Play It Safe With Your Fireplace
A wood-burning fireplace is a real treat when fall's cool temperatures hit, but take some basic precautions before you light up. Stonehollow Inc.'s Steve Gladstone, past president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), recommends you follow these steps:
If you're designing a wood-burning fireplace, consider carving out a space for the firewood. This fireplace stands out as the star of the room — its materials and colors contrast with the wood-paneled ceiling and walls behind for a contemporary, rustic aesthetic. Design by Uptic Studios; photography by Shaun Cammack
Hearth Design That Rocks
This backlit onyx fireplace showcases the rich colors of the stone. The fireplace serves as a bridge between the master bedroom and bathroom. Design by Pepe Calderin; photography by Barry Grossman
The sleek concrete fireplace creates structural interest in this youthful living room. Graphic art decals, a sleek sofa and the horizontal shape of the fireplace add to the modern vibe. Design by Ilija Karlusic
Get the right smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors in place.
As of January 2013 ASHI recommends that all smoke detectors be photoelectric models, not ionization models, and chances are you own the latter. Photoelectric models can detect slow, smoldering fires, whereas ionization models are better at big blazes. The National Fire Protection Association actually recommends installing one of each so that you’re protected no matter what kind of fire breaks out in your house.
It's also wise to place a CO detector near your fireplace, not just near your sleeping rooms. Glass fireplace doors often have vents that can allow CO back into the room if there's negative pressure in the house (say, if you have a bathroom exhaust fan running).
Shine a flashlight inside your fireplace and look around.
If you see cracks, gaps in the mortar, or soot buildup, call a chimney pro for advice. "That black stuff you see is creosote, which is highly flammable and can cause your chimney to catch fire," Gladstone says. "But don't try to clean it yourself, or you and your house will end up filthy."
Make sure the damper is operating properly.
The damper should open and close easily. If it's blocked, one possibility is that a wild animal has taken up residence, so correct the problem before you light that first fire — "unless you want an impromptu barbecue," Gladstone jokes. "I've found dead birds and nests in chimneys many times. And to a raccoon, a chimney is just like the hollow logs they normally live in, only nicer because it's warm and sometimes there's music."
If you suspect something's inside, make noise and bang on the damper before you open it; otherwise, whatever it is might enter your living room instead of escaping through the chimney. If an animal is the culprit, have the chimney professionally cleaned.
Hire only a certified chimney professional for repair and cleaning.
If you do need a pro, choose someone with credentials from a respectable organization such as the Chimney Safety Institute of America, and seek out referrals. Besides their specialized skills, certified chimney sweeps have advanced camera technology with LED lighting that can show what's going on in parts of your chimney that you can't see.
For your first few fires, use just a couple of logs of seasoned hardwood so you can be sure everything's burning safely before you get a roaring fire going. Begin by opening the damper and warming the flue — if the air in your chimney is cold when you start a fire, the downdraft will pull smoke into the room. Hold a lit rolled-up newspaper in the opening until you feel the air start rising; then start your fire.
Check heat levels on the mantel.
This is especially important if you hang your flat-screen TV there. Once your fire is going, set a candle on the mantel — if it melts, find another place for your expensive electronics. Also visit the attic and any rooms above the fireplace. If the walls or mantel become too hot to touch or you see smoke coming into the house anywhere, consult your chimney professional ASAP.
What's the proper way to ventilate?
Recessed niches have become increasingly popular for flat-panel TV installations, because they frame and ventilate the unit. To create such a niche, cut into the drywall, then re-frame it with 2x4 boards to create a 6x8-inch recessed area. A TV can be mounted flush with the wall, retaining ample space for ventilation. This method works especially well above fireplaces because it shields the TV from the heat of an active fire. Another option is to install your TV on a slide-out system, which allows easy access to the back of the panel for cleaning, dusting or reconfiguring of components.
Where should seating be in reference to the TV?
For optimal viewing, it's important to place seats at the proper distance from the TV. Sitting too close or too far from the screen can cause eye strain. To prevent this, homeowners with 42-inch screens should establish seating 5 1/2 feet away. Screens measuring 50 inches will require a distance of 6 feet. Extra-large TVs, such as 60-inch models, necessitate an average of 7 1/2 feet between seating and the TV screen.
How high should the TV be displayed?
One of the most popular questions clients pose to interior designers is how high to mount their flat-panel TVs. In general, the answer is 60-68 inches above the ground; however, this number will vary depending on the height of the homeowner. If you have to lift or strain your neck at all, it's too high.
Can the TV's height affect a room's aesthetic?
Beyond functional concerns, the height of a flat-panel TV can affect the overall aesthetics of your room. If the TV is placed too low, the mantel will appear cluttered and the fireplace will seem off-balance. To avoid this problem, allow 7 inches of clearance between the top of the mantel and the bottom of the flat-panel TV. This will allow enough room beneath the TV for ventilation, and the negative space will provide a clean, uncluttered canvas for decorative objects.
Can TV wires be hidden?
Due to unsightly wires and electrical outlets, many homeowners are apprehensive about placing flat-panel TVs above their mantels. While most new-construction homes are wired for flat-panel TVs, older residences often require electrical work to deal with this aesthetic concern. For a seamless look, consider having an electrician integrate switches, and infrared or remote systems near the TV.
What about auxiliary outlets?
Before mounting a flat-panel TV above a mantel, consider the access to auxiliary outlets. While the auxiliary outlets of many TVs are placed along the front of the unit, others are recessed along the sides or back. If these outlets are located along the sides or the back of the unit, and a recessed look is desired, it is important to ensure easy access to auxiliary outlets during installation.
Will heat damage the TV?
A safe temperature range of 32 to 100 degrees is standard for most flat-panel TVs. In fact, most instruction manuals will publish this range based on manufacturer guidelines. Homeowners concerned that heat from their fire will affect their pricey flat-panel can assess the degree of heat prior to purchase by taping a thermometer where the flat-panel will hang. If this space does not exceed 100 degrees, the flat-panel should be safe once installed.
Don't neglect your gas fireplace.
Ventless gas models need less attention than a wood-burning fireplace, but they still benefit from occasional maintenance. Dust and pet hair are the primary enemies of a ventless unit, so familiarize yourself with your manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and use a compressed air can to blow debris out of the burner air injector holes and ports. Don’t burn ventless logs for more than an hour without opening a door or window to allow more oxygen into the room.
Electric: High-Tech Meets Old School
A vintage Malm fireplace adds a dose of modern style to this living room. You can still find new versions of this electric hearth in bright colors online. Design by Jennifer Culp
Low-Maintenance Pellet Stoves
A pellet stove can be a freestanding unit or a fireplace insert, and it burns compressed wood for heat and a constant flame. Wood pellets burn cleaner than wood, and wood-pellet stoves are easy to maintain. You don't need a chimney and flue with a wood-pellet stove. All you need is access to an electrical outlet. Design and photography by Olivia San Mateo