Simple techniques for increasing the efficiency of your open fireplace

An open-hearth fire or a wood-burning stove provides the simplest, most basic form of heating. A fire is also a simple way to create a warm atmosphere. Here are some techniques that should help you build and maintain a healthy fire.

Simple techniques for increasing the efficiency of your open fireplace

A quick introduction to fireplaces

  • Like the sun, such fires radiate heat directly onto the human body. When you and your family cluster by the cheery warmth of a fireplace or stove on a cold winter evening you will experience a satisfaction and comfort that modern forms of heating fail to equal.
  • A fire glowing and crackling in a fireplace generates an aura that no other form of heating can match. The aroma of burning wood, the hypnotic play of light and shadow, and the colours of the flames and hot coals instill a sense of peacefulness, security and contentment.
  • It is no wonder that ornamental, mock fireplaces — sometimes fitted with gas or electric heating — were built into many houses long after open fires ceased to be commonplace.
  • Less romantically, open fireplaces can be greedy consumers of wood, they need frequent cleaning, and they produce ash which settles on furnishings in a fine layer. Their heating efficiency is notoriously low — as little as 10 per cent of wood's full energy capacity, never much better than 30 per cent, goes into heating a room

Tamper with the damper

To improve the performance of an open fireplace, make proper use of the damper – the pivoted metal plate set into the chimney which controls airflow.

  • Open the damper just enough to eliminate smoke when the fire is burning. This will minimize the amount of fire-heated air lost up the chimney. After use, close the damper completely. Observing this simple precaution will turn the fireplace from a liability into an asset.
  • Don't close the damper if ashes are still smouldering. This will fill the room with smoke and noxious gases.
  • Plug drafts. To prevent heat loss when the fire is going out, put a tightly fitting cover made of metal or other fire-resistant material across the fireplace opening.
  • Increase heating efficiency. You could also increase the heating efficiency of open hearths by encasing them to redirect warm air otherwise lost up the chimney. But then they begin to resemble a stove.

Most people who regularly use open fireplaces gladly trade inefficiency for the intimacy of the flames.

Start at the beginning

It pays to follow certain tried and tested techniques used in starting and maintaining fires.

  • Pay attention to log spacing. This affects how the fire burns. If logs are packed too close together, the fire will not breathe, leading to inefficient burning. If placed too far apart, they will not absorb enough heat from one another, retarding combustion. Space logs to minimize smoke and to attain a good rate of burning. Use a poker and tongs to reposition logs which may shift and settle as the fire continues to burn.
  • Warm the chimney walls. To avoid smoke filling the room as a fire is started, hold a wad of burning newspaper directly under the chimney flue before lighting the main fire. This warms the chimney walls, helping it draw.
  • Open the window a crack. If the problem persists the house may be too airtight – try opening a nearby window a few centimetres until the fire is burning and the chimney is drawing well.

Keep these techniques in mind when building your next fire. The healthy glow will help you create a comfortable atmosphere that can't be beat.

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