Fireplaces and woodstoves do more than provide heat on a cold day — they anchor a gathering place at the heart of a home. "They’re a great focal point for any family hangout spot,” said Colin Brice, who co-founded the New York architecture firm Mapos. “What brings people together? Either a really beautiful meal or a really warm fire.”
(Credit: Tim McKeough, NY Times, Jan. 1, 2018.)
Your new home may come with a fireplace. If you've never had one before: it isn't complicated, but you do need to learn how to draft it, so your smoke will go up your chimney. That may seem obvious but it's worthy of mention! Your first job, before lighting your fireplace, is to ensure that it's safe and that it will draft. Experimenting with this is a really bad idea. Your home can become a smoky mess in a quick blink of an eye.
Be sure to hire a professional to: 1) sweep, 2) check the integrity of your chimney and 3) test the flue.
The flue should move smoothly, and you should be shown how to use it. It should be open all the way when you're starting your fire, and should then be partially closed once the fire's caught and is burning nicely. It should never be fully closed while a fire is lit. If your fire is struggling, you may need to open it all the way so a maximum amount of air can encourage combustion. If it's getting intense, reduce the air flow by reducing the flue's opening.
Cleansing the interior of your chimney of creosote is also essential to the safety of your fireplace, and proper drafting. A sticky ball of clogging gook is the last thing you want inside of your chimney. You should be very sure there's not one there before you light your first fire. Getting rid of accumulated creosote is what is meant by "having it swept." Have this done annually, or more if your fires aren't perky.
Checking out the chimney's interior is not something your home inspector typically will have taken care of; you can't assume it's fine because the home was inspected.
Having your fireplace draft correctly will help you build beautiful fires, and will help you keep them lit. And having the flue closed properly when there's no fire will save quite a bit on your heating bills.
Make sure the surround is fireproof and that you have a fire extinguisher nearby. Move throw rugs as far from your fire as possible. It will throw the occasional spark, so be prepared for that. You should have, at the very least, a fire screen for it. Fireproof glass doors are helpful, especially when it's time for you to go to bed.
You'll need basic tools: a long handled, heavy metal shovel to scoop up ash, and a proper pail that can hold hot ash, are your first and most important ones. If you're going to throw that ash away outdoors, be sure it has had adequate time to cool, (overnight at least) with all sparks extinguished. Check how hot it is before you dump it. Consider putting it somewhere that's very rocky, away from scrub or leaves, in case it is still hot in the middle, or still has a hidden spark inside. When you dump it, check it with your shovel, and make sure all sparks are out. Or put it into a metal can.
Your plastic kitchen garbage pail is never the right place for the ash from your fireplace. You might also invest in fireproof gloves, and a long poker, used to move burning wood around with; to get it to burn nicely or to make room for another log.
Many people opt to turn their fireplaces into one version of a woodstove or another, for good reason. A woodstove insert, or standing woodstove, can increase the amount of heat the fireplace produces, and it can decrease the amount of wood you will use. It also keeps the fire encased on all sides, most of the time. A woodstove insert will stick with the current size and shape of the fireplace; it will fit within it. A standing woodstove will go in front of your current fireplace opening... or you can install one in a home that has no fireplace at all, creating a center of warmth and community.
I'll cover woodstoves in a second article. In the meantime, best wishes for a safe and happy new year.