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Get familiar with laws surrounding use of fireplaces, wood, pellet stoves
Art deWerk

With winter comes the time when people have to heat their homes to stay warm. This column covers the safety and legal requirements associated with fireplaces, wood burning stoves, pellet stoves and gas or propane fired heating units. People with fireplaces and pellet stoves like to use them for heat and ambience in then home but there are a set of laws that apply to their use.

The first important thing to take care of is to make sure that your fireplace or pellet stove is clean, functional and free of hazards. Chimneys and stove pipes should be cleaned every season before use because leaves, dirt, rodents, bird nests, twigs and the like can accumulate over the months. Cleaning addresses the build-up of the previous winter season's carbon and creosote. And be sure not to forget to open the flue when using the fireplace for the first time this season. Also, be aware that the burning of trash, magazines, plastics and similar discards is prohibited by law for pollution-related reasons. Be sure to only burn seasoned, dry wood that is free of contaminants. The burning of trash, magazines, plastics and similar discards is prohibited by law for pollution-related reasons.

Central heating furnaces are also a potential fire hazard. All vents should be cleaned before using the heating system. Changing the filter(s) is important and vacuuming in and around the furnace is a must owing to the possibility of fires within the unit. It is also a health consideration; dust, mites, dirt, viruses and bacteria can accumulate in the system, which, when the system is first activated, can put all the aforementioned into the air that occupants breathe.

Gas (propane and natural gas) fueled heaters are another issue, and while they do not have the same problems with creosote and carbon, their vents can get clogged quite easily. These kinds of heaters must have clean, unobstructed vents to function properly and safely. They also suffer from other problems, typically with the heat exchangers which, over time, will develop cracks and cause deadly carbon monoxide gas emissions into the home. I know of several situations where families have come close to death or actually died owing to a faulty gas heater. By taking care of your gas-fired heater, you can protect yours and your family's lives. A cared-for and tuned heater will also save money by operating efficiently. Heaters should be serviced by professionals, unless you have the requisite skills to do so yourself.

The Central Valley is prone to trapping polluted air during the winter months on the days when the air is very still and an inversion layer forms above us that stops the normal cycling of air. When this happens, we end up with up with health hazards due to increased amounts of accumulated ozone, smoke, engine exhaust and other pollutants. People with asthma, impaired immune systems and other medical problems have a difficult time when the air gets so polluted, so it is for these reasons that the government regulates the burning of solid fuels during winter months. Before using your fireplace or pellet stove you need to check each day to make sure it is legal to do so at the SMOG-INFO line at 1-800-766-4463. The information is also available at Natural gas and propane devices are not subject to Air District wood-burning rules.

If you are unsure about the rules or if you believe that you may have an unsafe condition with any of your heating devices, you should contact a qualified professional to perform an inspection and make any repairs are needed. If you have an emergency situation be sure to call 9-1-1 to get fire department assistance.