There have been many historical buildings that have been converted into apartments. Many of these have fireplaces. This is a real relic of a time before central heating units existed and when wood-burning fireplaces were usually the most economical way of heating a room.

Nothing quite beats the feeling of sitting back in front of your roaring fireplace on a cold winter’s evening. Whether you own a wood-burning stove, open-hearth or multi-fuel fire, you’ll never get tired of the warm, live flame display at the heart of your living room. But it’s easy to get swept up in the romantic imagery and forget about some of the important stuff – namely, how to stay safe when using a solid fuel fireplace.

Before lighting a fire

Don’t jump right into lighting a fire without first checking the condition of your fireplace and the chimney. This is especially important if your fireplace hasn’t been used for a while. The chimney should be swept and inspected by a professional once a year to ensure there are no blockages, damage or creosote deposits in your chimney. If your chimney is compromised, lighting a fire could cause a chimney fire or the leakage of toxic gases into your home – carbon monoxide, for example.
Any soft furnishings or other nearby flammable objects should be kept a safe distance away from the fire. This includes anything hanging from your mantlepiece. An open fire should also have a fireguard in place at all times, so get one ready before you attempt to burn anything.

Know your fuel

Knowing your fuel requirements is a necessity. Your manufacturer’s guide should tell you what can and can’t be burned in your appliance, but if you don’t have that to hand you can always contact a reputable solid fuel supplier for guidance. Also check whether or not you’re in a smoke control area. If you are, burning anything other than smokeless fuels could net you a hefty fine.
Once you know what kind of fuel you need, the next step is ensuring it’s of a high enough quality. For wood burners, you only want to burn dry, well-seasoned – or kiln dried – wood. Wet wood not only takes more energy and time to burn, but it can also be dangerous. More smoke is created and there’s a much higher chance of creosote deposits forming in your chimney. That’s why it’s always better to use treated dry wood from a reliable supplier.

General fireplace safety principles

There are some important safety principles you should keep in mind if you want to minimise risk:

  • For multi-fuel stoves, never burn two different kinds of fuel at the same time. You should only ever burn different fuels separately.
  • House coal can leave large amounts of soot behind – and generate large amounts of smoke – but smokeless coal will burn more efficiently and keep your stove cleaner and healthier.
  • Never leave a fireplace unattended for extended periods of time.
  • Make sure the fire is fully extinguished before going to bed for the night.
  • Keep a set of fireplace tools/accessories near the fireplace – fire poker, coal shovel, tongs etc. Heavy-duty fireproof gloves will also help, and, of course, a working, suitable fire extinguisher is a must.
  • Never use lighter/starting fluids to get a fire going or while the fire is already lit. These substances are extremely volatile; the only fuel you should use are combustible solid fuels from a reputable supplier.

Test Your Smoke Alarms

You must test your smoke alarms before you ever consider lighting a fire. Many apartment leases include a clause placing the onus of testing smoke alarms on the tenant. If the alarm does not sound, replace the batteries to fix the problem. If not, contact the property owner to repair or replace the detector. You should never leave your fireplace unattended. However, it isn’t an easy task to put out a fire in a fireplace if you must briefly step out of the room. For this reason, working smoke detectors are essential. Remember, do not ever leave the fire unattended for longer than a minute or two. Things can get out of hand fast.

Install Fire Extinguisher(s)

Even if you do not have a fireplace in your apartment, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of having a fire extinguisher. If you do currently have a working fireplace, make sure there is a fire extinguisher close to the fireplace. Know how to properly use it, too, as no space can truly be considered safe without a fire extinguisher present.