Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fireplace Frustration

Our house has a fireplace. My husband and I haven't had a fireplace in past homes and apartments because it's never been a major point of interest for us. But this house, which works so well for us in so many ways, happens to have a fireplace. So we've decided that as long as we have a fireplace we might as well use it. I indulged myself in dreams of cozying up on the couch under our down comforter in front of a roaring fire. We had the chimney cleaned and inspected this fall and received a clean bill of health. For Christmas my mother gave us some kindling, fireplace tools and an attractive basket for firewood. I bought color changing pinecones from Plow and Hearth for interest and mystery. And so we embarked on our journey to master the art of a fireplace fire.

Honestly, it's not going very well thus far. The first fire attempt was pretty much a flop. We had the damper open, and we used kindling, but the logs never really caught. Which seems puzzling to me, since dry wood should burn, right? No, apparently that's wrong. We went on the internet to try to figure out our mistake. The article we read said that sometimes a cold draft comes down the chimney and keeps the fire from getting started. It recommended opening the glass doors thirty minutes before trying to light the fire so that heat from the room would go up the chimney. So we opened the glass doors. That didn't particularly help. Then my husband suggested turning on the fan that is supposed to move warm air from the fireplace into the room. We had left it off because it is dreadfully noisy and didn't seem to move much air, but at that point we decided to try it. I suppose it helped some, because eventually most of the wood in the fireplace did become ash. It was more embers and smoke then crackling flame.

Our second and third fire attempts didn't go much better. We tried different ways of building the fire, creating elaborate layers of newspaper, fatwood, kindling and logs. We tried different configurations of glass doors open, shut, fan on, fan off. We would get fifteen or twenty minutes of flame as the kindling burned and then the whole thing would smolder to a stop and eventually go out. It's all been quite perplexing.

Finally, tonight, we used a firelog instead of wood. I really, really wanted a nice fire because it is 12 degrees (Farenheit) here this evening. While that isn't as cold as some places in the country are suffering, it's quite quite cold for Northern Virginia and way too cold for me. So we used the firelog from the supermarket to build the fire. Firelogs are typically made up of waste wood products such as sawdust or fibre from palm branches mixed with waxes, kind of a mix between wood and a candle I suppose. The packaging states the burn more cleanly than wood and emit less carbon dioxide, which makes them less environmentally destructive. I will say that the firelog worked much, much better in our fireplace. It lit easily and burned for the advertised 2 hours with plenty of cheerful yellow flames. The color changing pinecones rested nicely on top and added a lovely dark blue that faded to a sea green for the time they burned. It was all very pretty.

It feels like cheating though, somehow, to use a manufactured product. Fire is supposed to be basic, something simple that connects back through time to all the other humans who have huddled around fires at night for warmth and light. So we will probably continue our endeavors to learn to build and tend a real log fire. Hopefully it's a question of time and practice, or a missing ingredient that we just haven't realized yet. I suppose time will tell. In the meantime, for these really cold nights, at least we have a fall back option.