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Making a clean sweep for winter

By Kathy Jefcoats

Fall is already here and with winter not far behind, it is not too early to begin getting your home ready for colder temperatures – including cleaning that sooty chimney before lighting the first fire of the season.

"Just about every home being built now has a fireplace," said Brian Vaughan. "But people don't know to clean them. They don't know you can have a chimney fire."

But Vaughan does. He owns Super Sweep Chimney Service, cleaning chimneys in Henry and Clayton counties for 20 years. Chimney sweeps have come a long way since Dick Van Dyke's Bert sang of having a "brush for the shaft and a brush for the flume" in "Mary Poppins."

"We have more high-tech tools," Vaughan said. "We use a vacuum especially for soot with a $100 filter. We put a tarp in front of the hearth and brush from the bottom. All the soot goes into the vacuum."

Cleaning the chimney is the first step to avoiding a fire inside the narrow shaft but Vaughan said there are other ways to avoid an unwanted blaze. For instance, burn only seasoned, dry wood.

"Don't burn green or wet wood," he said, "or pressure-treated wood. You should burn Christmas wrapping paper, it's toxic. Don't burn wood that has been glued or lacquered."

Proper handling of leftover ash can also prevent fires.

"Coals can stay active for four or five days," said Vaughan. "More property is lost because of hot ashes improperly disposed of. You should use a metal bucket with a lid placed on a concrete floor. You wouldn't believe how many people put them in plastic or paper bags. It's a big issue and customers tell the story – it happens a lot."

Customers who rely on electricity for heating can also learn how to get the most out of their furnaces during the winter months by having a home energy audit. The audits are a free inspection performed by Central Georgia EMC, which services Henry and Clayton counties.

Homeowners can perform their own audit by following eight steps as outlined by the EMC. Company spokesman Craig Frank said the inspections can help lower energy costs.

First, check levels of insulation in the exterior and basement walls, ceilings, attic, floors and crawl spaces. Check for holes or cracks around walls, windows, ceilings, doors, switches and electrical outlets. Make sure the fireplace damper is closed when not in use.

Replace heating system filters if necessary and check to make sure outside doors and windows are properly caulked.

"We usually get calls from people to do audits after they've gotten a couple of high bills," said Frank. "But if customers do these things ahead of time, it may save them some money."

An inexpensive way to keep out drafts is to weather-strip exterior doors. Most home improvement companies can help customers choose the right stripping and even provide tips on installation. Wrapping an insulation jacket around water heaters can also improve heat retention capability, he said.

One of the easiest ways to reduce heating energy costs is to turn down the thermostat at night and when the house is unoccupied during the day.

"Utilizing heat during the morning and evening is a prime energy saver," Frank said. "To avoid the hassle of constantly adjusting the temperature in the house, install a programmable thermostat which provides an easy and efficient solution."

As temperatures drop, residents routinely turn to fireplaces and furnaces but using space heaters or stoves for warmth can lead to disaster. That's why the Henry County Fire Department uses the month of October to educate and remind the public about fire safety and smoke alarms. Batteries should be changed twice a year – in April and October.

Oct. 3-9 is Fire Prevention Week and residents are urged to test those smoke alarms.

"Smoke alarms are the most effective early warning devices available for the home," said Henry fire spokeswoman Capt. Sabrina Puckett. "Since they were introduced to consumers in the 1970s, they have helped to reduce the home fire death rate by one half."

Although alarms are cost-effective – and required by Georgia law – Puckett said 70 percent of home fire deaths occurred in homes with no or broken alarms. Fire officials recommend alarms be replaced after 10 years.