Fireplaces are lovely to look at and an important source of warmth in any home they’re used. But the care and maintenance of the chimney, hearth, and firebox are responsibilities that require regular vigilance and attention. For seniors and others living with limited mobility, these tasks can become extremely difficult, even insurmountable. And when left alone, neglected or misused fireplaces can present life-risking danger.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that deaths from fires in the home are most common in people 65 years of age and older. Besides normal fireplace maintenance and care, seniors and their families should practice these additional safety practices to help avoid disaster and insure a healthy home atmosphere.
Insure Proper Screen Protection and Ventilation
Fireplaces should include screens, doors, or covers that protect the surrounding room from flying debris and ash. Hearths should stand nine to 18 inches off the floor to provide ample height clearance and to facilitate cleaning and refueling.
Experts recommend equipping seniors’ fireplaces with direct vent or self-enclosed fireplace inserts that will help keep smoke and fumes from drifting outside the firebox or chimney flue. Such fumes can damage seniors’ pulmonary systems and make breathing difficult. Seniors should avoid using wood-burning and gas fireplaces for these same reasons.
Direct vent fireplaces are gas-operated and use double-walled pipe to efficiently funnel exhaust through a wall or ceiling. They help to insure dramatically cleaner air outside the firebox than natural vent fireplace models. Direct-vent fireplaces also work better at trapping heat, thus improving energy efficiency. Besides direct vent models, electric and gel-burning fireplaces also make practical alternatives for anyone with respiratory difficulty
The chimney flue, or airway leading to the top, should be kept as clean as possible, with professional cleanings at least once a year but whenever necessary. Besides normal ash and debris, wood-burning fireplaces are subject to creosote deposits that result when burning oils and debris coalesce on the flue walls. Professional chimney cleaning prices vary, and a variety of DIY cleaners are also available. Still, seniors with limited mobility may prefer to hire professionals to clean their chimneys for them.
Keep Hearth, Mantel Clear of Flammable Materials
Especially during the holidays, the fireplace hearth and mantel make irresistible areas to showcase decorations and ornaments. The urge is easy enough to understand: with everyone gathered in the living room or den to spend the holidays together, why not make the fireplace and hearth a stage for all kinds of decorative elements?
Yet cloth, Styrofoam, and other flammable materials can catch fire if struck by sparks or cinders that fly loose from the firebox. Embers and other burning debris can sometimes fly as far as three feet into the surrounding room.
Seniors and their families should take care to keep their hearths clear of decorations if the fireplace is steadily used. Likewise, avoid decorations that hang in front of the firebox unless the firebox opening is reliably covered by a sturdy screen or cover. And yes, sadly, this includes holiday stockings hung from the chimney with care. Hang the stockings after the fire is thoroughly put out if complete screen coverage isn’t available.
To be completely safe, avoid storing firewood near the fireplace. Keep all decorative materials outside a three-foot perimeter from the fireplace, too, including curtains, drapes, furniture, and other decorative elements. For flooring, make sure rugs and carpet are fireproof. Many antique rugs are not, while more modern fire rugs and fire-resistant rugs are available.
Fireproof the Entire Home
Smoke detectors work best when deployed throughout the home, especially around bedrooms and above relaxation areas. Detectors should be tested and their batteries replaced twice a year; families of seniors should help them with these tasks to avoid the danger of falling or tripping off stepladders. Fire safety officials recommend checking smoke detectors during both Daylight Savings Times but especially at the beginning of autumn.
Carbon monoxide detectors are an important safety precaution in any home using a B-vent (also called “natural vent”) fireplace. Clogged B-vent pipes and poorly drafting B-vent fireboxes can allow carbon monoxide to seep into the room, slowly causing illness as their fumes accumulate. Carbon monoxide is heavier than air, so the detectors should be placed near the floor for maximum effectiveness.
Children or families of the hearing-impaired can install smoke detectors and other alarms with flashing lights or other alternative means of communicating an alert.
Seniors with limited or impaired mobility or memory should also use remote-controlled alarm bracelets and pins that will enable them to call for help when emergencies happen.
Houses should have a clear evacuation path marked out, both from living and sleeping areas. Families of seniors with impaired mobility should speak with their local fire station, supplying any necessary information regarding the seniors’ home floorplan.
The U.S. Fire Administration publishes a free guide to comprehensive fire safety for people over 50. The guide is available at the USFA website.