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Fire hazards a concern during cold snaps

Union Leader Correspondent

January 12. 2014 6:39PM

Insulated pipes, like those Katie Gauthier sells at Sons Chimney and Stove Shop in Milford, prevent creosote from building up in old chimney liners. (Nancy Bean Foster)

MILFORD — As the temperature drops, people turn to woodstoves, fireplaces and space heaters to keep warm, but if folks aren't careful, these sources of heat can ultimately leave them out in the cold.

Chimney fires are all too common in New Hampshire and are often the result of improper installation of new chimneys and stove pipes, or the lack of regular maintenance.Sarah Mair, who runs Black Moose Chimney and Stove in Antrim with her husband, Matt, said that without regular maintenance, creosote, an oily, flammable substance left behind in the chimney after a fire, builds up and can become a hazard if exposed to high temperatures.

"During super-cold snaps, people tend to burn really hot fires that ignite the creosote and that can cause problems," she said. Burning creosote inside a chimney can cause the tile liners inside the chimney to expand and crack, which will allow even more creosote to build up. And the more creosote there is, the higher the chance of having a chimney fire that can spread to the house, putting lives and property in danger.

Bryce Racicot, whose family owns Sons Chimney and Stove Shop in Milford, said that for under $200 folks can prevent a lot of the problems that start at the chimney, including fires and carbon-monoxide infiltrating the house, filling it with smoke.

It costs between $80 and $125 to have a chimney thoroughly inspected to flush out any problems, and between $135 and $175 to have a chimney properly cleaned, Racicot said. Video scanners, according to Mair, can also be used to get a clear view of any interior problems in the chimney.

Installation issues

But maintenance is only part of the problem. In many homes, improper chimney or stove pipe installation can be devastating for homeowners. Racicot said he sees many instances where pipes aren't connected properly, the stainless steel cap on the chimney is not installed right or isn't the correct distance from the flue to draw the smoke out of the house, or the liner inside the chimney has deteriorated with age and needs to be replaced.

"There are so many factors that come into play when installing a chimney," said Mair.

"Clearances, pipe lengths, the type of material can all affect the safety so people need to research, follow the codes and the recommendations from the manufacturers before installing their own chimneys."

Evan Campbell, a chimney sweep and installer at Sons Chimney, said people also need to understand that inside the home, stoves and fireplaces need to be clear of combustible materials including extra firewood and newspapers, furniture, and anything else that can burn. Ensuring that the hearth extends at least eight inches beyond the fireplace and the wall behind a wood stove is made of fire-safe materials are also vital.

Space heaters

Firefighters aren't fans of space heaters, which if used improperly can easily result in fires, but there are ways to use them safely, said state Fire Marshal William Degnan.

Keeping a space heater away from combustible materials, including furniture, wastepaper baskets and curtains can help avoid problems. But because space heaters can be moved around, they can easily come in contact with flammable materials.

Degnan and Capt. Jason Smedick of the Milford Fire Department also caution against using extension cords for space heaters because the cord can break down and become a fire or shock hazard.

Pelham Fire Chief Jim Midgley said that using liquid space heaters indoors, such as kerosene heaters, can lead to carbon-monoxide buildup, which can kill people.

He also warned against so-called "ventless" fireplace inserts or heaters, which can emit carbon monoxide as well.

"It is recommended that all homes have carbon-monoxide detectors and smoke detectors on each floor of the home," said Midgley. "Carbon-monoxide and smoke detectors save lives every year in this country; that's a proven fact."

Midgley said his department will come out and check smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors and change batteries if needed. Other departments offer the same service.

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