Fireplaces are lovely in the winter, but they’re also the second-most dangerous home heating option, right behind space heaters. According to a report by the Fire Protection Association, fireplaces cause 38% of home heating fires altogether, and 6% of home heating-related deaths.
However, most of these fires are avoidable. Fireplaces have been around for thousands of years, and we’ve had time to figure out how to use them safely. This article looks into how to stay safe without giving up your regular enjoyment of the fireplace.
What the Stats Tell Us
According to the study, fireplaces are likely to cause fires, but unlikely to cause bodily harm. One explanation for why this happens is that fireplaces, unlike space heaters, attract the eye. If you see a fire start, you are much more likely to get to safety. This leads us to tip #1: don’t leave a fire unattended. This is true even for gas fires; if you have to leave the room, put out the fire. This tip, more than any other, can save your life.
Digging deeper into the stats, we can see that an overwhelming majority of fireplace-related house fires, 94% occur in solid-fuel (wood, coal, coke) units. Only 3% are caused by gas units, 2% by electric, and less than 0.2% by alcohol-fueled units. These stats are undoubtedly a little skewed, since solid-fuel fireplaces are still the most popular variety, but even with this skew, it appears that solid-fuel units are the most dangerous. This leads us to tip #2: upgrade to gas or alcohol, or be very vigilant with your solid-fuel unit.
What the Science Tells Us
It also makes scientific sense that solid-fuel fireplaces are the most dangerous, because of how they burn. Unlike gas and liquid, which both burn almost perfectly cleanly into water, CO2, and carbon monoxide, wood does not burn completely.
In addition to ash, wood creates a liquid tar called creosote. This tar evaporates in heat and coats the edges of your fireplace, which can ignite at high temperatures. With enough creosote, the heat builds in your chimney, eventually flashing the tar and starting a fire in your walls. Our tip #4 is therefore: clean your chimney frequently.
Without creosote, how do gas and alcohol fireplaces cause fires? The gas and alcohol burns completely, meaning that nothing in the fuel is starting the fire. The fire must therefore be started in objects placed near the fireplace, or against a constricted chimney. This takes us to our tip #5: place all objects at least three feet away from a fireplace at all times.
These are the basics of fireplace safety. Remember to also watch out for non-house-fire hazards, like keeping pets away from the fire, and installing and maintaining carbon monoxide detectors. For specific tips for each fireplace unit, read all manufacturer-provided materials.