This year, it seems, winter's gotten an early grip on things. A lot of places have already had some snow, and some places have already had a lot of it. The unusual weather has probably led people to start the heating season early -- without the mandatory pre-use maintenance of heating equipment. If this is you, using your wood stove or fireplace without preparation, stop and do the right thing.
Surely everybody knows this by now: All fireplaces and wood stoves need to have the flues cleaned once a year. If you didn't have it done at the end of the heating season last spring, it needs to be done now. And even if you did have the flue cleaned a few months ago, you still need to check it for blockages -- birds' nests, bricks, leaves, stray Frisbees or basketballs. The chimney may have been hit by lightning, loosening bricks and mortar -- and that could result in a leak. Now is the time -- before there's another "thundersnow" -- to check the flue and the chimney.
Any cold snap can bring on the urge for a wood stove or blazing fire in the fireplace in chilly souls who don't already possess such amenities. If you're thinking of installing a wood stove, make sure you do it so it can be operated safely.
Inside, a wood stove needs to be surrounded by an area of fireproof material, such as sand, brick, slate or one of the specialized floor and wall treatments available. Local building codes will tell you how much protection is required in front of a fireplace or all around a wood stove. In general, a wood stove needs to be placed 36 inches from any burnable surface. That can be reduced in some cases, but again, local codes will dictate appropriate methods. When you're considering a floor surface, it's not enough to put brick over plywood. The bricks can get hot enough to burn the plywood underneath. Most likely, a new stove will come with enough manufacturer's recommendations that, if you combine them with local requirements, you'll be guaranteed a safe installation. But if you're using an old stove, proceed carefully. Some building codes don't recognize equipment that is not UL approved.
If you have an old house, you can't simply hook up a wood stove to an existing brick chimney. The chimney needs to be lined with an intact terra-cotta liner or with a zero-clearance metal stove pipe designed to meet modern fire codes.
There are several types of cast-in-place liners, but some jurisdictions do not consider them to meet code. You need to find out what your local codes allow. If you have a terra-cotta flue that looks fine, have it checked out by a chimney sweep anyway, to make sure it's in good condition.
One potentially hazardous aspect of using a wood stove or fireplace is getting rid of the accumulated ashes. Embers in the ash can remain hot for an amazingly long time -- there are plenty of stories in the construction business about people putting ashes in paper bags and leaving them in the garage -- and burning the house down.
Assume that ashes are never safe. Store them outside in a metal container away from the house. Or wet them down and recycle them in your compost heap.
Firewood can also be hazardous, in a different way: It can attract termites. If you store wood on a porch or anywhere else next to the house, the termites can move from the wood pile to the structure. It's not as convenient, but you need to store firewood well away from the house or garage.
Finally, all houses, not just those with open or contained fires, need to have plenty of smoke detectors. If you do have them, check to make sure they're still operational. A good all-purpose fire extinguisher is also a good thing to have on hand. Even better, have more than one: one in the kitchen, one in the basement, and one near the fireplace or wood stove.
Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.
If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.