Wood-burning tricks help keep the warmth inside where it belongs

Since the time of cave dwellers, families have gathered around the friendly glow of a crackling fire to warm their spirits as well as their bodies.

The short, damp and chilly days of a Northwest winter are a great time to stoke up the old fireplace. Besides, with the costs of electricity and natural gas on the rise in the past couple of winters, many people are looking for cheaper heating alternatives.

'More people are going back to burning wood,' says Gordon Malafouris, the owner of Gordon's Fireplaces & Fine Home Furnishings on Northeast Broadway.

But many fireplaces send your hard-earned dollars Ñ along with the warm air Ñ right up the chimney.

'Wood fireplaces look great, but too often they result in a net loss of energy,' says Matt Emlen of the Portland Office of Sustainable Development.

If you want to burn wood and not your savings, keep this in mind: A fireplace is like a car Ñ skimping on maintenance can save money in the short run but often results in a balloon payment. Fireplaces and chimneys should be inspected annually by a professional.

The owner of British Brush, Mark Guy, has cleaned upward of 12,000 chimneys. He reports two cardinal sins.

'People burn unseasoned wood, and they don't have their chimneys regularly cleaned,' he says. 'A sticky, gummy tar builds up that is highly flammable and very hard to remove.'

Dry, seasoned wood heats better, burns cleaner and is easier on the lungs. Don't be miserly with wood Ñ but building a huge, rip-roaring fire isn't smart. It wastes heat and can crack your fireplace.

A fire primer

If you use a fireplace while running your furnace, lower the thermostat to between 50 and 55 degrees and shut the vents in unused rooms. Check the seal on the flue damper and make it as snug as possible.

Keep your fireplace damper closed unless a fire is going, and reduce heat loss even more by opening the damper in the bottom of the firebox, if you have one. When your fireplace is not in use, keep the warm air in and the cold air out by closing the glass doors.

In some houses, slightly opening a nearby window will create the draft needed to feed the fire and to draw the smoke up the chimney. Closing glass fireplace doors may prevent the heated room air from being drawn up the chimney when the fire is burning while also containing sparks and embers.

Remember that heat rises; a ceiling fan can push the warm air back down where the bodies are.

Modifications and accessories can help cut your heat bill down to size. Efficient and easy to install, wood-burning inserts slip into the fireplace and use the existing chimney. However, they are usually small and utilitarian in appearance.

Extractors, which are less noticeable, draw in room air, heat it and blow the warmed air back out into the room. An extractor can pay for itself in one season.

Fireplace accessories are available in many styles and finishes. Grates are log holders that allow air to feed the fire while letting the ashes fall out. Made of cast iron or steel, they also retain heat.

Decorative firebacks Ñ which are placed against the back wall of the fireplace Ñ also may increase the radiant heat output and the comfort in front of the fire. Andirons are also attractive but are no longer commonly used.

A clean fire needs good fuel. It's easy to get burned on a bad load of wood, so purchase firewood from a reliable source Ñ such as an established fuel company Ñ during the offseason.

Schedule fireplace maintenance and chimney cleanings during summer months, too, to take advantage of discounts of around 15 percent.

Malafouris, known for more than 50 years in the fireplace business as Mr. Gordon, says every house and fireplace is different, and some can be temperamental.

'Some fireplace openings are too tall and not deep enough for the smoke to draw up the flue,' he says. 'Try different things Ñ such as cracking a window Ñ and see how the fire burns. A lot depends on the draft in the house and how well the flue draws.'

Do's and don'ts

• Clear the area around the fireplace and chimney. Use a fireplace screen and a fire-resistant hearth rug. Keep a fire extinguisher on hand. Check the batteries in your smoke detector.

• Don't burn green or wet wood. Never burn painted wood or lumber scraps that have been treated with preservatives. This includes particleboard, which may contain formaldehyde. Don't overload the fireplace or leave a fire unattended.

• Clear away any tree branches obstructing the chimney. Check the chimney cap, the wire mesh covering at the top of your chimney that prevents birds, animals and debris from entering. If it's missing or damaged, replace it.

• Examine the chimney's exterior bricks for cracked or crumbling mortar, and shine a flashlight inside to check for creosote and soot. These dark substances, products of the incomplete combustion of wood, are fire hazards. Soot is softer than creosote and should be removed when it is 1/8-inch deep. Remove creosote when it's 1/4-inch deep.

• Look for cracked tile liners and missing bricks and other foreign matter: Birds and small animals like to nest in chimneys. On metal chimneys, check for damage, corrosion, holes and screws missing from the joints.

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