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Publication date: 12/23/2011

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Fireplace safety for more than Santa's sake


That big hole in the wall called a fireplace gets a lot of use this time of year, and it's rumored that a jolly, big fellow with a long, white beard will be sliding down it this weekend. But whether you are burning wood in your fireplace or have natural gas logs, it needs to be maintained properly to ensure it is safe.

Fireplaces generally come in two styles: a masonry fireplace built entirely of bricks, blocks, stone and mortar; or a factory-built model consisting of a metal firebox and metal chimney.

Whichever type you have, having your chimney inspected and cleaned annually is the first step toward ensuring you can enjoy your fireplace safely. Bud Atchley, president of Home Care Chimney in Romeo, (586) 336-1977, www.homecarechimney.com, said many people think a "chimney sweep" is someone who just cleans the soot from the fireplace chimney, but much more is involved than that.

"A good chimney sweep needs to be certified by the Chimney Safety Institute and should start with a thorough inspection using a video scan of the inside of the chimney to determine if there are any cracks or dislodged bricks that need to be repaired before the chimney is cleaned," Atchley said.

He said the base price for a chimney inspection and cleaning is around $135, and well worth it when you consider the potential safety hazards if your chimney has a crack or void inside that can cause smoke or carbon monoxide to seep into an upstairs bedroom. In some instances, the problems can be far worse.

"I did a fire investigation where a brick was dislodged inside the chimney and the heat from the fireplace ignited the wood surrounding the chimney and burned down half the house," Atchley said.

If you have a wood-burning fireplace and want to convert it to gas, a couple of options are available these days. According to Patrick Raleigh of Emmett's Energy, (586) 752-2075, www.emmettsenergy.com, the most common system is vented gas logs, with which you continue to open the fireplace damper when you turn on the gas logs just like you would with a wood-burning fire.

"The downside to vented gas logs is that you are losing heat from the fire up the chimney rather than having it stay in the home" Raleigh said. "It also causes your furnace to turn on more when you are using the fireplace because of the heat loss."

He said the other type of system, vent-free gas logs, doesn't need the fire to be vented and, as a result, the heat generated by the fire warms the room. Vent-free gas logs don't have as big a flame as vented logs, however, so they might not be as aesthetically pleasing.

He also said logs are available that can be used with both a vented or vent-free system, so you can open a damper when you want the heat to go up the chimney, or close it if you want warmth.

If you have a gas-log system, you need to maintain it just like you do the chimney. Dan Turowski of Aladdin Heating and Cooling, (586) 758-5900, www.aladdinheating.com, offers a nine-point gas fireplace tune-up for $99 that includes cleaning the logs, burner, pilot on both types of gas systems and cleaning the oxygen sensor on vent-free logs. He also said that when doing these tune-ups, he sometimes sees homes with gas-log sets without a pilot safety valve, which is not up to code in Michigan.

"We still see some homes where people have to light their gas logs with a match just like they do with a barbecue grill," Turowski said. "That is extremely dangerous, and fortunately we can retro-fit these log systems to include a pilot safety valve."

Help Santa avoid getting soot all over his red suit next year, and safely enjoy your fireplace this winter by having it inspected, cleaned and maintained. And if you're tired of hauling wood in from the garage, consider converting to gas logs. Then sit back with a hot cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy the fireplace.

If you would like to suggest a question for this column, email askglenn@masterhandyman.com. If you want to talk to Glenn Haege personally, call his “Handyman Show” on WJR-AM (760) at (866) ASK GLENN, (866) 275-4536 between noon and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The HANDYMAN SHOW can be heard on more than 130 radio stations nationwide.

Note: This article was accurate at the date of publication. However, information contained in it may have changed. If you plan to use the information contained herein for any purpose, verification of its continued accuracy is your responsibility.

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