October 04, 2022

Friend: Burning wood safely

By Duane Friend

As with any appliance that works with high heat, regular maintenance of both the appliance and chimney is necessary for proper operation and to make sure there are no potential fire hazards.

Screens should be used in front of open fireplaces, to keep sparks from flying out onto combustible materials.

Fireplaces should be inspected each year to verify firebox integrity. Masonry fireplaces should not have cracks in the mortar or brick. With catalytic wood stoves, the combuster needs to be in good working order. In non catalytic stoves, baffles should be inspected.

If you are not sure what should be inspected, contact a professional. If you have someone clean your chimney, they are often trained to inspect the stove or fireplace, as well.

One of the biggest safety concerns with wood burning is chimney fires. This occurs when exhaust gases cool and condense on chimney walls, creating creosote. This material is highly flammable. If allowed to build up, it can start burning in the chimney when heated.

Chimneys should be inspected and cleaned annually. Creosote buildup can be decreased by making sure you use seasoned wood, having hot fires instead of long, slow-burning ones, or employing low smoke producing systems.

Proper chimney caps should be in place to arrest sparks, and to keep your friendly neighborhood wildlife from visiting.

Ash disposal is another concern. Ashes should be kept in a metal container with a lid. The container should not be placed next to or on top of combustible materials, and should be outdoors.

Once the ashes have completely cooled, you can proceed to final disposal. If the ashes will be used as a soil amendment, be aware that most wood ash has a very high pH. It is best to spread the ashes out very thinly, usually not more than 15 pounds over 1,000 square feet. It should not be used around plants that prefer acidic conditions. If you are not sure what your soil pH is, considered getting a soil test.

If applying to compost, apply in 1/8 inch layers and mix.

Wood ash is also accepted in landfills in Illinois.

Duane Friend is a University of Illinois Extension educator, natural resources environment and energy.