The air is crisp; the nights are cold. What better way to complete the cozy picture than a roaring fire in the hearth?
If you haven't given your fireplace a thought - or a cleaning - since last winter, now is the perfect time to come clean.
Professional chimney inspection and cleaning each year is generally recommended to keep soot and creosote from building up and leading to a dangerous chimney fire.
While you'll want to leave chimney cleaning to the pros, you can undertake some minor fireplace maintenance tasks yourself.
Start by opening the damper.
Grab a flashlight and see if anything appears to be lodged inside, blocking the chimney.
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 professional cleaning.
Clean the firebox of any ashes, dirt, or debris that might have accumulated during months of nonuse.
The goal is to remove any detritus that could become a fire hazard in the months ahead.
The dirtiest byproduct of fireplaces, however, is the polluted air a roaring fire can create in your home.
That warm fire crackling in the hearth can create smoke with such scary air pollutants as carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds.
These toxins can adversely affect anyone in your home with a breathing problem, especially children, anyone with asthma, and senior citizens.
What's the best way to keep the air cleaner and healthier in your home? Start by rethinking your hearth habits.
They produce up to 50 percent less smoke and pollutants than wood. And if you're a purist who cannot fathom fall without the earthy aroma of a roaring wood fire? Well, at least learn to light it the most effective way possible to minimize everyone's smoke exposure.
There are several easy ways to minimize wood smoke. Start by choosing the right kind of wood.
Dry wood burns more efficiently and causes less smoke. Firewood should be dry or seasoned, six to 12 months after splitting.
Avoid burning resinous woods such as a pine (which leaves creosote in the flue) as well as evergreen boughs and large quantities of paper, which can flare up and quickly get out of control.
To speed the drying time of logs, split big logs and stack firewood crosswise to allow the air to circulate freely.
Store firewood a foot or more above ground, away from buildings and in a sunny, well-ventilated area. Cover the top to keep dew and rain off the wood, but leave the sides open to breezes.
When buying firewood, look for cords with dark-colored, cracked ends. They should be light in weight, which means most of the wood's natural moisture is gone. (Hardwood will always weigh more than softwood, however.)
To make sure the wood is dry, clap two pieces together. You should hear a crack sound, like a bat hitting a ball, not a dull thud, which means the wood is wet. Anything visibly green isn't ready for burning.
Make sure you don't burn anything other than clean, seasoned wood, manufactured logs, and non-glossy white paper in your fireplace.
Garbage, plastics, rubber, painted or treated wood, particleboard, plywood, coal, charcoal briquets, and colored paper produce toxic gases that can harm your lungs and clog the fireplace flue.
Send them out for recycling or garbage collection instead.
When you're ready to burn, open the damper wide and start a small fire.
Crumple a few sheets of newspaper and some small pieces of softwood kindling, such as pine or fir, then light.
Add bigger kindling a few pieces at a time as the fire grows.
Once the fire is burning briskly, add two or three hardwood logs, such as oak, placed close enough together to keep each other hot, but with enough room for oxygen to circulate.
The idea is to create a small fire first, which keeps the dirty smoke to a minimum.
So, how do you know if you're burning clean?
Where there's smoke, there's a bad fire. Excess smoke is a good sign that your fire wasn't lit properly or isn't burning correctly.
Get in the habit of walking outside your home and glancing up 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 smoke, adjust your dampers or air inlets to let in more air. The darker the smoke, the more pollutants it contains, and the more fuel is wasted.
Now, you can settle back, relax, and enjoy your clean, safely burning fireplace.