How to prepare your wood burner for winter

Improve the heating efficiency and safety of using a wood stove or fireplace to keep your home warm through the colder months ahead.

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There’s nothing better than hiding from the chill of the winter wind in a wood-heated house. Sure, it’s rough the rest of the year — clearing the unhealthy trees out in the spring, splitting wood all summer and stacking and tarping it in the fall. But the warmth of a wood burning fire is second to none in the winter.

If you share my sentiments and have a wood stove or fireplace you plan to use this winter, don’t forget to perform regular maintenance this fall to prepare for the cold months ahead.

Inspection

Before lighting your first fire, you need to make sure your wood stove or fireplace and chimney are up to par. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, wood stoves cause over 9,000 residential fires every year. A thorough inspection is not only a good safety practice, but also increases heating efficiency.

Wood Stove: Make sure your stove’s structural integrity is intact. Start by checking the legs, pipes, hinges, door seals and joints between castings for smooth joints and seams. Inspect the entire exterior and interior for cracks and rust. Then check the condition of the firebrick inside your stove. Severely damaged firebricks should be swapped out, but cracked bricks that remain in their original position don’t need to be replaced immediately. It’s important to make replacements with the same type of brick to maintain your stove’s efficiency. Finally, make sure your stove had a three-feet clearance from any combustible objects.

Fireplace/Chimney: Starting inside with the fireplace, check of any obstructions, cracks or signs of creosote build-up. Next, make sure your fireplace screen is free of any holes. In open fireplaces, without a screen, make sure to check for any nests that need cleaned out.

Moving on to the outside, some things to look for include loose or damaged bricks on the chimney exterior, cracked flue liners damaged or displaced metal flashing at roof line, cracks or leaks at the top of the chimney and creosote buildup. Additional signs of damage in metal chimneys are corrosion or rusting of the inner liners and buckling, separation of the seam or collapsing of the inner lining.

Cleaning

Once you’ve expected your setup and taken note of any creosote build-up in the chimney or connecting pipes, it’s time to clean out any dangerous deposits. Open fireplace chimneys only need to be cleaned every two or three years, but those serving wood-burning stoves and manufactured metal fireplaces have to be cleaned annually. Their fires burn more slowly and produce more creosote, a flammable substance caused by unburned gases that condense on the inside of the chimney.

Creosote build-up: The general rule for cleaning is that a quarter-inch or more of creosote build-up means it needs to be swept out. During heating season, you need to check your chimney and adjacent pipes twice a month.

Cleaning checklist

  • Make sure the chimney cap and gate are clear of any debris and fit tightly when you replace them.
  • Thoroughly clean the flue and stovepipe of any soot and creosote with a stiff wire chimney cleaning brush. You may need a brush available in various sizes to clean both pipes and chimney.
  • Vacuum up debris from the bottom of the hearth, smoke shelf or catch pit.
  • If you’re using a wood stove, clean the glass window and double-check for cracks.
  • Check to make sure the ash drawer has been emptied.
  • Make sure the interior door into the chimney throat (damper) is clear of debris.
  • Check to make sure your blower is clean and working if you have one.
  • Replace any filters.

Visit the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension for detailed instructions on properly cleaning your chimney yourself. For more information on cleaning wood stoves visit woodheat.org.

Continued care

Home and chimney fires are a very real concern every winter and it’s important to be mindful when heating with wood. Chimney fires cause hundreds of deaths and cost millions of dollars in lost property every year in the United States, according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. However, there are steps you can take to prevent out-of-control fires.

Quick tips

  • Only use seasoned hardwood for fuel. Do not use green wood, artificial logs or trash — materials that cause heavy creosote buildup and are difficult to control.
  • Always heat a wood stove within the manufacturer’s recommended temperature constraints and avoid using low damper settings for extended times. Setting the temperature too low increases creosote build-up, and setting it too high may eventually cause damage to the chimney,resulting in a chimney fire.
  • Put glass doors or a metal screen in front of your fireplace to prevent sparks or burning logs from leaving the fireplace and causing a home fire.
  • Extinguish the fire completely before going to bed
  • Combustible objects should be kept at least three feet away from your wood stove.
  • Clean out ash drawer frequently and store ashes in a noncombustible metal container with a tight lid.
  • Check for creosote build-up twice a month.
  • Supervise young children around your wood stove or fireplace and educate them on the dangers of the surface temperature to prevent injury and haphazardly placed items near the fire.

Be prepared

Even if you’ve gone through the process of inspecting, cleaning and continuing to care for your stove, it’s still important to be prepared in the event of a home or chimney fire.

Fire extinguishers and smoke alarms: Make sure fire extinguishers are current and easy to access and smoke alarms have fresh batteries. You should have a multipurpose fire extinguisher on hand for each stove and smoke alarms should be installed on every floor of your home.

Recognition: Chimney fires can be quickly identified by sucking sounds, a loud roaring noise, shaking pipes and flames and sparks shooting from the top of the chimney.

Reaction: It’s important to have a plan of action in place in the event of a chimney or home fire. First, call the fire department immediately and alert everyone in the house. Next, if you have an airtight stove, cut off the fire’s oxygen supply by closing all openings — any air intake vents to the firebox, the stove damper. If the fire is still burning, use a multi-purpose dry chemical extinguisher or throw baking soda onto the fire in the stove. If the fire begins to spread or becomes even more out of control at any point, vacate your home immediately.

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

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