don’t forget, the temperature of the fire is about 1,000 degrees, so anything that is potentially combustible or flammable should be kept far away, preferably in another room.
Use a Grate or Glass Panel to Prevent Accidents
Burning embers are the main way that fire can come into the home and start a fire, but you can minimize those risks by using a panel to keep those embers from leaving the area of the fireplace. The material should be flame-resistant and you should be careful with it because it will get very hot too. Don’t use grates or panels that aren’t specifically made for that purpose.
Get Routine Fireplace & Chimney Inspections
At the very least, you should get a fireplace and chimney inspection every year before you start using the fireplace for the season. Use professionals who are trusted so you can guarantee the work. You may need to have another inspection if you notice any other problems.
How to Maintain Your Fireplace
- Look up into the chimney — You should pen the damper on a regular basis and check to see if anything is lodged inside. Animals, like squirrels or birds, may fall in and not be able to get out. There may also be leaves, especially in fall.
- Clean the firebox — Keeping the area clean will make it so you can control the fire and keep it safe while it is burning.
- Reduce fireplace pollutants — Open the damper when the fireplace is in use and be careful what materials you use. Burn untreated, seasoned firewood and use a new chimney liner.
- Minimize wood smoke when burning a fire — Smoke isn’t just a health hazard; it’s a sign that something is wrong. If you are getting a lot of wood smoke, make sure you divert it out and see if the problem is the materials you are burning.
- Check the chimney on the outside — When you come home every day, give your chimney a visual inspection. Look for any imperfections or anything that shouldn’t be there.
Fireplaces can be dangerous but they don’t have to be. Stay vigilant so you can protect your family, but don’t miss out on the great experience of having a fireplace in your home.