Wood Burning Stove Safety

With the increasing natural gas and fuel oil heating costs, many homeowners are turning to wood burning stoves to keep their home warm. Beware, that while you are saving money, you may increase your risk of a home fire.

Fireplaces and wood burning stoves are auxiliary home heating devices that demand care and attention in their purchase, installation, and maintenance. Following these precautions can reduce the possibility of a fire or injury related to their use. Be sure to follow the manufacturers’ directions and the local building codes for proper installation, use, and maintenance of wood burning stoves.

All wood burning stoves and fireplaces should be cleaned and inspected before the heating season begins and frequently through out the heating season. Make sure the door latch closes properly. Furnaces and water heaters, which have flue pipes, attached to the chimney of a fireplace or wood burning stove should have tight fitting joints and seems. Fireplaces should be equipped with a tight fitting spark screen or enclosed with glass doors to stop sparks from landing on carpet or other nearby combustibles.  Special retaining screens can also keep children and pets at a safe distance from the fire and so reduce the possibility of accidental burns.

The following ten safety suggestions may help reduce possible dangers:

  1. Burn dry seasoned wood, which produces more heat and also prevents soot (creosote) buildup. Flue vents should be inspected according to manufacturer guidelines, and cleaned as appropriate by a qualified individual.
  2. Keep the area around the heating unit and flue clear. 
  3. Keep a fire extinguisher in a central location known to all household members. Be certain that it is in good working order and that everyone knows how to operate it.
  4. Place smoke detectors throughout the house (at least one in the room containing the wood stove) and test regularly.
  5. Children MUST be supervised AT ALL TIMES when using wood stoves.
  6. Other household venting appliances (down draft exhaust fans) can diminish proper venting of your wood stove, causing possible smoke damage. During appliance installation, test all other appliances (bathroom fans, stovetop venting, HVAC units, etc.) to ensure that they don’t interfere with proper stove venting.
  7. Wood stoves should be safety tested and bear a label from a recognized authority such as a testing lab (UL) or building code group (NFPA).
  8. To start a fire in your wood stove; crumple up paper on the stove floor and cover with small kindling. Open the draft/damper FULLY and light. Hold the door slightly ajar for a few minutes and then close tightly. Once the wood is burning brightly, add additional dry seasoned wood to the fire. Use the draft control to adjust the burn rate. NEVER light or rekindle a fire with kerosene, gasoline, or charcoal lighter fluid.
  9. When re-fueling, open the door slowly to prevent smoke spillage.
  10. Store ashes in a non-combustible metal container with a tightly fitted lid. Place the closed container on a non-combustible floor, well away from combustible materials. If ashes are to be buried or otherwise locally dispersed, store in a sealed container until all cinders have cooled.

Chimney cleaning is a fact of life for the wood burner.  If you burn wood, the formation of some creosote is unavoidable.  Your chimney should be cleaned when creosote at any time reaches 1/4 inch.  The only way to tell when this point is reached is to inspect your chimney.  How often you should conduct an inspection varies according to many factors.  To begin, make your inspections fairly often.  After a time, experience will tell you how often your flue needs to be inspected and cleaned.  If you want to become your own chimney sweep, start with the correct tools.  Makeshift equipment may damage your chimney.  For those who are not inclined to perform the inspection and cleaning chore themselves, professional chimney sweeps are available in most areas.  Next to proper installation, proper cleaning is the most important wood stove fire safety rule.

A chimney fire can be a frightening and dangerous experience.  A chimney fire may produce loud crackling, rumbling or roaring noises and a red-hot stove pipe.  These fires can spread to the building itself, causing serious loss and endangering the lives of you family.

Chimney fires are caused when creosote, a normal by-product of burning wood, collects on the inside of the chimney and is ignited.  The causes of creosote buildup are flue temperature below 250 degrees allows creosote to condense, slow burning, smoldering fires cause creosote buildup, and burning unseasoned soft wood causes creosote accumulation.

Help limit the amount of creosote buildup by burning only dry, seasoned wood, avoid slow burning smoky fires and have your chimney inspected and if necessary, cleaned periodically.

If you do have a chimney fire, in spite of you precautions immediately call 911 and get everyone out of the house. Close the stove door, draft opening and damper to cut off air to the fire. Never throw water on a hot stove.

For the greatest measure of safety for yourself and your family, you should install one or more approved smoke detectors each family should also practice a fire escape plan with two ways out of every room in the house.