How to Work a Wood Burning Fireplace

A wood burning fireplace can be a beautiful and comforting addition to a home. Sitting by a warm, crackling fire on a chilly night provides a cozy atmosphere that can’t be matched. However, working a wood burning fireplace requires knowledge and skill to operate properly, efficiently, and safely. This comprehensive guide will provide you with everything you need to know to successfully operate your wood burning fireplace.

Selecting the Right Wood

The first step in working a wood burning fireplace is selecting the right type of firewood. Here are some tips:

  • Hardwoods like oak, maple, and ash are dense and burn longer and hotter than softwoods. They provide excellent heat output.
  • Dry wood burns better. Look for firewood with a moisture content below 20%. Newly cut “green” wood contains up to 50% moisture.
  • Split logs burn better than rounds. Splitting wood exposes more surface area to flame.
  • Well-seasoned wood has been dried for 6-12+ months. This allows moisture to evaporate from the wood completely.
  • Avoid softwoods like pine, which burn fast, pop, and send sparks. Also avoid pressure-treated, painted, or laminated wood, which release toxic fumes.

Properly seasoned hardwoods are the best choice for burning. Oak, hickory, and maple offer long-lasting fires. Locate a reputable firewood supplier and inspect wood for signs of good seasoning before purchasing.

Starting a Fire

Starting a robust fire requires patience and proper technique. Follow these steps:

  • Place crumpled newspaper or a fire starter log at the base of the firebox to start the fire. Never use flammable liquids like lighter fluid which can cause dangerous flare-ups.
  • Arrange kindling like small twigs and sticks in a teepee shape over the starter fuel. Leave air gaps between pieces.
  • Place small split logs over the kindling, still allowing for plenty of air flow.
  • Light the fire starter and allow the kindling and logs to catch flame. Slowly add larger logs.
  • Once the fire is burning strongly, use fireplace tools to arrange logs so adequate oxygen can flow between pieces.
  • Position the damper fully open until the fire is burning well. This provides needed air flow.

Take time nurturing the initial fire to establish a hot bed of glowing coals before reducing the air flow and damper setting. Rushing this process leads to smoky, inefficient fires.

Maintaining the Fire

To achieve clean, long-lasting fires that provide optimal heat output, maintain the fire properly after the initial start-up:

  • Only burn seasoned hardwood logs up to 2 feet long. Softwoods and green wood will smolder, smoke, and burn inefficiently.
  • Add new logs at the rear of the firebox, not directly on top of burning logs. This prevents log roll and unwanted flare-ups.
  • Adjust the damper to control the fire. Wide open provides maximum air and fastest burning. Partially closed slows the fire, while fully closed extinguishes it.
  • Never overfill the firebox with too many logs, which can cause dangerous overheating and smoke spillage. Follow appliance guidelines for load limits.
  • Use fireplace tools to frequently rearrange partially burned logs so oxygen reaches all sides of the wood. This maintains flames.
  • When finished using the fireplace, allow the fire to completely burn down. Close the damper when embers are completely extinguished.

Proper fire maintenance results in fires that provide optimal heating, avoid smoking issues, and enable safe operation.

Fireplace Safety Tips

When using your wood burning fireplace, follow these important safety tips:

  • Always use a fireplace screen or glass doors to prevent embers or sparks from escaping where they could ignite carpets, furniture, or people.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher nearby in case of emergencies.
  • Store ashes in a metal container with a tight-fitting lid outdoors until completely cooled. Embers in ashes can reignite.
  • Have your fireplace and chimney inspected annually and cleaned if needed to prevent creosote buildup and danger of chimney fires.
  • Never leave a fire unattended. Educate children to stay a safe distance away.
  • Avoid using flammable liquids or too much paper to start the fire. This can cause unsafe flare-ups.
  • Check that the damper is open before lighting the fire to allow proper ventilation.
  • Make sure there is no blockage in the chimney flue which could trap deadly gases in the home.

Staying alert and using common sense fire safety will help ensure your wood burning fireplace provides enjoyment for years to come.

Troubleshooting Common Fireplace Issues

Wood burning fireplaces are somewhat complex appliances that can occasionally run into problems. Here are solutions for some common fireplace issues:

Smoking fireplace – A smoking fireplace results from restricted airflow. Ensure the damper is fully open before lighting. Check for blockages in the flue like bird nests. Avoid burning wet, unseasoned wood which smokes heavily.

Poor heat output – If the fire provides little warmth, the wood may be too moist, the logs too large, or the room too drafty. Use seasoned hardwood, properly sized logs, and eliminate drafts. Also check that the fireplace damper operates properly.

Fast burning fire – A fire that quickly goes through logs indicates too much air reaching the fire. Partially close the fireplace damper earlier in the fire’s progression to slow it down. Avoid overfilling the firebox with too much wood.

Creosote buildup – Creosote is a black deposit left by smoke that can build up in the chimney and create dangerous chimney fires. Have the chimney cleaned annually to remove creosote deposits before they become excessive.

Unwanted odors – Avoid burning pressure-treated lumber, painted wood, and softwoods like pine to prevent foul odors. Burn only untreated, well-seasoned hardwood logs.

By understanding common fireplace issues and their solutions, you can get the most out of your fireplace while also operating it safely and efficiently.

Maintaining Your Fireplace

Regular maintenance will help ensure your wood burning fireplace provides enjoyment for many years. Here are some key maintenance tasks:

  • Annually inspect the chimney cap outside to ensure it is not damaged or obstructed, allowing proper venting of smoke and gases.
  • Have the chimney cleaned at least once per year, more often if heavily used, to prevent dangerous creosote accumulation.
  • Check the seal around the firebox and damper annually to look for deterioration which could allow smoke or fumes to leak into the home. Reseal if needed.
  • Periodically inspect the firebrick lining the inside of the firebox and have damaged or missing bricks replaced to prevent damage to the surrounding materials.

-Evaluate the condition of the fireplace grate, cleaning out old ashes and replacing the grate if broken or significantly warped.

  • Waterproof the chimney crown and flashing if needed to prevent leaks. Use a concrete sealant rated for high heat.
  • Clean glass doors regularly using a fireplace glass cleaner or mild soap and water to maintain visibility of the fire.

Dedicate some time before each heating season to conduct a thorough inspection and perform needed maintenance. This will enhance safety and keep your fireplace operating at its best.

Improving Fireplace Efficiency

There are several ways to improve the heating efficiency of your wood burning fireplace:

  • Install firebrick lining – Firebrick absorbs and radiates heat into the room that would otherwise be lost up the chimney.
  • Use a fireplace grate – This lifts the firewood allowing air flow underneath for better combustion and heat transfer.
  • Keep the glass doors closed when the fireplace is in use except when loading wood. Open doors release room air up the chimney.
  • Install glass fireplace doors if the fireplace doesn’t have any. This prevents room air from being drawn up the chimney.
  • Have an EPA-certified wood burning insert professionally installed, which uses baffles to trap and re-radiate heat back into the room.
  • Consider adding ductwork to circulate heated air from the fireplace to other rooms in the home.
  • Use a ceiling fan above the fireplace to circulate the warm air away from the ceiling and down into the living space.

With some simple upgrades and proper operating practices, your fireplace can be an effective heat source to help lower your heating bills.

Alternatives to Wood Burning Fireplaces

While traditional wood burning fireplaces have an undeniable charm, they have some drawbacks when used as a primary heat source. Here are some alternatives worth considering:

Gas Log Fireplaces

Pre-fabricated gas fireplace logs burn very cleanly and offer convenience compared to wood burning, while still providing the ambiance of real flames. Just flip a switch for instant fire. Installing a gas log set into an existing wood burning fireplace is generally straightforward.

Gas Inserts

Gas fireplace inserts are heating systems inserted into an existing fireplace. They utilize gas burners or compressed firelogs to produce flame. High-efficiency direct-vent models expel exhaust outdoors while heating the room either by forced convection or circulating warm air.

Electric Fireplaces

Electric fireplaces offer flame effects without combustion. Modern electric models have realistic flames and glowing logs operated via remote control. Although they don’t provide actual heat, their ambiance and zero emissions make them attractive options.

Pellet Stoves

Pellet stoves burn compressed wood or biomass pellets fed from a storage hopper into the firepot. Thermostats automatically regulate the pellet burn rate. Highly efficient models produce low emissions for heating. While pellet stoves still require maintenance, they are more convenient than fireplaces.

Each alternative has its advantages. Evaluate your needs and research options thoroughly before choosing the right fireplace or heating system for your home.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best wood to burn in a fireplace?

Seasoned hardwoods like oak, maple and ash provide excellent burning properties. Avoid softwoods like pine which smolder, pop and smoke.

How often should I clean my chimney?

Chimneys should be cleaned at least once per year to remove dangerous creosote buildup. Clean more often if heavily used.

Why does my fire smoke when lit?

A smoking fireplace usually indicates restricted airflow. Fully open the damper before lighting and check for any blockages in the flue. Avoid burning wet or unseasoned wood.

How can I start a fire if my wood is damp?

If wood won’t light, use extra kindling and paper under the logs. Or try using a fire starter log designed to light damp wood. Store wood under cover to keep dry.

What causes creosote buildup in my chimney?

Creosote is a byproduct of wood smoke that accumulates in the flue over time. Burning wet, unseasoned wood produces more creosote. Having your chimney cleaned yearly helps remove deposits before they become excessive.

Why is my fire burning out of control?

A fire that rapidly goes through fuel has too much air. This is an unsafe condition. Reduce the air supply earlier in the fire by partially closing the damper to maintain a steady, slower burn rate.

Following proper practices for working a wood burning fireplace will help you safely enjoy cozy fires that provide your home with warmth in style. With some basic knowledge and routine care, your fireplace can be an effective heating source and beautiful design focal point for years to come.

Laura Kassovic

Laura Kassovic, a former engineer at Intel SOC, now dedicates her efforts to mentoring startups in the realms of Wearables and AI. As a co-founder of New Tech Brake, she spearheads a wireless sensing solution enterprise catering to diverse applications including product development, research, location tracking, and people monitoring, as well as asset and cargo supervision. The platform empowers developers to craft an array of innovations such as fitness trackers, temperature-monitored cargo systems, medical trial tools, smart running garments, or even straightforward transmission of unprocessed accelerometer data to cloud-based repositories.

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