Get Your Fireplace in Great Shape for the Holidays

A blazing fire and a fresh dusting of snow form the perfect backdrop to the winter holidays, whether you happen to be celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or National Chocolate Covered Anything Day (which falls on December 16, apparently). Well, we can’t guarantee you the type of snowfall described in schmaltzy holiday songs, but we can help you to enjoy a fire that’s both beautiful and safe. Here are tips to make your wood-burning, gas, or electric fireplace holiday-ready.


Fireplace Facts

While a fireplace is fun, it still needs to be treated with a healthy respect. Inspect your wood or gas fireplace annually and have it cleaned or repaired as necessary. (Make sure that the fireplace is cool and disconnected from its power supply before you perform any maintenance on it … duh.) Besides your smoke detector, install a carbon monoxide alarm to protect yourself and your family against this lethal byproduct of burning fuel indoors. Keep kids and pets at a safe distance — at least 3 feet — from the hearth and never leave them unsupervised while you have a fire going. Also, position flammable decor elements such as carpets, draperies, or Christmas trees well away. Finally, never ever store flammable liquids like paint or gasoline (yikes) in the same room.


Wood Burning Fireplace

Check your chimney for potential problems before you even dream of kindling the first blaze of the season. With the help of a flashlight, make sure that the damper is functioning smoothly, and then open it to inspect the chimney interior. You’ll be looking for blockages like birds’ or rodents’ nests (consider installation of a chimney cap to prevent future trouble), as well as a build-up of creosote on the inner walls. Creosote, a thick, black, sooty or tarry residue which will decrease your fireplace’s heating capability and just might cause a dangerous chimney fire, requires expert cleaning. Repair any damaged bricks or mortar, inside or out. Stack your firewood in a dry place with good air circulation to avoid mold and rot — that would (yes, bad pun intended) turn your fire to smoldering to smoky — and away from your home’s foundation. To minimize cold drafts and maximize your furnace’s heating efficiency when you’re not actually using your wood burning fireplace, try a chimney balloon or chimney sheep.


Gas Fireplace

Due to the number of small parts, we recommend inspection of your natural gas fireplace by a professional, who will check that the unit is structurally sound and fix any problems with the framework, glass, or log set. He or she will also ensure that the burners and vents are operating correctly — it could well be a matter of life and death. Before you ignite the pilot light, clean the glass screen and the inside of the fireplace according to the manufacturer’s directions. Next, gently remove dust from the blower (try a paintbrush or other thin, soft brush for this delicate task) and carefully vacuum the bottom section, where the gas piping is located. At winter’s end, extinguish the pilot light and set the gas shut-off valve to the closed position, as shown in your owner’s manual.


Electric Fireplace

An electric fireplace needs only minimal maintenance. You will need to dust the — unplugged — fireplace with a soft dry cloth (great way to recycle holey T-shirts) when it hasn’t been used for a while and remove smudges from the glass using a little water mixed with a few drops of dish soap. Commercial glass cleaning solutions are a no-no — they may be flammable. Clean the filter, if there is one in your particular model. The light bulbs should be changed every couple of years. For safety’s sake, replace the plug or power cable if they show any signs of wear or damage, and have an electrician install a dedicated circuit breaker for your electric fireplace.

— Laura Firszt writes for