Although fireplaces were once a staple in the majority of North American homes, modern household heating technology has reduced their presence in new construction significantly. However, many current homeowners are having them installed in custom homes as well as having them renovated in older homes. Fireplaces provide rooms with a focal point, create a natural gathering place for family and friends, and generally infuse a charming ambiance into the room. It's important, however, to be aware of  fireplace safety basics. Following are five ways that you can keep your fireplace functioning safely and well.

Have it Professionally Serviced on a Regular Basis

You should have a professional chimney cleaning company service your fireplace once per year if it receives a normal amount of use. This is typically done in either spring or autumn according to your personal preference. You should also call a professional for assistance if you notice any sign of damage or disrepair during periods between maintenance calls.

Keep it Clean

Keeping your fireplace free of ashes and as clean as possible will help minimize the chances of fires getting out of control. Remove any buildup of ashes on a regular basis, and clean the lower interior of your fireplace on an as-needed basis with a stiff-bristled metal brush and a solution of one part muriatic acid to 10 parts lukewarm water. Because muriatic acid is toxic, be sure to use a dust mask and make certain that the room is well-ventilated before starting work.

Use a High-Efficiency Fireplace Insert

Fireplaces have a reputation for not being as efficient as wood stoves when it comes to heat output, but installing a high-efficiency insert can substantially increase the functionality of any fireplace. Making certain that your fireplace insert is as airtight as possible will also ensure maximum safety by making fires easy to control.

Inspect Often for Soot and Creosote Buildup

You should also inspect your fireplace often for any signs of creosote buildup. Creosote is brown or black and generally has the consistency of tar. It can be both flaky or hard and shiny, and is usually present in both of these forms on interior chimney walls. You can purchase a creosote removal tool from your local home improvement retailer, but keep in mind that these are not meant to replace regular servicing by a chimney care professional. A strong flashlight is necessary in order to properly inspect for creosote.

Burn Seasoned Wood

Burning green, unseasoned wood in your fireplace is a sure way to create unsafe levels of creosote or soot buildup. Firewood that has not been properly seasoned has too much water content to burn efficiently, meaning that it will cause a great deal of smoke -- which will, in turn, be converted to creosote on the inner walls of your fireplace chimney, creating a significant fire hazard.

  • Softwoods such as fir and pine should be seasoned for at least six months before burning. Those who choose to burn softwoods should be aware that these types of trees contain a substantial amount of pitch, which acts as a fire accelerant.
  • Hardwoods such as ash, oak, and maple need to be seasoned for two years. These woods generally come with a higher price tag, but many consumers feel that they are worth it because they burn more cleanly and last longer than firewood made from softwoods.
  • Never burn household trash in your fireplace. Use only enough shredded, black-and-white newspaper or commercial fire starters to allow the kindling to ignite when first building a fire. Printed materials such as magazines or newspaper ads contain dyes that can release toxic fumes into the air when burned.
  • Avoid using treated lumber as well as it may contain chemicals that are harmful when released into the atmosphere.

Keep in mind that your chimney care professional is an excellent source of fireplace safety information!