Get the Home Fires Burning

Lately, mornings in Northern California have been so cold, it’s nearly impossible to get out of bed. I’m serious. With the economy as bad as it is, we’re not going to turn on the heat any time soon. And with our down comforter as cozy as it is, getting up is about as tempting as jumping into a frozen lake.

So naturally I’ve been thinking about my fireplace and what I need to do now to prepare it for the season. Here’s my to-do list:

Call the chimney sweep
It’s a good idea to have your chimney cleaned once a year or every time you go through a cord of wood. Creosote can build up and put you at risk for a chimney fire or send the smoke back into your home. I called last week to get an appointment and was surprised to learn that their busy season is already in full swing. Some sweeps are already booked through Thanksgiving. The best time to do this is in the spring when you’ve finished the fire-burning season and can get an appointment more easily.

Get wood
In the past we’ve bought a mix of wood that includes eucalyptus because we like the smell, but the chimney sweep informed us, and the EPA concurs, that we should only be burning hardwoods like oak or maple. Hardwood burns more slowly than softwoods like pine or poplar so you use less and they burn cleaner. The drawback of course is that these are slow growing trees that we’re burning up in a matter of hours.

Some tree cutting services will drop off firewood to your home. Getting on their list saves the wood from the landfill, saves the service from having to pay dump fees, and may mean free firewood for you. Win, win, win!

Consider a new insert
Although wood-burning fireplaces feel and smell so natural, according to the American Lung Association, they contribute more “particulate matter air pollution” than any other source. This type of pollution has been linked to health problems including asthma, bronchitis, and lung disease. Burning seasoned hardwood and never burning garbage or treated wood can help reduce the problem, as can using soft kindling wood instead of paper to start your fire.

We definitely want to reduce our pollution, but our not-so-elegant, 1972-era wood stove insert is nowhere near as efficient as those made after 1990 and certified by the EPA. Plus there are other options now, including pellet stoves, that have much lower emissions.

Now that our chimney is clean and we know which wood to choose, we're looking forward to enjoying the fireplace in the near future. We also know that we need to switch to a more efficient insert as soon as we can. But a new insert can cost thousands of dollars that just aren’t jumping out of my stock portfolio these days. So we’ve decided to do something radical in these credit crunched times – save up for one.

Kimberly Delaney is the author of Clean Home, Green Home: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Eco-Friendly Homekeeping, forthcoming this fall from the Knack imprint of Globe Pequot Press.


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