One of the benefits of this long, cold winter is plenty of opportunities to enjoy evenings by the fireplace or wood-burning stove. Between the warmth, earthy smell of smoke, and hypnotic dance of the flames, controlled fires set a relaxing and romantic atmosphere.

But there are some very important precautions to remember when using home fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. First of all, we should never burn household garbage, cardboard, plastics, magazines, or wood that is painted, rotted, diseased, or moldy. Nor should we burn pressure-treated logs or ones made from wax and sawdust. These logs produce harmful chemicals when burned and may damage wood-burning appliances. It’s also extremely dangerous to start fires with gasoline, kerosene, or charcoal starter.

The type of wood we burn also is important to consider. Some of the hardest woods, which include ironwood, rock elm, hickory, oak, and sugar maple, are longer burning. Firewood should be split into pieces no larger than six inches in diameter and safely stacked and covered. It also needs to be stored at least six months to dry for efficient burning. Properly seasoned wood is darker, has cracks in the end grain, and sounds hollow when smacked against another piece of wood.

Keep the doors of your wood-burning appliance closed unless loading or stoking the fire. Harmful chemicals, like carbon monoxide, can be released. Every home—especially those with wood burning stoves and fireplaces—need fire extinguishers, working smoke alarms, and carbon monoxide detectors. Ashes from your wood-burning appliance must be removed regularly.

If smoke is coming out of your chimney either the wood is too wet or there is a problem with the furnace that needs to be checked immediately. Smoke consists of a mixture of gases, harmful particles, and toxic pollutants that can get into your eyes and respiratory system causing burning eyes, runny nose, illnesses such as bronchitis, and even early death. Expectant mothers, children, the elderly, and people with lung and heart disease are especially susceptible.

Although stoves and fireplaces manufactured after 1990 are 50% more efficient and result in less creosote build-up in chimneys than previous ones, new or old, wood-burning or gas, fireplaces generally are an inefficient way of heating the home, according to the EPA. The draft from the fireplace draws the warm air right up the chimney. They also cause the heater in homes with central air to work harder to maintain the temperature throughout the rest of the house.

Efficiency and dangers aside, these warnings are not to deter anyone from enjoying their fire. A healthy respect for the element and a few common sense precautions can keep everyone safe and cozy.

(Information gathered from the EPA – United States Environmental Protection Agency – Website)

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

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