MOUNT VERNON — With cold winter weather now starting to set in for the season, we are finding ourselves turning on the various sources of heat for comfort. While a fireplace, wood-burning stove or space heater can provide us with some much sought-after comfort, these amenities can also be dangerous and lead to considerable loss if we don’t exercise a bit of necessary caution.
Whatever source of heat we may choose, if the heating equipment is not maintained and not attended to properly, they will not operate correctly and become an extreme risk for fires and extensive damage, area fire chiefs said.
Mount Vernon Fire Chief Chris Menapace said his department responds to about a dozen fires each year which are the result of woodburner or fireplace issues.
“One of the biggest problems we see with fireplaces and woodburning stoves is general maintenance of the chimney itself,” said Menapace. “People are not cleaning them out.” He advised homeowners to make sure they clean out chimneys, fireplaces and stove pipes twice every year, including once during the winter heating season.
Menapace hires a professional to clean his chimney each year to assure it is done properly. If you are cleaning your chimneys yourself, he advises to make sure you have the proper equipment and have had adequate instruction in order to fully complete the job.
“Another problem is creosote buildup when people are not burning seasoned, dried wood,” said Menapace. “If you cut a tree down in August, you should not be burning it that fall. You need to work a year ahead of time and let that stuff dry out,” he said.
Having a fireplace or stove in one’s house can always be a danger if every little detail is not followed to assure safety, according to Central Ohio Joint Fire District Chief Joe Porter.
“One problem with wood-burning stoves is the way they are installed,” said Porter. “Whenever you have a pipe going from a stove which is about three or four feet from a wall, this is more time for gases to cool off, and the carbons and creosote stick to the inside of the stove pipe. And it just builds up from there.
“Also avoid the 90-degree turns,” said Porter, suggesting that a more direct route in the pipe to any wall is beneficial.
While it may seem like a good idea, economically, to select a high-efficiency model when utilizing a wood burner, Porter said that these can create problems because “they actually burn longer because the air is restricted to them a bit; and that can produce more gases and carbons which can build up heavier on the inside of your chimney.”
Even though many wood-burning stoves are made to heat one room in a house, “There are wood burners that are designed to heat whole houses,” said Porter. These are often in the form of a small, shack-like heater located outside the house, and are the best option that Porter recommends as far as safety.
The same idea applies to fireplaces. Many homes built years ago may have multiple fireplaces which were designed to heat individual rooms, explained Porter. In homes that have just one fireplace, trying to heat the whole house from a fire in this fireplace will only create too much heat and become a high risk of starting a fire in the house.
Creating a hot fire in a fireplace is an even bigger risk in many new homes as compared to older homes. The chimneys in newer homes often have a chimney box that can be made out of either plywood or OSB with siding on the outside. Chimneys in many older homes were made solely of masonry material, making them much less flammable than the newer chimney boxes.
Utica Fire Chief Dan Helphrey shared some other concerns pertaining to winter heating fire hazards. “Portable electric heaters are often a source for starting fires,” said Helphrey. Problems he has witnessed with these heaters are circuits being overloaded; too many items being plugged into an outlet or power strip; electric cords being run underneath rugs; and clothes or other items being thrown on top of the units.
“As long as you use these according to the manufacturer’s suggestions, you should be OK,” said Helphrey. He advised people who use portable electric heaters to make sure they don’t tip over and also take precautions to keep them out in the open away from tight, closed spaces and away from other objects.
This concept of keeping them in an open space is also very important when using a kerosene heater for heat. Helphrey urged users of these to make sure they are using kerosene and not gasoline for fuel; and to see that they also do not tip over.