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Stoke the Flames With These Fireplace Tips

wood burning fireplace

In many parts of the country, it's time to stoke up the fireplace or woodstove for a little extra heat. Here are some hearth-warming tips to keep in mind:

Heating With Wood Can Save: According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, burning one cord of wood generates the heat equivalent of  200 gallons to 250 gallons of fuel oil. Based on our most recent fuel oil bills and the cost of a cord of wood from a firewood supplier, that much fuel oil would cost about $800 to $950, versus $200 for a cord of firewood. Of course, the difference in wood-heat efficiency compared with a conventional furnace can be significant. Unless you have a woodstove or other specially designed wood-burning heating system, much of the heat from the wood in a conventional fireplace goes straight up the chimney. (See possible remedies, below.)

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How Much Wood Is in a Cord?: Firewood sold in large quantities is usually sold by the "cord," a unit of dry measurement equivalent to 128 cubic feet. From a practical point of view, this usually means a stack of firewood 4 feet high, 8 feet long, and 4 feet deep. Since firewood is commonly cut into pieces approximately 12 to 16 inches in length, the stack will usually be three or four rows deep. A "rick cord" or "face cord" is a smaller quantity of firewood, generally 4 feet high and 8 feet long but only as deep as a single row of firewood sticks, which can vary. So buying these smaller quantities can make it tricky to figure out exactly how much firewood you're getting for the price.

Not All Firewood Burns the Same: The difference in the heat-generating capacity of different types of firewood is substantial. In general, the densest woods generate the most heat (up to 30 million BTUs per cord), compared to less dense woods like pine, fir and cedar, which generate only about half that amount of heat. You can find a listing of various types of wood here and their heat-producing potential.

Storing Firewood: Firewood needs to be properly dried and stored before burning. Most firewood you purchase has already been seasoned and is ready to burn. If firewood sizzles or emits moisture when burning or is difficult to ignite, it's not yet fully dried. Ideally, stack firewood away from the house - not indoors or touching the house - to avoid possible insect and fungal infestations. Firewood should be stacked in a rack off the ground, with only the top of the stack covered to keep it dry from rain/snow; keeping the sides of the stack uncovered provides for airflow to promote drying and avoid mold and fungus growth.

DIY Fire Starter: Here's a double-duty repurposing tip. Save the lint from your clothes dryer and stuff it inside empty cardboard toilet paper tubes to use as handy fire starters. Dryer lint is highly flammable, so it really helps to kindle the flames in a hurry.

Dealing with Wood Ashes: Use extreme caution when removing ashes from a fireplace or woodstove, as embers in the ashes have the potential to start a fire many hours - or even days - after you think the fire has gone out. Place ashes in a metal container, cover with water and an airtight lid, and set outside, away from the house or anything flammable. Never attempt to remove fresh ashes with a vacuum cleaner or shop vac. Once thoroughly extinguished, wood ashes can be placed in the compost pile, sparingly scattered on the lawn (to increase soil pH levels) or used to treat icy patches on sidewalks and driveways.

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Converting a Fireplace for Greater Heat Generation: Wood-burning fireplaces in many homes are designed more for show than as a cost-effective way to supplement the home's primary heating system. According to the website, installing a fireplace insert - a sort of wood stove that fits inside your fireplace - can increase heating efficiency by 70 percent compared to an open fireplace, at a cost starting around $700 per unit. There is also a variety of other, less expensive devices that can increase your fireplace's heating efficiency, including installing glass doors to reduce heat loss and adding a blower/fan system to force more hot air into the home.

Don't Skimp on Chimney Cleaning: Even though I'm all in favor of saving money by doing things myself, it's a smart investment to have your home's chimney professionally inspected and cleaned every couple of years. Most home remedies for chimney cleaning - like starting a fire and adding rock salt or potato peels to it - are more myth than fact. A damaged chimney or a chimney fire fueled by the residue buildup inside the flue poses a serious fire hazard to your entire home .

Photo: Tim Brauhn/Flickr


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