THE MASONRY MONTHLY
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The Safest Ways to Ignite a Fire
Keep Your Home and Family Safe With These Important Tips
Fireplace safety is paramount. Whether you use your home’s fireplace for warmth or for the timeless aesthetic, it’s critical to keep several things in mind before you light that fire. There are two basic types of fireplaces: wood and gas. Wood-burning fireplaces often come paired with a gas lighter attachment called a log-lighter bar. This simple device makes lighting a wood fire relatively simple. But if your wood-burning fireplace doesn’t have a log-lighter bar, you may have to play Boy Scout for a moment. Ignite a small base fire with tinder or newspaper and get it going before adding the wood. When it comes to igniting the log-lighter bar, many people want to turn on the gas first and then strike a match or ignite a lighter. Take it from someone who’s lost his eyebrows a time or two: This is not the safest method of lighting a lighter bar. Instead, ignite a crumpled piece of newspaper and place it under the lighter bar. Then proceed to turn on the gas. This allows the gas to ignite instantly without the danger of it building up in the fireplace. Gas fireplaces are another beast entirely. They can be a little more complicated, depending on the mechanism. You often have to be more cautious and diligent. It’s very important to have the lighter lit before you turn on the gas. If you can’t turn on the gas and light the fire simultaneously, it’s best to have assistance in the form of a family member or friend. Another element to be aware of is the damper. This is a plate inside the fireplace that prevents cold outside air from coming into the home. It should only be in the closed position when the fireplace is not in use. However, with wood-burning fireplaces, there are laws that state the damper must be in the fully-open position at all times. Of course, if the damper is closed and you try to start a fire in a wood- burning fireplace, you’re going to know it. It will only take a moment for the room to fill with smoke. Conversely, if you accidentally leave the damper closed with a gas fireplace, the danger is magnified. You may not notice a buildup of gas within the home until you fall ill — or worse.
This generally isn’t an issue in newer homes with gas fireplaces. Under California law, the damper in gas fireplaces must either be locked in the open position or completely dismantled. While the idea behind dampers (keeping cold air out and warm air in) is a good idea, the dangers are too great to ignore. Smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning are serious concerns that come with equally serious consequences. Before you light a fire, something else to keep in mind is the draft. With a wood-burning fireplace, you’ll be quickly alerted if your fireplace system is having drafting issues. It’s not uncommon that you’ll need to get things warmed up before a fire will take. It’s a lot like choking an old automobile. You have to get the system warm before it will start. In the case of the fire, you need to get things warmed up so it will draft properly. If you have a gas log-lighter bar, ignite it along with tinder or kindling. Let it warm up for about 10–15 minutes, then add your wood. If you don’t have a log-lighter bar, make a small fire with tinder or newspaper. Add a little kindling to get things moving. The way you set up your fire can make a difference, as well. That is, set it up toward the back of the fireplace — as close to the back wall as possible. Not only will this help warm up the flue system more effectively, it’s also safer. And don’t forget to have a screen in front of your fireplace. Sparks and embers have a tendency to pop out. On top of that, the fireplace can draw air from inside the room, creating a subtle draft. Dresses and other loose clothing can be pulled in with the draft, bringing them dangerously close to the flames. The screen also keeps curious children — and adults — from getting too close to the mesmerizing, flickering light. Finally, the No.1 best way to stay safe when lighting a fire is to make sure your fireplace and chimney have been inspected and cleaned. Chimney fires are notoriously dangerous and can be caused by creosote buildup in the flue system. People have lost their homes because of this. You want to have peace of mind that all of the fireplace components are in good shape, keeping your home warm and looking sharp.
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