Fire safety expert shares cautionary advice for those using log and coal fires this winter

This winter, many of us are turning to our log and coal fires as we try to save money on energy bills as the cost of living rises.

However, despite these being a great way to keep warm as temperatures get lower, many risks come with having an open fire in the home. From chimney fires to excess smoke in our homes, we must know how to minimise risk and ensure we’re doing everything possible to prevent disaster from striking.

Here at Log Delivery, managing director and chimney expert Barney Dorman teamed up with Angela White, Managing Director of A W Fire Ltd., to share professional advice on safely using log and coal fires this season.

The experts put together the following list of top tips:

1. Sweep your chimney or flue once per year.

“Unknown to many, your house insurance requires you to do so and not doing so can invalidate your house insurance. Always use a professional chimney sweep: we recommend the National Association of Chimney Sweeps, search NACS online to find your local chimney sweep”, Barney explains.

“Have this done before using the fire; obstacles such as birds’ nests in flues can be hazardous. You must hire a chimney sweeper more frequently if you are burning coal.

Should you have a spark arrestor, this must be regularly cleaned and maintained, as blocked spark arrestors can cause carbon monoxide to leak into adjoining rooms. Mesh-top bird cages on the top of the stack or pot prevent nesting and accumulation of combustible materials”, Angela continues.

2. Always make sure you have a CO detector.

“These will go off if there is too much CO in the air, but there shouldn’t be any! Most have batteries that last for 3-5 years. It’s for peace of mind but also the law. 

All HETAS installers are required by law to have one supplied with their installations as part of section J of building regulations. If your installation is old or original to the house, it is still advisable to have one in the room. Also, read the instructions on where to place it in the room”, explains Barney.

3. When lighting your fire, remember the first job is to warm the flue.

“Do this by using kindling and wood wool natural firelighters. This combination creates heat which will, in turn, warm the flue and stop smoke from coming back into the room. However, cold air is heavy; if the flue is cold and you light your fire without creating heat, the cold air can push the smoke back into the room. So to fix it, have a 3-minute kindling fire first. If using a wood-burning stove, leave the door slightly ajar to allow more air to the fire. If using an open fire, remember to use more kindling. 

If you have a chimney that is external to your house, these can be very hard to warm, so use a decent amount of kindling and firelighters if you have not made a fire for a few days. Avoid using newspaper and twigs, as this doesn’t create enough heat for long enough. 

If your flue is still warm from the previous day, or you have a chimney between you and your neighbour, for example, a terrace house, then these flues will be easier to light and require less kindling”, says Barney.

4. Use a fireguard and get heatproof gloves.

“Open fires can spit, so you need a fireguard that sits in front of the fire, covering the opening. In addition, you will need heatproof gloves to move it with more fuel each time you load the fire. Wood-burning stoves are also very hot; you can not touch them or their handles without gloves”, explains Barney.

5. Only buy stoves from reputable manufacturers and have them fitted by reputable installers.

“This includes those accredited by industry organisations like HETAS”, says Angela.

6. If you have a log burner, buy a stove thermometer.

“These will help indicate the ideal flue gas temperature. We sell them on our website here. They are magnetic and attach to the flue pipe above the wood burner. Burning temperatures of up to 300 degrees centigrade are optimum. Over this temperature, you will be causing excessive heat, which can crack the appliance. 

Instead, use the air vents on the stove to reduce the inflow of air as required. Ensure you read your stove installation manual about how to use the air vents. All stoves work similarly, so once mastered, you will avoid doing this”, explains Barney.

7. You should line your chimney, and flues should be collared.

“Doing so prevents excessive heat from escaping through the chimney, which can lead to fires”, Angela says.

8. If you have a stove, never be tempted to use it with the door open.

“Stoves are not designed for this. If unsure, read the manual. They are called closed-door appliances and are designed for use with closed doors. If the door is open, they can become too hot and inefficient”, says Barney.

9. Burn hardwoods rather than softwoods & avoid treated timber.

“Softwood will burn quickly and create a lot of smoke. Don’t burn treated timber such as fence panels in your home”, explains Angela.

“If you burn pine or soft woods, the sap in the wood can also cause a build-up of tar and soot. Don’t burn old fence posts or scrap wood found in skips. You should never burn anything with paint on or varnish. They produce lots of soot and will damage your chimney. 

If you have a wood burning stove, burning scrap wood will invalidate your warranty as the excessive temperatures created from burning paint or varnish will warp the stove's shape or potentially crack it”, continues Barney.

Chimney fires

One of the most common dangers related to open fireplaces is chimney fires. Chimney fires are hazardous and can quickly spread to the rest of the home resulting in a devastating loss.

“Chimney flues provide easy routes for fire and smoke to spread and may allow a fire to smoulder unnoticed for hours before breaking out some distance from the actual point of origin”, explains Angela.

“Also, some older buildings have ceiling or roof timbers built directly into or against a chimney breast – these can act as a ledge where combustible materials can lodge and catch fire.”

“Chimney fires can be difficult to fire-fight because of restricted access and may require a part of the chimney to be dismantled to extinguish.”

The cost of living crisis and wood-burning stoves

Although chimney fires are rare, with more households using their open fire for warmth, there is a more significant threat and an increased need for fire safety.

“Due to the cost of living crisis we have seen an increase of people purchasing wood-burning stoves as an alternative to using classic radiators to heat their homes,” says Barney.

“It is now cheaper to heat your home by burning wood. Wood-burning stoves are incredibly dependable, and 90% efficiency is common for a stove. With the fear of blackouts affecting central heating systems this winter, wood-burning stoves have increased in popularity as they do not need gas or electricity to work”.

“We are well stocked but are seeing above-average ordering this year. This issue is the same across Europe and has affected the wood supply and price. Even so, burning wood is still cheaper than using central heating. It is also a renewable fuel; the wood Log Delivery sell is all FSC wood, and we are part of the government's Ready to Burn scheme”.

General house fire safety

Of course, chimney fires aren’t the only house fires requiring caution. Most house fires are caused by cooking or electrical appliances and are usually entirely unrelated to the time of year.

We asked Angela how we can all stay as safe as possible in our homes this year regarding house fires.

“For any home, whether it has an open fire or other forms of heating, it’s important to have at least one working smoke detector installed”, she says.

“Smoke detectors should be located in the hallway of a single-storey flat or bungalow and on the landing of a two-storey house. A working smoke detector will alert occupants of a fire in its earliest stages and operates even when everyone is sleeping”.

“Make sure that your electrical appliances are in good condition, that you use the correct charger and that only competent electricians work on the electrical wiring in your home. If you are charging items with Lithium-Ion batteries, such as mobile phones, do this on a hard surface such as a worktop or table, and certainly not under your pillow at night. These batteries generate heat when charging, and that heat needs to dissipate.”

“Charge e-scooters and e-bikes outside or in a room during the day rather than in your hallway at night. The hallway is your means of escape in a fire, and battery fires are often rapid and difficult to extinguish”.

Keeping safe and warm this winter is as essential as ever, and listening to the experts’ advice can help us enjoy the festive season without worry.

Check out our wide range of fireplace-safe hardwood logs and smokeless coal today to find the perfect fuel for your open fire, and make sure to take a look at Angela’s website for more information on how she can help you and your property.

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