This year my family has used the fireplace more than we can remember. Weíve had nights where weíve roasted hot dogs and marshmallows. When it was really cold, we fought over who got to sit closest to the fire.
Living in Austin, Texas, where a fire in the fireplace is a novelty, we might not be fireplace-ready when the next cold snap hits or we might not feel confident around fires. The same can be true in many areas of the country, cold or not.
Today we offer this guide on lighting and maintaining a fire safely as well as the fireplace options available.
Q: What kind of fireplace do I have?
A: Some homes come with a wood-burning fireplace with a gas starter. That is not the same as a gas fireplace.
A true gas fireplace will not use any wood. It will have a gas pan on the ground of the firebox (where you traditionally build a fire). The pan is where the gas flames will flow from. Gas fireplaces come in propane or natural gas.
You also could just have a true wood-burning fireplace with no gas starter, nothing but a grate in the middle of the fireplace.
Q: I have no fireplace. What are my options?
A: You can add one, but thatís expensive. Youíre basically remodeling a side of your house by adding a fireplace and chimney, which are complicated structures including the hearth, firebox, damper, flue, chimney and chimney cap.
You can add a gas fireplace and vent it out the back of the wall without needing a full chimney.
You also could add an electric fireplace. Before you turn up your nose, know that many condo owners in high rises are going to this. It gives off a little heat and can look ultra modern or more traditional. You can hang it on the wall or build it into the wall. They range in price from $250 to $800.
Q: Gas fireplaces are ugly and expensive, right?
A: Dorothy Duhon, co-owner of Churchillís Fireside and Patio in Austin, says if you havenít looked at gas fireplaces with gas logs lately, you should look again. ďThe old logs looked like a big mound of cow poop,Ē she says. Now, she says, good, well-installed gas logs will take a few minutes for people to realize they are gas and not real.
Many gas fireplaces donít have logs at all. Some are being created with flames that surround stones, faux cannonballs or pieces of glass.
How big of a set you need depends on the size of your fireplace. The set will include the logs, the gas pan and the starter. A propane set will be more expensive because of the need to have a safety pilot. Sets run anywhere from $250 to $2,500. And if you want a remote to start and stop a fire with the press of a button, itís about a $400-$500 add-on.
If youíre thinking of a gas fireplace and you donít have natural gas or a propane tank, you can add a propane tank, but check with your homeowners association before adding a tank.
Q: What are the advantages of gas vs. wood?
A: A gas fireplace can be started and stopped at any point. With a wood fireplace, you have to wait until the fire is out to be able to go to bed or leave the house.
Gas fireplaces also are preferred for people with allergies or who donít want the work of loading logs into the fireplace, sweeping out the ashes or bending down to light the fire.
What you give up is the smell and sound of a real fireplace and the ritual of creating a fire. There are incenses you can burn in a gas fireplace to add that wood smell and things you can add to get the crackling noise.
Often itís a personal preference or living with what your home already has.
Q: My fireplace is ugly. What can I do?
A: Many new homes are built with black metal fireplace boxes as the base. It used to be that you would have to rebuild your fireplace if you wanted to change how it looks. Now, there are magnetic fireplace covers that attach to the black metal frame. They sell for about $1,000, but itís cheaper than a new fireplace. Changing the mantel also changes the look.
What wood should I use in my wood-burning fireplace? A hardwood is what you want to choose, says Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Palmer Buck. Soft woods like cedar and pine can get out of control quickly and donít burn as efficiently. And if you have that Christmas tree hanging around, donít put it in the fireplace. Its sap content makes it not ready for burning.
Choose wood thatís seasoned ó itís been cut at least six months ago and the water content is diminished. New wood also puts off less heat and more creosote deposits in the chimney. Seasoned wood will have darkened ends with splits or cracks. It will make a clunk sound when two pieces are tapped together.
Q: Can I use a fireplace log like a Duraflame?
A: Yes, but only one at a time. Multiple fire logs burn too hot and they break down as they burn, sometimes leaving the grate. Youíll also need to clean your chimney more regularly if you use fire logs rather than wood.
How often should I clean my fireplace? You probably have heard you should clean it every year, but thatís not necessary, says Charles Fisk of Area Wide Chimney Sweep. You want to do it every 50 fires or every cord of wood for a wood-burning fireplace. A chimney sweep removes the creosote that clings to the chimney and inspects it to make sure there hasnít been a chimney fire and that there are no cracks or animals taking up residence. Most fireplaces last about 20 to 30 years before cracks start to appear. Shifts in the foundation also might add to cracking.
A gas-burning fireplace should be cleaned every five to 10 years. There are sprays to squirt on the logs to remove the soot and keep them looking good in the meantime. Embers also will need to be replaced every three to four years because of the soot.
Q: How should I start a fire?
A: First, pull on the damper to open up the flue. If smoke goes out instead of up, youíll remember you forgot this important step. If you have a gas starter or gas logs, first light a long match or a long lighter, then slowly turn on the gas. Donít turn on the gas first because it will fill the room and create a large fire ball when lighted.
Never use a liquid accelerant, gasoline or charcoal in the fireplace. Instead use fire starters. A couple of household items also can do the trick. Roll dryer lint into little balls or coat cotton balls with Vaseline. You also can open up a snack pack of Doritos or Fritos and sprinkle those chips between the wood. The oil content is highly flammable.
Donít use newspaper, other kinds of paper or garbage. It can break up and fly away easily.
Q: How can I be safe with fire?
A: Make sure you leave 2 feet of space around the fireplace and use the screen whenever there is a fire going. Donít store wood or anything flammable next to it. Keep the damper open even after the fire has ended until you no longer feel heat from the fireplace. Even in a gas fireplace, the damper should be open.
In a wood-burning fireplace, you can keep some of the ashes beneath the grate to protect the floor of the fireplace, but you donít want the ashes overflowing. After a fire, put used ashes in a metal bucket, wet them with water and store them away from the house for at least three days before putting them in a garbage bag.
Always watch a fire and make sure that kids and pets stay away. You might want to add a portable screen around the fireplace to add a layer of protection between kids and pets and the fire.
Make sure you have a phone nearby to call the fire department and a fire extinguisher if the fire gets out of control. Starting the fire and adding a log are the two most dangerous times in fires, so make sure you are extra careful. And, of course, you should have working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors.