So, you’ve decided to start burning with wood.
Congratulations, the traditional atmosphere you’ll be providing for friends and family will rank second-to-none in warmth and comfort. However, this new role will require attention to detail and continued responsibility, starting with the ignition process.
Understanding the greatest potential for backdraft, a situation where chimney smoke is drawn back into the home, occurs at the start of a burn, let’s review a few good practices.
One, start the burn well before your guests arrive, and be sure your mind has not been altered by alcohol or a most recent purchase of legalized cannabis. Nothing kills a party like smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation.
If a backdraft is going to happen, let it occur while the living room is void of guests. It would also save you the hassle of explaining why a jammed patio door handle required you to use Aunt Tilly as a battering ram, with her walker providing an effective means to shattering the plate glass window in order to secure a quick escape route from a smoke-filled room.
Furthermore, starting a fire will require following a precise sequence of procedures. So, let not your memory, decision-making, and reflexes be handicapped by your early partaking of the drink, or plate of special brownies.
First, open the damper to the chimney, as well as any air intake ducts feeding directly into the firebox. Next, crack open a nearby window. This will provide a little extra oxygen, which will help boost the flame and drive the initial draft. Plus, an open window is a quick fix to a home’s negative air pressure, which can happen when mechanical devices such as the kitchen’s range hood, or bathroom fans, are operating at full capacity, further challenging the chimney’s capacity to draw air upwards.
Cool air sinks. When it’s really cold outside, it sinks even quicker, which will be a challenge to the person starting the fire, since success in avoiding a backdraft lies entirely on creating upward air movement, or reversing the natural course of this chimney air.
So, with a ball of crushed newsprint, jailed inside a tee pee of small, dry pieces of kindling (spruce or pine lumber), ignite the paper. The key is to build flame, not smoke, in order to quickly create an upward draft. Success in getting the smoke to move upwards might be slow, which may be evidenced by your eyes swelling with tears and a sudden shortness of breath during those first 30 seconds.
Regardless, stay calm, work through the combustion spillage, and stick to the plan, the sensation should pass provided you continue coaxing the flame with more bits of wood and newsprint. If you’re two minutes into the ignition process and the fire alarm’s blasting away, the budgie’s now breast feathers up at the bottom of the birdcage, and the eye-swelling has rendered you blind, then abort the process and review the open damper/air intake/open window/shutting off of mechanical systems checklist.
What to burn? Only dry, seasoned (evidenced by cracks and splits in the log’s ends) hardwood. Don’t burn softwoods, painted or treated lumber, general garbage, wet logs, or those paper documents you’d rather the Canada Revenue Agency not see.
Dry hardwoods burn hot, delivering maximum heat and minimal residue, which is exactly what you want out of your wood fuel. Softwoods and used pallet lumber will burn of course, but the heat output will be mediocre at best. So, save this stuff for campfire purposes.
Furthermore, when fires don’t burn hot, creosote is the result, with this tar-like residue coating your chimney liner. Creosote isn’t a good thing because it can re-ignite in your chimney at any time.
Unfortunately, the first person to realize there’s a potential crisis is the neighbour, who upon noticing the flames shooting out of your chimney, is forced to either act, or dismiss the occurrence as you having modified your home into an oil refinery.
Burn safe, and good building.