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13 Steps on How to Use a Fireplace Safely

While a wood-burning fireplace adds warmth and comfort to a home during the colder months, safety should always be top of mind. Check out these tips to learn how to work a fireplace.

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Fireplace Safety CheckValentyn Volkov/Shutterstock

Fireplace Safety Check

Before the temperature starts to fall, there are several things you can do to make sure your wood-burning fireplace is safe and efficient. The National Fire Protection Association recommends chimneys be swept at least once a year, at the beginning of winter, to remove soot and debris. You can find a certified chimney sweep at Chimney Safety Institute of America. Also, make sure you're familiar with how to work a fireplace before you attempt to start a fire. Learn how to clean your chimney flue right here.

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dfh17sep042-02 fireplace chimneyBartosz Zakrzewski/Shutterstock

Check Chimney for Cracks

Before that first fire of the season, check the chimney structure for cracks, loose bricks or missing mortar. You should also check your chimney liner for signs of deterioration. Cracks and spalling on the chimney exterior indicate chimney deterioration, so check your chimney crown or have a professional take a look.

Find a crack? Learn How to Repair Mortar Joints.

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Cap ItNick Beer/Shutterstock

Cap It

Use a wire-mesh cap to cover the top of the chimney to keep birds, squirrels, rain and other debris from entering. The last thing you want while working your fireplace is to find some deceased animals coming down the flue. Replace a rain cap with these tips.

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Check the Damperjuliasv/Shutterstock

Check the Damper

The damper is a movable plate that sits above the fireplace before the flue. Make sure the fireplace damper is working properly. There should be no debris preventing it from opening and closing. This is a critical step in understanding how to work a fireplace. Plus: A Home Inspector Reveals the 6 Signs Your House is in Trouble.

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Check for Creosote BuildupCouperfield/Shutterstock

Check for Creosote Buildup

Creosote is a chemical mass of carbon formed when wood, tar or fossil fuels are burned. Creosote can linger in chimneys and you would have no idea from the outside. When creosote is not removed, can become a thick coating of debris in the flue and chimney. Most chimney fires start in the smoke chamber/smoke shelf area so it's important to clean those areas. Creosote ignites at 451 degrees Fahrenheit and once it starts burning, it expands like foam sealant and can build to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in less than a minute. Learn When to Clean a Chimney Flue.

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Trim LimbsNguyn Nguyn/Shutterstock

Trim Limbs

Make sure there are no overhanging tree limbs encroaching on the chimney. Limbs can present a fire hazard and also restrict proper draft airflow in your fireplace. Try these Tree Pruning Techniques for safe removal.

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Clean Out the Ashesglebchik/Shutterstock

Clean Out the Ashes

Another important step to knowing how to work a fireplace is to make sure all ashes are cleaned out of the firebox before you start stacking wood for that first fireplace fire. Simply sweep or vacuum the cold ashes and dispose of them outside. But you may want to keep a few ashes around to help build a fire in your fireplace. Be aware that coals can remain hot for up to three days, which can become a fire hazard if they come in contact with flammable materials. Here are more tips on How to Prevent Home Fires.

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Fireplace GuardLI Cook/Shutterstock

Fireplace Guard

To prevent hot embers from getting out, use a metal-mesh screen or glass fireplace doors. Don't burn wood in your fireplace without a guard. Do your glass fireplace doors look a bit dingy? Try these glass cleaning tips.

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Check AlarmsPhovoir/Shutterstock

Check Alarms

Before starting a fire, make sure all of your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working. I don't think we need to explain much further about why this is so important. Here's a list of smoke alarm maintenance tips.

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Test FunctionBildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Test Function

Test your fireplace's function by lighting a few small pieces of seasoned wood. Light the wood from the top down. If smoke doesn't exit vertically from the fireplace into the chimney and instead enters the room, troubleshoot to correct any problems. This will be key in helping you understand how to work a fireplace. Problems can include creosote buildup, debris in the chimney (such as birds or nests) or a closed or partially closed damper. Also, if your home is tightly sealed for energy conservation, opening a window a little bit can provide the intake air needed to make the smoke go up the chimney. These tips will help you maintain your chimney for decades.

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Choose the Right WoodMarina Zezelina/Shutterstock

Choose the Right Wood

Choose dense wood such as oak. Wood should be split and stored in a high and dry place for at least six months. Green woods, such as pine, are not recommended for a wood burning fireplace since they can produce more creosote. Not interested in wood but still want a fireplace fire? Learn how to install a gas fireplace.

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Keep the Fire SmallAdamEdwards/Shutterstock

Keep the Fire Small

Small fireplace fires generate less smoke and create less creosote buildup. When building a fire, put the logs toward the rear of the wood-burning fireplace and be sure to use kindling, not flammable liquids, to start the fire. These tips are crucial in knowing how to work a fireplace. Cutting your own wood for a fire? Follow these Chain Saw Safety Tips.

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Circulate the AirAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Circulate the Air

To get the most out of your fire, run ceiling fans clockwise on low speeds to redirect the warm air from the ceiling into the living space. Learn How to Fix a Wobbly Ceiling Fan with these tips.