Safety First: Woodstoves, Chimneys, and Smoke Detectors, Oh My!

Chimney being painted surrounded by a construction frame for worker access

Safety First: Woodstoves, Chimneys, and Smoke Detectors, Oh My!

by Perrilyn Wells, HDH Safety Officer

It seems like we went from “it’s so hot out here” to “wow, it is cold out here” overnight. We are headed into woodstove weather, for sure. Before “Old Man Winter” sets in, there are a few things we need to take care of to ensure a safe and comfortable winter.

Most people consider their chimneys to be indestructible parts of their home which require little or no maintenance. Wrong! Your chimney needs maintenance to perform properly and safely, just like your vehicle.

The most serious problems resulting from poorly maintained chimneys are carbon monoxide poisoning and chimney fires.

Carbon monoxide poisoning claims approximately 4,000 lives each year in the US, and a significant number of these deaths are the result of poorly maintained chimneys. In addition, about 10,000 people are made ill by lower levels of exposure to carbon monoxide. With chimneys, fireplaces and furnaces, most carbon monoxide problems occur because of improper exhausting of fumes. Such problems are almost entirely avoidable through regular professional fireplace/woodstove and chimney inspections.

One of the reasons carbon monoxide is so deadly is that you generally can’t see or smell it — rarely do its victims have any warning. Low levels of poisoning tend to cause flu-like symptoms, so that people think they are just catching a cold. More advanced poisoning can cause vomiting and headaches and even death. Carbon monoxide is deadly because it tricks the body into thinking it is oxygen. The body actually prefers carbon monoxide, choosing it over oxygen when both are present in the atmosphere.

Chimney fires occur due to creosote build-up which can be removed by having your chimney properly cleaned and maintained. Creosote is a black or brown gummy substance that builds up on the flue. Once a sufficient amount of creosote builds up, it can catch fire. The resulting chimney fire can range from being barely noticeable to being so dramatic that it sounds like a low-flying jet!

The danger in chimney fires comes from the extremely high temperatures generated, which can severely damage the mortar in the chimney and even ignite nearby burnable surfaces. The first fire in a chimney may not even be noticed or, if noticed, may instill a false confidence in the owner (noticing they had one chimney fire and seeing no harm done, they conclude the hazard doesn’t apply to their circumstances).

As frightening and fierce as the potential fireplace and chimney hazards are, they are almost entirely preventable. The Chimney Safety Institute recommends that homeowners who light fires in their fireplaces three or more times a week during the heating season should have their chimneys inspected and cleaned once a year.

To help improve efficiency, only burn dry, cured wood — logs that have been split, stacked, and dried for eight to 12 months. Cover your log pile on top, but leave the sides open for air flow. Also remember, crates, lumber, construction scraps, painted wood, or other treated wood releases chemicals into your home, compromising your air quality.

Smoke/carbon monoxide detectors should be installed on each level of your home. Check the National Fire Protection Association website for a list of the best placement areas. Test your detectors and change those batteries twice yearly. Put this in your calendar to coincide with the days you move your clock forward and backward for Daylight Saving Time. Clocks are “Falling Back” one hour on Sunday, Nov. 5. Put batteries on your shopping list now so you will have them on hand.

Take care of your chimney so you can rest easy, be safe and stay warm this winter. •


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