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Burn wood safely and efficiently

September 10, 2008
By Richard Gast, Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

Here it is, mid-September. The kids are back to school, leaves are changing color, the sun is setting earlier and rising later, pumpkins are in the field, spiders are everywhere and there's a distinct nip to the late evening air. In fact, occasional evenings are cool enough to merit firing up the old woodstove.

There is nothing I know of that compares to the radiant warmth of a wood fire. The cat on your lap or the dog at your feet and a good book, the morning paper, or your favorite magazine in hand - you can't beat it. And, with the rising cost of home heating oil, more people than ever are turning to wood as a primary heating fuel.

Using your older woodstove properly will maximize the comfort and efficiency of your heating system. The same applies to buying a new woodstove.

Choose the best stove that you can afford, but don't purchase one that is too big for your home or the area that you will be heating. An oversized stove will produce too much heat and need to be dampered down, which will cause wood to smolder, increasing pollution. Hotter fires undergo more complete combustion, reducing the amount of unburned materials, many of which are carcinogenic, being emitted into the atmosphere. A smoldering fire will also increase the risk of a chimney fire.

Avoid burning unseasoned wood. Whatever wood species you are using, it will burn more efficiently if it is properly seasoned. Wood to be burned in the fall should be processed no later than early spring.

Hardwoods that have been thoroughly dried for a year or so have the best combustion efficiency and produce fewer pollutants and gases than softwoods. Firewood should be cut to approximately 16 inches in length, split, and stacked off of the ground in an open area where it is exposed to the sun and wind. Green wood will not season properly in the shade or in a woodshed.

Always use bone dry, thinly split kindling wood to start a fire. Dry kindling burns hot! And a fast, hot fire will quickly heat up the firebox and the chimney, creating a stable updraft that pulls room air into the woodstove and pushes wood smoke through the chimney. Once a good hot burn is established, larger pieces of firewood can gradually be added.

Woodstoves burn more efficiently when ash is not allowed to build up.

During the coldest winter months, a small amount of ash should be removed daily, in the morning, before the fire is rekindled. Coals that remain in the woodstove should be raked toward the air inlet, which is usually in the front of the stove, often in the loading door.

Wood should then be placed so that it lies on top of and behind the coals. To protect against falling embers, floor protection should extend at least 12 inches beyond the sides and rear of the stove, and at least 18 inches beyond the stove front.

Be sure that the ashes are disposed of properly. Carry them out of the home in a non-combustible container, like a metal bucket (preferably one with a lid). Before disposing of the ash, make sure that there are no smoldering coals hidden within. Ash is a great insulator and can keep coals hot enough to start a fire for hours, even days.

Keep your chimney hot. At temperatures below 250 degrees F, a tar-like substance, called creosote, condenses on the surfaces of stovepipes and chimney flues. When temperatures fall below 150 degrees F, the creosote deposit becomes thick and very sticky. Carbon from smoke becomes trapped by the creosote build-up. It dries and bakes inside pipes and flues forming a flaky, crusty substance that reduces draft and is extremely flammable. This is what fuels most chimney fires.

A chimney fire can be quite violent, an explosion of flame coupled with dense smoke. But, that is not always the case. It's possible to have a chimney fire and not even know it. In fact, a chimney fire can occur virtually undetected, even though it may cause extensive damage to the chimney and the adjoining structure. Even with the safest installation and all the care in the world, a chimney fire can happen. Be prepared.

Warning signs may include sucking sounds, a loud roar (it can sound like there's a train running through the house) and the shaking or rattling of stovepipes.

No wood burning system is 100 percent safe. And even a slow burning chimney fire will produce temperatures of about 2000 degrees F, hot enough to allow even a perfectly sound chimney to conduct enough heat to ignite adjoining combustible materials. The ignition temperature of new house framing is about 500 degrees F. Wood that has been repeatedly heated over a period of years will ignite at much lower temperatures. And if a chimney fire occurs once, there is a good chance that it will occur again.

So, if you've had a chimney fire, find the cause, before another, similar fire, one which could burn the house down, occurs.

Ensuring that chimneys and flues are well maintained greatly reduces the risk of fire. If you did not have your chimney cleaned and inspected at the end of the last heating season, now would be a good time to have it done. If you do the work yourself, all of the equipment that you will need can be purchased at home centers, hardware stores or through woodstove and fireplace dealers. Use a sturdy ladder, one that is appropriate for the job and wear suitable clothing and skid resistant footwear.

Better yet, call a certified professional. He or she will clean the chimney and inspect the entire fuel venting system for fire damage.

And a certified professional may be able to offer solutions to masonry problems, as well. Some even do the repairs themselves. Others will provide referrals.

Fire drills save lives. So practice fire drills and make sure that all family members know how and when to use a fire extinguisher. And always keep the fire department phone number near the phone, just in case.



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