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Burn wood safely and efficiently this winter

September 9, 2009

Hard to believe that it's mid-September already. We are back to school, the sun is setting earlier and rising later, leaves are changing color, pumpkins are in the field, spiders are everywhere, anglers are praying for rain and there's a nip to the late evening air.

The occasional evening and/or morning has even been cool enough to merit firing up the old

woodstove or sparking a quick, crackling fire in the fireplace.

There is nothing I know of that compares to the radiant warmth of a wood fire. The cat on your lap or the dog at your feet and a good book, the morning paper, or your favorite magazine in hand; you can't beat it.

And, with the cost of home heating oil on the rise again, more people than ever are turning to wood as a primary heating fuel. At the same time, an increasing number of homeowners are installing wood stoves as a secondary heating system in living rooms, dens and family rooms.

Choosing the correct wood stove or furnace and using it properly will maximize the comfort, efficiency and safety of your heating system. Still, when you burn wood, the combustion process is rarely, if ever, complete.

At temperatures below 250 degrees, a tar-like substance called

creosote, condenses on the surfaces of stovepipes and chimney flues. When temperatures fall below 150 degrees, the creosote deposit becomes thick and very sticky.

Creosote build up on the interior surface of a chimney can result in the reduction of draft.

Problems are most often due to a combination of low draft and cold chimney walls. Carbon from smoke becomes trapped by the creosote build-up. It dries and bakes inside pipes and flues forming a flaky, crusty substance that is extremely flammable. It is the formation of this combination of by-products that can fuel a chimney fire.

This becomes even more dangerous if the chimney is in poor condition. A properly operating, well-maintained chimney carries smoke, which contains all of the undesirable products of combustion, out of the home. It also supplies the draft necessary to feed air to the fire.

By contrast, a defective chimney can cause fires or carbon monoxide poisoning. A neglected chimney may even collapse. Unfortunately, chimneys are all too

often neglected by homeowners, even though the threat of chimney fires is real and clearly should not be ignored.

Most people think of a chimney fire as violent. They picture an explosion of flame coupled with dense smoke. Often, that is not the case. It's possible to have a chimney fire and not even know it. A slow-burning chimney fire can occur virtually undetected, even though it may cause extensive damage to the chimney and the adjoining structure. A chimney

fire produces temperatures of about 2,000 degrees. The ignition temperature of new house framing is about 500 degrees. Wood that has been repeatedly heated over a period of years will ignite at much lower temperatures.

No wood burning system is 100 percent safe. Even with the safest installation and all the care in the world, a chimney fire can happen. Be prepared. Warning signs include sucking sounds, a loud roar (it can sound like there's a train running through the house) and the shaking or rattling of stovepipes.

If a chimney fire occurs once, chances are it will occur again. So, if you've had a chimney fire, find the cause. Should another, similar fire occur, it could burn the house down. Keep in mind that even a perfectly sound chimney can conduct enough heat to ignite adjoining combustible materials.

When cleaning out your woodstove, fireplace or wood furnace, be sure that the ashes are disposed of properly.

Carry the ashes out of the home in a non-combustible container, such as a metal bucket (preferably one with a lid) and be sure that there are no smoldering coals before you put the ash into the trash. Ash is a great insulator and can keep a coal hot enough to start a fire for hours, even days.

To protect against falling embers, floor protection should extend at least 12 inches beyond the sides and rear of the stove, and at least 18 inches beyond the stove front.

Fire drills save lives. Practice fire drills and make sure that all family members know how and when to use a fire extinguisher. Always keep the fire department phone number near the phone, just in case.

Ensuring that chimneys and flues are well maintained greatly reduces the risk of fire. If you did not have your chimney cleaned and inspected at the end of the heating season, now would be a good time to have it done.

If you do the work yourself, all of the equipment that you will need can be purchased at home centers, hardware stores or through woodstove and fireplace dealers. Use a sturdy ladder, one that is appropriate for the job and wear suitable clothing and skid resistant footwear.

Better yet, call a certified professional. He or she will clean the

chimney and inspect the entire fuel venting system for fire damage. And a certified professional may be able to offer solutions to masonry problems, as well. Some even do the repairs themselves. Others will provide referrals.



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