Article #6, December 1997
By Bill Cook
Every year the news media report tragic fires around the holidays. Many of these are related to wood heating systems. The Michigan State Police Fire Marshal Division reported 1,135 fires in 1996 from wood stoves, fireplaces, and chimneys. I would guess that many of these could have been prevented by simple maintenance. Donít let a fire happen to you! It is important to keep your chimney clean and the furnaces in good working order.
By now, we woodburners have been at it for a couple months. Have you looked up your chimney and furnace yet this season? All I did was open the access port near the base of the chimney, reached inside with a hand mirror, and angled the mirror up the chimney. Of course, this must be done during the daytime because youíll be looking for a rectangle of light at the top of the chimney. Creosote buildup is the hazard to look for. My chimney was fairly clear, but needed a good brushing. I got onto the roof and brushed the inside of the chimney as far as my extension rods would go. A brush is much better than rattling a chain or cable. It does less damage to the liner tiles. Back in the basement, I shoveled the debris out of the chimney. I also removed the stovepipe between the chimney and the fireplace, inspected the pipe for wear, and cleaned out the crud on the inside.
All this took me about 45 minutes and cost nothing. Of course, the brush and rods cost about 25 dollars, but they last almost forever. The ladder was a hundred bucks, but I use that for a lot of things. The point is that inspection and cleaning is an inexpensive and easy thing to do but has a big payoff. Besides, while I was on the roof, I checked the chimney exterior, shingle condition, sealed up a few gaps, inspected the fascia boards, and enjoyed an unusually good view across the landscape. Best of all, I can sleep better at night. I inspect my chimney at least twice during the winter. You might need to do this more often, depending on the wood burned and the furnace.
Once the wood is put up, make sure your home is ready. In addition to inspecting and cleaning your heating system, be sure the fire extinguishers are in proper order. Put new batteries in those smoke detectors. Make sure your family understands what the fire plan is, in case there is a fire. Remind young children that furnaces are hot and should be avoided. We keep a box of warm clothes in the garage, just in case we have to leave the house in an emergency. We also hide a spare set of keys outside, so we can get the vehicles out of the garage.
The process of heating a home with wood has a lot of satisfaction in it and can save quite a bit of money, assuming your time and pickup truck isnít accounted for. But the entire process requires an eye for safety from forest to furnace, because itís one of the riskiest set of activities we get involved in. Improper chain saw use can be deadly. Moving wood can be hard on trucks and backs. Splitting wood has its own hazards. Burning wood is great, but make sure you donít become a news report!
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
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