How to Prepare your Fireplace for the Cold Season

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the winter of 2021 is set to be one of the longest and coldest in years. The publication, which has been issuing long-range weather forecasts for 230 years, says we can expect “positively bone-chilling, below-average temperatures across most of the United States.”

As winter officially starts today, this means the ol’ fireplace will be seeing a whole lot of use. Here’s how to make sure your fireplace and chimney are prepped and ready , whether it’s wood-burning, gas, or electric.

Traditional Wood-burning Fireplace

Chimney Prep

According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than a quarter of home heating fires are caused by failure to clean the chimney, so it’s critical to get this part serviced first and foremost.

  • Install a chimney cap or screen. These protective coverings shield the chimney from rain, snow, outside debris and downdrafts. More importantly, they reduce moisture buildup in the chimney, which can damage the dampers, liners, and even the mortar joints of the chimney over time. Finally, they also stop embers and sparks from the fireplaces from reaching the roof and potentially starting a fire.

 

  • If you have a chase cover, inspect it. Over time, it can be misaligned, causing water to pool and lower the chimney’s efficiency. This is something you don’t want in the dead of winter!

 

  • Get a chimney sweep. The National Fire Protection Association Standard 211 says that fireplaces, chimneys and vents should be inspected once a year “for soundness, freedom from deposits, and correct clearances.”

 

  • Check the smell. A bad odor during periods of high humidity is an indication of creosote buildup. The odor can be solved by commercial chimney deodorizers, baking soda, or kitty litter placed in the fireplace. However, the creosote should be cleaned to avoid the bad smell from recurring. 

 

Fireplace Inspection

  • The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends cleaning open masonry fireplaces when they reach 1/8″ of soot buildup. However, cleaning should be done sooner if any glaze is present.

 

  • For factory-built fireplaces, they should be swept as soon as any noticeable buildup occurs. This is because acidic buildup can considerably shorten the life of the fireplace if left unchecked.

 

  • If you have a triple-stage wood burning product with a catalytic combustor, check  the catalyst for obstructions, cracks, or peeling. Catalytic combustors normally last for 6-10 years, depending on frequency of usage and local conditions.

 

  • For catalytic units, also check the thermal probe or catalyst thermometer. This should be cleaned at least once annually with 220 grit sandpaper to ensure accurate readings.

 

Kindling

  • Stock up on the appropriate wood. The EPA recommends using well-seasoned firewood, ones that have been split, covered and stored for at least 6 months.

 

  • Never use other types of wood like painted or treated wood from lumber, crates and wood scraps. These can release chemicals in the air and compromise the air quality in your home.

 

  • having uncoated newspapers on hand. Do not use glossy paper or cardboard.

 

  • Use small pieces of dry wood or twig as firestarters. Never use flammable liquids to start the fire, according to the US Fire Administration.

 

  • Have extra long safety strike matches on hand. Longer is better to reduce the risk of singeing your fingers.

 

  • Clean your fireplace utensils prior to use. These include the poker, tongs, shovel and brush.

 

To know more about proper usage, check out our Guide to Using Your Wood-Burning Indoor Fireplace.

 

Gas Fireplace

In some ways, gas fireplaces require less maintenance and preparation than traditional wood-burning ones on a per-use basis. There are less worries about creosote buildup, chimney cleaning, and pollutants from wood burning. That said, gas fireplaces still require proper upkeep since any faults caused by neglect are likely to be more expensive.

 

Blower Check

See if your fireplace has a blower, which is a fan that distributes warm air into the room. Unlike furnace blowers, most gas fireplace blowers don’t have a filter to stop dust buildup. 

Accumulated dust can insulate the blower motor, making it less efficient. It can also wear out the bearings and cause premature motor failure, so make sure it’s clean.

 

Glass

The glass cover can reach over 200 degrees Fahrenheit within 6 minutes of operation. At peak temperatures, the glass front can be between 400 to 1,000 degrees F. This is far in excess of temperatures that can cause third degree burns when touched.

As such, experts recommend installing protective heat-resistant barriers to prevent accidental burns, especially in homes with young children, elderly people, or pets.

 

Batteries

Before the cold season, check the batteries for these parts:

  • Remote control
  • Transmitters or receivers
  • Smoke detectors
  • Carbon monoxide sensors

 

Service

Gas fireplaces have non-user serviceable components. It is recommended they be serviced by a qualified technician every 1-2 years. This includes cleaning the pilot and main burner airways.

For more information about gas fireplace cleaning, check out our Gas Fireplace Maintenance Guide.

 

Electric Fireplace

The fire may be fake and the design may be the least efficient, but what electric fireplaces lack in tradition and heat dispersion, they more than make up for in safety and trouble-free maintenance.

 

Freestanding

This type of electric fireplace works in the same way as an electric stove: the interior heats up via a heating element, and a blower distributes the hot air out into the room. A freestanding electric fireplace typically emits between 4,500 to 5,500 BTUs of heat.

 

  • Clear electrical hazards around the unit. This is especially true of water sources like aquariums, water dispensers, water heaters and sinks.

 

  • Check that the outlet used by the fireplace can handle the load demanded. Over time, other home appliances or electronics may be plugged into the same outlet. You don’t want to blow a fuse in the middle of winter.

 

  • Change the lightbulb regularly to maximize efficiency. Most manufacturers recommend replacing every 2-3 years.

 

Wall-mounted

These hang-type units feature variable flame intensities and can be used with or without the heater function.

 

  • Clear out the filters and vents of dust buildup.

 

  • Make sure the vents are not obstructed. Over time, household items can get in the way, such as other appliances, plants, or random objects.

 

  • Use a lint-free cloth to wipe the display and avoid scratches or swirl marks.

 

Built-in

These offer the traditional low-profile look of a wood fireplace with the safety and convenience of electric power. They usually require only a standard 2×4” framing to accommodate the firebox.

 

  • Before doing any maintenance, isolate the supply to the fireplace in the fuse box.

 

  • Wipe off the interior. Most manufacturers recommend using a damp lint-free cloth, not wet, rinsed in hot soapy water. Check your manual if liquid cleaning products may also be used.

 

  • Check the inlet and outlet to the heater for clogging or obstructions. A blocked heater can overheat, shut off, or malfunction. The inlet in particular will likely be dustier since it sucks in the air to the unit.

 

  • As with wall-mounted fireplaces, the glass in front should be cleaned only with a lint-free cloth to avoid scratching or marring the surface.

 

For in-depth tips about fireplace cleaning, check out our previous entry: How to Clean Your Fireplace.

 

Mickey Luongo

Mickey is the resident heating and air conditioning expert with over 15 years of experience in the industry.

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