Well seasoned firewood can be ruined by bad storage. Exposed to constant rain or covered in snow, wood will reabsorb large amounts of water, making it unfit to burn. Wood should be stored off the ground and protected from excess moisture.
A traditional wood shed is ideal -- a roof with open or loose sides to allow for plenty of air circulation that promotes drying. If this isn’t possible, keep the wood pile in a sunny location and cover it on rainy or snowy days. Remove the covering during fair weather to allow air movement and to avoid trapping moisture under the covering.
Never overload the fire. Never overload a fireplace or wood stove with too much firewood. Also, don't burn garbage, Christmas trees, glossy magazine paper, or other material that may ignite quickly.
Store wood a safe distance away. Keep firewood, firelogs, and particularly kindling and paper, out of the spark zone and the heat zone so they don’t catch fire.
Clear the area around the hearth. Clear everything from the spark zone and heat zone that may catch fire. Make sure Christmas stockings and other holiday decorations on the mantle are a safe distance and not dangling too near the fire.
Know how to operate the fireplace or stove. Review the manufacturer’s instructions, or, if you don’t have any, look at the fireplace or stove and become acquainted with its features.
Have the right hearth tools and equipment on hand. Go to a hearth shop and invest in a good set of tools. Having the right tool always makes the job easier. Here is what you will need:
Tool set that includes a poker, tongs, hearth broom and ash shovel. Get a good set that is sturdy and stays together. Handles that unscrew easily are not only annoying, they are unsafe.
Ash bucket. The bottom should be slightly elevated so that only the edge of the bottom makes contact with the flooring. The pail should have a large wire handle for easy carrying and a lid that closes tightly. You can buy a plain pail such as this at many hardware stores, or purchase a decorative ash bucket at a store that carries hearth supplies.
Woodburner's gloves. With these you can feed the fire and avoid burning your hands. With good quality gloves, you can actually reach into the fire and move a log in an emergency.
Wood carrier and rack. To help in the task of lugging the wood from the wood pile to the living room, you will want a wood carrier. It is a wide fabric or leather sling with handles, that allows you to carry an armload without dropping logs or scattering wood chips everywhere. Some are designed like wide tote bags, for extra cleanliness. A sturdy wood rack by the hearth will keep your indoor wood supply safe and neat and off the floor.
Make sure the chimney damper is open. If it is closed, your fire might not light and if it does, smoke will come into the room instead of going up the flue.
Make sure the room has adequate ventilation. The fire will pull air up the flue, so open the window a crack to allow more air to come in.
Always use a fireplace screen. Always use a metal mesh screen in front of your fireplace to catch any flying sparks. Leave glass doors of a fireplace open while burning a fire – unless fireplace manufacturers' instructions indicate otherwise. Woodstove doors should be closed unless you are using the optional metal mesh screen.
Use smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Place at least one smoke detector on each floor of your house. Install a carbon monoxide detector near the wood burner. Test the detectors and batteries regularly.
Keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Choose a “dry chemical” type made sodium bicarbonate and monammonium phosphate. These are free from ozone-depleting CFCs. Make sure everyone in your family knows how to use it. It's a good idea to have your fire extinguisher inspected, your local fire department can inspect them for you. You might also want a chimney fire extinguisher on hand. If you have a chimney fire, you strike it and place it in the firebox, and it emits a huge quantity of smoke, which stifles the chimney fire. When you maintain your chimney properly it is unlikely you will need one. Ask your chimney professional for more information.
Post the fire department number by the telephone. Or set a speed-dial number for the fire department. Whatever method you use, make sure everyone in your household knows how to reach the fire department quickly – just in case.
Establish a fire evacuation plan and have a fire drill. In an emergency, it is better to be prepared than sorry. When everyone is frantic, it helps to have a plan so everyone knows what to do and where to go. Your local fire department has information about establishing fire drill routines and exit routes so your family will be safe.
Learn how to build a fire correctly. Spending time with the screen or doors open while fussing or poking around with the fire can be an opportunity for logs to fall and sparks to fly. Learn how to build a fire that will light quickly and safely, with minimum fuss.
Never leave fire unattended. Never leave the house while a fire is burning or leave children or pets unsupervised near a fire.
Have your chimney and vents inspected annually. Creosote buildup can cause chimney fires, so make sure the chimney is a clear channel for outgoing smoke. Have the chimney and vents that serve your fireplace or wood stove inspected annually and cleaned when necessary by a chimney sweep.
Trim overhanging branches or large trees near chimney or vents. Particularly check to see if there are dead branches overhanging and remove them.
Fires burn mainly because hot air rises. When you start a fire in a fireplace or woodstove, the air inside the chimney becomes warmer and less dense than the air outside the chimney. Consequently, it starts to rise. As the warm air rises, cooler air from the room flows into the firebox, fanning the fire, and creating more heat in an ongoing cycle.
There may be many reasons why your wood burner is not functioning properly, which can only be addressed by calling a trained professional to come out and take a look. Before you pick up the phone, however, ask yourself these simple questions.
Is your damper fully open? Do you know how to open the damper? It’s easy to overlook this, even after building many fires. If it is open, damper may need some servicing to remedy water damage or soot buildup on the smoke shelf behind it. If so, call your chimney sweep.
Is your firewood green or wet from rain or snow? The main reason your wood burner works at all is the heat inside the chimney. If your wood is not dry and well seasoned it makes more smoke than heat. There simply may not be enough heat for the chimney to work properly. Dry, well-seasoned firewood will light quickly with only a bit of paper or firestarter.
Is your chimney dirty? Thick layers of soot obviously can physically restrict the flue so there is no longer enough free area for proper venting, but even as little as a 1/4" to 1/2" inch buildup can be more significant than you might think. There may also be other obstructions – sweeps often find chimneys packed full of leaves, twigs and even bird nests and baby animals. If your chimney doesn’t have a chimney cap, get one.
Is your chimney on the outside of the house? If you have a large masonry chimney on the outside of the house, and it's cold outside, the air inside of the chimney will also be very cold. The warm air rising that is necessary to keep the fire cycle going gets blocked by the cold air, and falls down the chimney instead of rising. If you are having difficulty lighting a fire in a fireplace with a masonry chimney, this may be the problem. To help get the fire started, try lighting some rolled up newspaper and hold it up near the damper to get the cold air in the chimney moving upwards.