It has been a cold few weeks for Long Islanders, many of whom relied on their fireplace as the sole source of heat for their homes, even if they didn't know how. "We've never gotten so many calls from people who've never used their fireplace," says Donald Ghiemann, owner and president of Irish Suites Chimney Ltd., based in Huntington.
Here are some tips on how to install, use and maintain a fireplace, pellet stove or wood-burning stove the next time a storm knocks out the power.
CLEAN YOUR CHIMNEY
Some homeowners make the dangerous mistake of using the fireplace after years without cleaning the chimney. Before lighting a fire, open the damper plate at the bottom of the chimney and look up to see if there is any obstruction such as debris, creosote buildup or a bird's nest in the shaft. A chimney cleaning service can cost between $85 and $170. A cleaning takes about an hour. You should clean your chimneys once a year before the cold season starts. To ensure you are hiring a reliable chimney sweep, make sure the firm is recognized by the National Chimney Sweep Guild, the Better Business Bureau, the Nassau or Suffolk County Office of Consumer Affairs, and the Chimney Safety Institute of America.
DON'T WAIT UNTIL IT'S TOO LATE
Superstorm Sandy left many homeowners scrambling to find alternative forms of heat, with some haphazardly installing a wood stove as a quick-fix solution instead of hiring professionals. "The next emergency homeowners have is that they're burning their place down -- they shouldn't make a panic buy," says Kevin Tagariello, president and owner of Village Fireplace in Huntington Station.
Wood stoves range in price from about $1,500 to $5,000 (including installation), but it will also cost you in fines if you attempt to build it overnight without waiting for permits. And worse, it can cost you in damages and put your family in danger if it's not fireproofed properly. Plan ahead and install a heating appliance in the summer.
BUILD IT TO CODE
Before installing a fireplace, wood stove, pellet stove or free-standing gas or electric fireplace, visit your local building department to file for the necessary permits. It can cost several hundred dollars to obtain a permit, but it will cost triple the filing fees if you get fined for not building to code (and you might have to take it out). If you hire a general contractor, make sure it's one who has experience installing your type and brand of heating unit. "From brand to brand, the specifications are totally different," says James Mac Donald, owner of Long Island Mantel & Millwork and Island Art Screen, based in Ronkonkoma.
SIZE IT FOR THE ROOM
When shopping for fireplaces, make sure you pick one that is sized properly for the room. Wood-burning fireplaces are 25 percent heat efficient, meaning that, on average, 75 percent of their heat goes up the chimney rather than into the room. "If it's too large, it will make the room too hot," says Mac Donald.
GET THE PROPER EQUIPMENT
In order to safely and successfully light your fire, you will need the proper tools, including a fire poker and tongs to move the logs and a grate on which to set your logs, and tinder for oxygen flow. Never use a traditional masonry fireplace without a screen: A red hot ember could shoot out onto the carpet and start a fire. Install a fireback -- or metal back wall -- in a masonry fireplace to deflect more heat into the room rather than up the chimney.
SURROUND FIREPLACE WITH NONCOMBUSTIBLES
The materials surrounding your stove or fireplace, including the mantel and firebox walls, must be made of noncombustible materials such as granite, marble, cultured stone (concrete) or stone. If you mount a TV above your fireplace, you are required to have a mantel or shelf between the set and the fireplace; if not, the warranty on your TV may be voided. If you purchase a wood stove, you will likely need to install a heat shield, a barrier made of noncombustible material (such as cement or steel) that sits one inch off the wall, protecting it from heat damage. The stove itself must be at least 36 inches from an unprotected wall or 12 inches away from a wall fitted with a heat shield. Free-standing wood stoves exhaust into a connecting pipe, which then connects into the chimney.
USE THE PROPER WOOD
Even though downed trees might provide plenty of future firewood, the wood is too green to be used right away. Wood needs to be seasoned, which means treated and dried for six to 12 months. Softwoods (such as pine) need to be dried for six to 12 months, whereas hardwoods, such as oak, require up to two years to season. Unseasoned or even partially seasoned wood can cause a house fire by allowing creosote to build up in the chimney. Avoid burning any type of wood that has been stained, painted or pressure-treated with preservatives; the fumes can be toxic. Before putting the logs on the fire, use tinder of twigs and crumpled newspaper. Add logs, increasing in size as the fire grows.
YOU'RE GETTING WARMER
Make sure you are getting the most out of your fire by closing all the doors to the room. "Wood-burning fireplaces will generate a lot of heat in a direct radiant area, but they will also steal heat from the rest of the house," says Tagariello, by sucking more air (and therefore more heat) out of a house than they radiate back into it. Direct vent fireplaces serve as an alternative to wood-burning fireplaces, and they don't rob heat from other rooms. Direct venting is more expensive but is more convenient because it can be installed anywhere. Most current units require both gas and electric and can cost between $4,000 and $6,000, with installation included.
Ensure that smoke doesn't blow out into the room by warming up the chimney before lighting a fire in the fireplace. To heat the chimney, open the damper (the cast-iron or stainless-steel barrier that blocks off the chimney when not in use), twist some newspaper into a roll and light one end like a torch and hold it up the chimney flue. Smoke won't rise if the flue is filled with cold air. Because smoke travels the path of least resistance, placement of the fire is also key. Make sure the grate is against the rear wall; if it's too far forward, the smoke will travel outward instead of up the chimney.
WATER DAMAGES A GAS STOVE
If your house flooded and you're using a gas stove again, you might be putting your home at risk of a fire hazard. "Once it's been submerged, you can't trust it anymore,'' says Don Brunner, manager at Westbury Stove and Fireplace. The unit either needs to be replaced, or you might need to supplant parts such as fans and wiring to make it serviceable again. Water and debris may clog the valves, weaken the metal and cause gas leaks. If your chimney was damaged by a fallen tree, get it inspected before using it again.
"It's very critical to dispose of ashes in a proper and safe way," says Brunner. Leave the ashes in a metal container for two or three days before throwing it in the trash to prevent smoldering embers from starting a fire.