You’ve made the decision to live a simpler life in the country… no corporate ladder climbing, no tense lengthy commutes, and no keeping up with the other rats in the rat race that is suburban living. There are a lot of new skills to learn, and few will be as important as knowing how to heat your homestead safely… in fact, your life could depend on it (read The Deadliest Homesteading Mistake).
With fall and early winter comes firing up that fireplace, woodstove, or furnace for the first time of the season. If you happen to be new to an existing rural home you may not know the condition of the stove, pipe, or flue which is already in place. If you’re setting up new living quarters, you’ll want to make sure everything is not only safe but meets the required setbacks and other requirements of your insurance provider.
“Wood fuel heating devices are very popular but their improper installation, operation, and maintenance provide a serious loss problem,” said Stephen Witte, government affairs director for the Missouri Insurance Information Service. And Witte’s advice rings true not only in the Show-Me State but wherever you’ve chosen to land and set up housekeeping. “Most wood heating fires are caused by operational problems, such as failing to clean the flue system or prematurely disposing of hot ashes, while other losses can be attributed to improper installation,” Witte added.
The Insurance Information Service recently released a compiled list of basic safety precautions for maintaining fireplaces and woodstoves. Let’s take a look at each suggestion and how you can use practical steps to implement it.
* Tip: A good-quality metal screen should be kept closed in front of the fireplace whenever it is being used. At least a three-foot area in front of and to the sides of the fireplace should be clean of anything that burns: this includes carpeting, paper, rags, furniture, clothing, logs, and kindling.
How-To: While open-hearth fireplaces are pleasing to look upon, having a screen of some sort should really be a priority in the home. If you’re using the fireplace for heat, supplemental heat, or just aesthetics, there’ll be times when you’ll walk away from a burning fire. Inevitably that’s when a large ember will pop off a log and land feet away, or diminishing logs will shift and one will roll out of the hearth and onto the carpet or wood floor. If you’ve never experienced a house fire, you’d be amazed at how quick a small hot spot can become a growing blaze.
A quick search of Amazon shows metal fireplace screens ranging in price from $45 for a very basic black model with a simple frame, to $300 or more for a decorative model with mountain scenes, western scenes, or other artsy metalwork.
As for keeping a three-foot area clean around the fireplace, that’s simple housekeeping. Usually, you’ll have a couple of outdated newspapers, maybe a box of fatwood sticks or the compressed sawdust fire-starters, some matches or a lighter nearby for ease of getting a fire going. Some kind of plastic storage or tote works well to keep fire-starting supplies out of the fire’s reach. Since we have a wood furnace on a utilitarian sunporch on the rear of our home, I keep my fire-making supplies in a metal ammo box. Such boxes are inexpensive, nearly bulletproof, and watertight (and ember tight, too).
* Tip: Do not refresh a fire with gasoline, kerosene, naphtha, or any other flammable or combustible liquid. Using such liquids can cause a bigger fire than you want and even an explosion.
How-to: Sounds like a no-brainer doesn’t it. But I’m sorry to admit in the past I’ve used old motor oil and lighter fluid to try to get a sputtering fire going. And I knew better. After all, I have a relative who still bears the scars of using flammable liquids to get a fire going decades after that bad decision.
The answer to refreshing or starting a fire with damp or green wood is a couple fire-starters and a few pieces of kindling. I buy two boxes of the pressed sawdust fire-starters a year and use two each time I want to start a new fire or bring waning embers back to life. Place the fire-starters atop the fire grate and ignite. They light easily and most will burn about five minutes. Once they’re ignited I simply add a half dozen pieces of kindling on top, and then place a couple pieces of wood on either side to allow them to start heating up.
Each fall, I spend an hour or two making kindling pieces. I use old pieces of pine or very dry hardwoods leftover from rehab construction projects, or if that’s not available I’ll buy a lesser grade 2X4 at the local lumberyard. I cut the board (or boards) into about 10-inch lengths with a circular saw or chainsaw. Then I sit on a stool or chair in my workshop and use a camp hatchet to split the lengths of board into pieces about the size of my fingers. Once the kindling pieces are split, I store them in a 5-gallon plastic bucket. Here again, a plastic tote or storage box, or an Army surplus ammo can would work just as well.
So there you go, there’s no reason to ever use flammable liquids to start or refresh a fire. I haven’t even considered such a crazy thought since I discovered the ease of fire-starters and kindling strips.
* Tip: Never burn charcoal in a fireplace. Charcoal gives off deadly carbon monoxide gas, which can quickly fill a room and overcome the occupants.
How-to: Stick to hardwoods… oak, hickory, walnut, etc. Charcoal is meant for open flames such as grills, fire pits, and blacksmith forges. Likewise, use of softwoods (pine, cedar, other evergreens, etc.) will burn so hot they can crack masonry flues or ignite any creosote buildup in the flue.
* Tip: Inspect your fireplace and chimney regularly, at least once a year. Keep the fireplace and chimney in good repair and clean of tars and creosote. The older the fireplace the greater the need for maintenance. For professional assistance in doing this, look in the Yellow Pages under “Chimney Cleaning”.
How-to: Whether you do the deed yourself or hire a professional, it pays to have your chimney or flue cleaned at least once a year… I prefer twice a year. I clean my metal flue pipe for my wood furnace prior to the heating season each fall. Then around early February, we’ll inevitably have an unseasonably warm couple of days. At that point I let the fire burn down and out, and quickly give the pipe another good brushing to assure no creosote buildup for the latter part of the burning season.
If you have a fireplace or woodstove, you’ll definitely want to consider using an ash vacuum—or hire a chimney sweep who uses one, and most of them will—to keep down dust and debris as you brush up and down the flue. Like I said earlier, we have a wood furnace which connects to our ductwork and the furnace itself is located on a sunporch designed specifically for housing the furnace and wood box. The room has a painted concrete floor and block base upon which the walls are built. When the room takes on some noticeable dust from cleaning the chimney or from handling wood we can simply pour out a bucket of sudsy water and squeegee it toward the door or floor drain. But if we had a fireplace or homestead woodstove in an interior room with carpeted floors and our best furniture nearby, I’d definitely invest in an ash vacuum.
For years, I had a good friend who had a chimney-sweep business called “Ashbusters”. He would always use an ash vac on the lower end while brushing any flue from the roof down, or the fireplace up on occasion. When a customer requested, he would even don a traditional chimney sweep’s “stovepipe” top hat and sing a tune while doing his sweeping duties from the rooftop.
* Tip: Keep the damper adjusted for sufficient draft to remove all smoke and gases, taking care to maintain proper control of the fire.
How-to: Making sure your damper is in good working order is every bit as important as keeping the chimney free of creosote buildup. Most modern fireplaces have some form of damper plates built in with a pull knob or twist handle to adjust the draft. Stoves with a free-standing stovepipe will either have a damper built into the top of the stove or inserted about halfway between the stove and where the pipe enters the wall or ceiling. These dampers are usually cast iron and fairly easy to replace when you put in a new pipe section or determine a damper is damaged in some way. Dampers will range from $5 for a basic model to $150 or so for a thermostatically controlled unit.
* Tip: After a fire, be careful of how you dispose of ashes and embers. Use only a metal container for their disposal, and do not dispose of them around combustible and flammable materials.
How-to: Ash buckets are cheap and purpose-built, so don’t scrimp and try to get by with a galvanized bucket or some other makeshift alternative. And always, always, always dispose of ashes in a safe place far away from dry grass or weeds or other combustables. I dispose of ashes in a corner of the garden area. In early spring we incorporate a few of the ashes into the soil as we prepare the garden spot. Before that, I occasionally visit the ash heap to collect a bucket full and spread them atop a layer of snow or ice on the driveway to provide traction for moving in and out of the garages. I admit, I don’t understand the science behind the unbelievable traction that a very sparse layer of ashes can provide atop a layer of snow or ice, but I know beyond a doubt that it does work.
And if you’re still stuck living in the city for the time being but have a wood-burning unit for heat, never dispose of fireplace ashes in dumpsters. You’re just asking for a trash inferno.
* Tip: Before buying a wood stove, make sure it has been approved by a recognized testing laboratory.
How-to: According to the EPA, “EPA has regulated wood heater particulate emissions since 1988. Wood heater model lines that are in compliance with the rule are referred to as EPA-certified wood heaters. EPA’s certification process requires manufacturers to verify that each of their wood heater model lines meet a specific particulate emission limit by undergoing emission testing at an EPA accredited laboratory.
“Wood heater manufacturers must maintain a quality assurance program for production-line wood heaters and affix a permanent label to each wood heater that meets the applicable emission standards attach temporary label that lists the emission rate, test method the heating range of the wood heater (for correctly sizing the wood heater), and overall efficiency.”
* Tip: Flammable walls or ceilings must be protected by maintaining adequate distances from the stove or pipes, or by a heat shield.
How-to: Before setting up a new stove, furnace, or free-standing fireplace be sure and check with your homeowner’s insurance carrier to get a list of their required setbacks for stove pipes and plenums. When we built our sunporch and installed our wood furnace in 2001, it required making some changes to the plenum size and routing of ductwork to stay with insurable parameters. We also used triple-walled stainless pipe and a box to route the flue past the rafters and through the metal roof of the room.
* Tip: If you are unfortunate enough to have a flue fire, a 25-lb. dry chemical fire extinguisher should be aimed into the firebox. Never put water on the outside of a red-hot stove.
How-to: If you heat with wood you should always have a fire extinguisher on hand. For that matter, it’s a good idea to have a fire extinguisher in the house even if you don’t use wood heat. I keep mine sitting a few feet away from the insulated wood furnace and right beside my bucket of kindling (with an airtight lid) and ammo box of fire-starting materials.
You can find a fire extinguisher on Amazon, or at almost any home improvement or hardware store. If you want something more industrial strength, ask a local firefighter for the name of the guy or company who supplies and services businesses and industries with fire extinguishers in your area. That’s where I found mine.
* Tip: Last but not least, always have working smoke detectors.
How-to: Whether you heat with wood or not, buying, installing, and maintaining a few good smoke detectors, and a couple carbon monoxide detectors, is a cheap line of defense in keeping you and your family safe. And it’s been suggested over and over, but make it a point of changing detector batteries twice a year when you set your clocks back and forward.
There you have it… safe and simple practical ways to implement the safeguards suggested by the leading insurance companies regarding heating with wood. Done properly you can save hundreds of dollars a year by heating with wood. Done poorly, it could quickly cost you much more than just your beloved homestead.