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8 fireplace maintenance tips

The air is crisp; the nights are cool. What better way to complete the cozy picture than to build a roaring fire?

If you haven't given fireplace maintenance a thought since last winter, now is the perfect time to come clean.

Regular fireplace cleaning and maintenance will make the hearth a safer place for your family to gather around on a cold winter's night.

Here's how to get your hearth maintained and ready for the crackling nights ahead.

1. start fireplace maintenance by checking the chimney damper for any blockage.

Grab a flashlight and see whether anything is blocking the chimney damper. Animals sometimes take up residence in the warm confines of a chimney left idle for months. Falling leaves also tend to build up in the chimney. If you see a blockage, call to arrange a chimney cleaning. (You really can't do this one yourself.)

2. clean the fireplace of ashes, dirt, and debris.

Next, clean the firebox of ashes, dirt, and debris. This simple fireplace cleaning will remove the detritus that could prove a fire hazard. Now, you're ready to light that firewood for those cozy nights ahead.

3. burn green to reduce future fireplace maintenance.

For those who eschew the gas fireplace, composition logs are the way to go to reduce indoor air pollution. They produce up to 50 percent less smoke when burned than wood does. And if you're a purist who simply cannot fathom fall without the earthy aroma of a roaring wood fire? Well, at least learn to light it the most effective way possible.

4. light your fire to minimize everyone's smoke.

This season, avoid burning resinous woods such as pine (which leaves creosote in the flue) or evergreen boughs and large quantities of paper, which can flare up and quickly get out of control.

All firewood is not created equal. It pays to know your firewood. Here's a look at a few of the most popular types available:

  • Dry wood burns more efficiently and causes less smoke. Firewood should be dry, or seasoned, 6 to 12 months after splitting. Hardwoods, such as oak and orchard, dry slower than softwoods, such as pine and fir - some may take a year or more to dry.
  • Firewood stored outside should be on higher ground. If you store firewood outside, make sure it is a foot or more above ground, away from your home and in a sunny, well-ventilated area. Cover the top to keep out dew and rain, but leave the sides open to drying breezes.
  • Choose a cord of wood with dark colored, cracked ends. They should be light in weight, as this confirms that most of the wood's natural moisture is gone. (Hardwood will always weigh more than softwood, however.)
  • Check wood for dryness before you buy (or burn). Clap two pieces together, and you should hear a crack sound, like a baseball bat hitting a ball, not a dull thud. Thud equals wet wood - which means keep looking for the dryer variety. (Of course, anything visibly green isn't ready for burning.)

5. burn clean to reduce fireplace maintenance and hazardous smoke.

Burn only clean, seasoned wood, manufactured logs, and non-glossy white paper in your fireplace.

Garbage, plastics, rubber, painted or treated wood, particle board, plywood, coal, charcoal briquettes, and colored paper produce toxic fumes - the kind that can harm your lungs and clog your flue. Dispose of these items by recycling when possible, or placing in the trash.

6. open the chimney damper and add kindling to start your fire.

Open the chimney damper wide when you're ready to burn. Start with a small, hot fire. You can create such a fire by crumpling a few pages of newspaper, add some small pieces of softwood kindling such as pine or fir, then lighting it. Add bigger kindling a few pieces at a time as the fire grows.

7. add wood logs.

Once the fire is briskly burning, add wood logs placed close enough to keep each other hot, but with enough room for oxygen to circulate. The idea is to create a small, hot fire first, which keeps the dirty smoke to a minimum.

8. where there's smoke there's a bad fire.

Excess smoke is a good indicator that your fire wasn't lit properly or isn't burning correctly.

How can you tell if your fire wasn't properly lit?

Walk outside your home and take a look at your chimney about a half-hour after lighting a fire.

A good fire will give off only a thin wisp of white steam. If you see the dark, smoky variety, come inside and adjust your dampers or air inlets to let in more air.

Visit the Clean Organized Home Store for the fireplace maintenance tools and supplies you need to get started.

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About the Author

Tara Aronson

Tara Aronson is a native Californian. Having grown up in San Diego, she studied journalism and Spanish to pursue a career in newspaper writing. Tara, whose three children - Chris, Lyndsay, and Payne - are the light of her life, now lives and writes in Los Angeles. She also regularly appears on television news programs throughout the U.S.