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Chimney Fire Safety Tips

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It was Chimney Fire Safety Week this month, which highlighted the importance of playing it safe with chimneys. The latest statistics show that there are approximately 7,000 chimney fires a year in England, most of which could have been prevented. Here are some tips on recognising, responding to, and avoiding chimney fires.

Signs of a chimney fire

Chimney fires have been described as creating:
  • A loud cracking and popping noise
  • A lot of dense smoke
  • An intense, hot smell
Other tell-tale signs include:
  • Embers falling back into the hearth
  • Sparks shooting from the chimney top
  • The walls of the chimney  breast or adjacent walls becoming very hot
Of course, a smoke detector will also let you know if there’s a fire. Get more guidance on domestic smoke detectors here.

What to do if there’s a chimney fire

Chimney Fire If you suspect that your chimney may be on fire, it’s important that you raise the alarm and let others in the house know. You should also alert the fire services. They will respond to chimneys fires as they would any other fire. If the fire is small and has not spread, you should:
  • Extinguish the fire by gently splashing water onto it (conventional, open fires)
  • Close down the ventilation as much as possible (solid fuel appliance)
  • Move furniture and rugs from the fireplace and remove nearby ornaments
  • Place a fire guard or spark guard in front of the fire
  • Ensure that access to your attic or roof space is available for the fire service
 

Sweeping your chimney

Keeping your chimney clean and having it regularly swept will ensure that:
  • Obstructions such as leaves and birds’ nests are cleared
  • Debris is removed
  • Combustible build ups are removed
This is why it’s important that your chimney is swept regularly. This can be as much as 3 times a year during the winter months. The exact number depends on the type of fuel you use.
  • Smokeless fuel – at least once a year
  • Wood – quarterly when in use
  • Bituminous coal – quarterly when in use
  • Oil – once a year
  • Gas – once a year
You should always aim to get your chimney swept when you know you’re going to start using it again, as the weather begins turning cold (right about now!). It’s important that this is done by a certified chimney sweep – giving it a go over with the vacuum doesn’t count.

Creosote – what you need to know

When wood burns, by products are expelled through the chimney (smoke, water vapour, gases, unburned wood particles, hydrocarbon, tar fog and minerals). When these substances exit your fireplace and flow up a cooler chimney flue, condensation occurs, which causes residue to stick to the inner walls of your chimney. This is called creosote. Creosote is black or brown in colour. It can be crusty and flaky; drippy and sticky, or shiny and hard. Creosote is incredibly combustible. Creosote build ups can be accelerated by a number of factors, including:
  • Restricted air supply
  • Burning unseasoned wood
  • Having  cooler than normal chimney temperatures
 

Using the right fuel

Naturally, you should only burn the fuel that your chimney has been designed to burn. If you have a wood-burning chimney, it’s important that you use dry, well-seasoned wood. A well-seasoned log will have 20% or less moisture content. Burning wood that is wet, coniferous or newly-felled can cause tar or creosote to form, which is a fire hazard. It’s always a good idea to buy your wood at the start of summer and leave it to dry out, ready for the winter. Find a spot that protects the wood from rain, but exposes it to the sun and wind. When loading your fire, look out for dry logs that have splits at the end. A moisture gage can also be used to tell you exactly how much moisture content your wood has.

Size matters

It’s important that your stove is the right size for your room. One that’s too large won’t get hot enough to burn all the fuel in the wood. Un-burnt fuel will pass up the chimney as smoke, causing (guess what?) creosote build ups.

Other tips

  • Always place a fireguard around the fire
  • Never sleep while your fire is on
  • Do not overload the grate or build fires too high
  • Dispose of ash appropriately
  • Never hang clothes or material on your fireguard
  • Ensure fires are extinguished before you go to bed
  • Never use petrol or paraffin to light your fire
 

Carbon monoxide

Though it’s not a fire safety concern, it’s important that you also consider the risk of CO emissions. You cannot see, taste or smell carbon monoxide, so you’ve no way of knowing that it’s present, which is why it’s often described as a ‘silent killer’. CO can be released by appliances fuelled by coal, smokeless fuels, wood, oil and gas. Your chimney is one of those appliances. To reduce your risk, it’s important that your chimney is:
  • Installed and serviced by competent engineers
  • Your chimney and flue is inspected and swept regularly
  • You do not overload your fire
  • You burn only the fuel your chimney has been designed for
  • You have a carbon monoxide detector fitted
  • There is plenty of ventilation
photo credit: Kratka Photography via photopin cc
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