January 6, 2010

With Ol' Man Winter bringing cold days and frosty nights to the state, the temptation to warm one's toes at a wood stove's blazing fire can be too much to resist. But according to the National Ag Safety Database, heating equipment is the No.1 cause of home fires. So safety precautions should be taken by those wishing to heat their homes with a wood stove.

"A wood stove is not just a simple object, but a heating system that includes the chimney," said Mark Purschwitz, University of Kentucky extension professor and agricultural safety and health specialist in the College of Agriculture. "It must be properly installed, operated and maintained to provide efficient heat and keep your house and family safe."

Wood stoves should be installed with adequate clearance from anything with the potential to catch fire such as the floor, walls, draperies, furniture and fuels. The chimney should be in the proper location, away from combustibles, and of the proper height and correct capacity for the stove. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations.

Place the stove on an approved stove board to protect floorboards or rugs from heat and sparks. At the beginning of each season, inspect the chimney connections and flues. Look for cracked flue liners and broken or missing bricks. Bird nests and other foreign materials should be removed. Creosote, highly combustible tar deposits from smoke from wet or unseasoned wood, can build up in the chimney.

"Using uncured wood, not building fires hot enough to keep creosote from building up on the chimney walls, and not keeping the chimney and flue clean are ways in which wood stove systems can be misused and abused," Purschwitz said. "This results in creosote buildup that can result in a bad chimney fire."
A periodic chimney cleaning with a stiff wire chimney cleaning brush is essential.

Firewood with a moisture content of higher than 20 percent will create a lot of smoke, increasing the potential for creosote buildup. Use firewood that has been split and stacked in the open over the whole summer. Hardwoods are preferred, as pine smoke can leave more of the sticky resin. Control creosote by maintaining a briskly burning fire from well-seasoned, dry wood with a flue temperature greater than 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

The irony behind new high-efficiency stoves is, because they push more heat into the home, the flue temperature is often not as high as with older models. This can create a better environment for creosote buildup, so such units need more frequent inspections.
Never burn anything other than wood in a wood stove or fireplace. Paper or pine boughs can float out of the chimney and have the potential to ignite the roof.

Avoid burning coal, charcoal or other fuels in an apparatus designed for wood. This is not the place to burn garbage since dyes, inks and plastics can emit airborne toxins when burned. Also, don't use fence posts or any wood that may have been treated with preservatives, as they can release dangerous chemicals as well. And don't think about getting rid of Christmas wrapping paper in a stove or fireplace. The paper may ignite suddenly, causing a flash fire. Any metallic materials in wrapping paper also could release toxins when burned.

Never use kerosene or gasoline to start a fire in a fireplace or stove, as these substances may explode and cause a serious injury.

And when the fire has burned out, dispose of the ashes safely.

"Ashes should be removed by placing them into a metal container with a lid and keeping the container on a non-combustible floor until they are cool and can be disposed of," Purschwitz said.

There are a few other simple steps to take to insure safe use of wood-burning stoves. These are not the places to dry clothing, so do not hang fabrics on or near the appliance. And warn children that the stove is extremely hot and not to be touched or played near. When leaving the house, make sure the fire is completely out.

With a few precautions and some common sense, a wood stove or fireplace can turn a chilly house into a cozy retreat for whiling away winter's blustery presence.

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