Electric Heaters & More: A Guide to Fireplace Safety

Fireplaces are a common and often nostalgic way to heat up a home during the cold weather months. Although there are other methods of heating a home, a fireplace can change the ambiance of a room, and make a house feel more comfortable and more like a home. Unfortunately, fireplaces are also a common cause of residential fires. One of the reasons for this is that people may be unaccustomed to using and caring for either a wood or a gas fireplace. Knowledge and taking the right steps can help to reduce the number of fires, injuries and even deaths that are caused by using fireplaces.

Couple enjoying fireplace

Preventive Maintenance

Although fireplaces are primarily in use during the winter months, it is important to do preventative maintenance before the first use in order to make sure that it is in safe working condition. One of the most important preventive maintenance steps involves having the chimney inspected by professionals on a yearly basis. This will ensure that there is no potentially flammable build-up and that it is free of any wildlife or leaves. To avoid the latter, homeowners may take steps so that this does not happen, such as placing a cap on the chimney top. The cap will prevent animals, foliage and even rain from entering the chimney. It should also be checked for any cracks that require sealing and waterproofing if necessary. Even during the cold weather season, preventative measures should be continuously taken. This involves moving home furnishings so that they are no closer than two feet from the fireplace, placing a mesh screen made of metal in front of it when it is in use, and removing any type of decorations from the hearth before lighting the fire.

  • Wood Burning Fireplace Safety and Maintenance Tips: A PDF document that gives preventative maintenance tips for wood burning fireplaces. In addition, the document also gives tips on how to light the fire, as well as common sense tips and preventative measures for gas fireplaces.
  • Fire Safety tips - Fireplace Safety: An article presented by the Snohomish County Fire Dist. 17 Granite Falls Fire Department. The article gives pre-season preventative fireplace safety advice and tips on how to stay safe when the fireplace is in use.
  • Fireplace and Chimney Care: An article that discusses the care of fireplaces and chimneys. It includes information about preventative maintenance.
  • Fireplace and Home Fire Safety: A PDF that discusses residential home fires that result from improper use of fireplaces. The document includes a section on keeping fireplaces clean, which includes several preventative steps that homeowners should take before using their fireplaces.

Use Common Sense

Common sense and fireplace usage go hand in hand. Whenever a person lights or cleans a fireplace, there are certain common sense factors that he or she must use. These actions and behaviors can help prevent fires and accidents, such as burns or damage to nearby furniture. The person starting the fire, for example, should never add gasoline to get it started. Garbage, charcoal and plastic should not be put in the fire to burn. They should not let children play or go near a fire, and they must not be left unattended when the fireplace is in use. Common sense should also be used before leaving the house or going to bed. The homeowner will want to ensure that the fire has died out completely before leaving the fireplace unattended. He or she will also want to make certain that the ashes are thoroughly cooled before cleaning the fireplace.

  • University of Rochester: Fireplace Safety: A checklist provided by the University of Rochester that lists ways that people can practice safety when using their fireplace. Much of the article includes common sense safety measures, particularly in the safe operations section of the checklist.
  • Use Common Sense with Fireplaces and Wood Burning Stoves: An article from Diamond that lists seven common sense safety measures that people should use when using a fireplace.
  • City of Phoenix: Fireplace Safety: Article that gives common sense safety tips to readers regarding fireplace use. Although many of the tips are common sense, others may be ideas that the reader is unaware of. The article also reviews how fireplaces start residential fires.

Safely Starting a Fire

Fire in Fireplace

How a fire has been started plays a large part in its safety. If it is not correctly done, the method and materials could result in a dangerous situation. The fireplace must be clean and the damper open so that smoke can leave the home. A grate should be in the fireplace to hold the cut, dry wood. Before adding the wood however, the owner will want to start a fire using paper. This must not be colored newspaper or magazines. Liquid lighter and charcoal also must not be used to start a fire in the fireplace. The wood can then be set on the grate, however it should not be overly full, and the protective screen should be closed. If available, first time users should look to the manufacturer's instructions on how to properly build a fire.

  • Fireplace and Home Fire Safety: An article from the U.S. Fire Administration and FEMA that reviews fireplace safety. The article features a section that details how to safely burn fuels when starting a fire.
  • Santa Barbara County Fire Department - Fireplaces: An article that discusses the safe operation of a fireplace. This section includes how to start a fire and what should not be done. Other topics covered include fireplace dangers and maintenance.
  • Easy Tips for Starting Your Fire: Instructions on how to start a fireplace fire. The tips include dos and don'ts of starting a fire.
  • HPBA: Fireplace Safety factsheet: A PDF fact sheet from the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association that gives numerous tips on how to safely use both wood burning and gas fireplaces. This PDF features a section that specifically discusses how to safely start and light a fire in a wood burning fireplace, in addition to sections on both gas and wood fireplace maintenance and common sense.

Gas Fireplace Maintenance Tips

Like wood burning fireplaces, a gas fireplace requires maintenance on a yearly basis. This will help determine if the fireplace is operating properly, and it will detect any areas that may be a cause for concern. It should be inspected by a service person who is properly licensed to inspect gas fireplaces. Homeowners can also help to maintain their fireplaces by thoroughly cleaning them out with a vacuum cleaner. This will remove any dust or other debris that could be a problem for the fan or motor. Cleaning the glass with a manufacturer specified cleaner will keep it clear and free of any fogging or rainbow-like reflection. Checking the igniter switch when the gas is turned off will help the owner to verify that it will start-up safely when it is ready to use. Further testing of thermostats and fans will also make the owner aware of any need for repair.

Importance of Chimney Sweeping

Living room image

Chimney sweeping is an important, if not critical, part of maintaining one's fireplace. This step is a part of taking preventive care of the chimney before it is used during the cold weather season. The chimney of a fireplace can develop a buildup called creosote. This creosote is a leading cause of residential fires that are caused by using the fireplace. Not only will creosote buildup potentially result in fire, but it may also cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Chimney sweeping helps to remove soot and this buildup before it can become a problem. In addition, a certified chimney sweep can also clear away any other problems that are taking place in the chimney, such as nesting birds or obstruction due to leaves or cobwebs. Chimney sweeps also inspect the chimney for any areas that require repair.