By Ken Rajesky, Hearth Industry Expert
Whenever you burn a solid fuel, such as wood, coal, or pellets, in your stove, fireplace, or insert, you will be left with ashes to remove. These ashes must be removed periodically as they can affect both performance and durability of the product. The frequency of this ash removal will depend on the product itself, the type of fuel being burned, and the species of the fuel (e.g. softwoods vs. hardwoods, anthracite coal vs. bituminous). Small bits of hot coals removed, mixed and buried within the ashes, represent a hidden danger. What many consumers are unaware of is that these hot coals can stay dormant for weeks when buried in ashes. The ash acts as an insulator keeping coals from burning out. All these coals need to flare up once more is oxygen. It’s for this reason fire departments often return to a scene to place more water on smoldering timbers and newly flared coals.
What is commonly done is to take the ashes from the appliance and place them into a plain, simple, metal pail. The thinking is that the metal pail will not catch fire. Logical, but a metal pail is not enough. Then, the pail is placed outside on the porch because it’s outside and cold. Again, logical but it’s not enough.
Most fires related to ash removal start this very way because a lidless pail sits exposed when a winter’s breeze comes along, and stirs the pail’s contents. The coals become active again, the pail’s temperature increases, and the floor can begin to char. Worse yet, the winter’s breeze actually disperses the now-active coals onto the wood porch and worse problems soon begin. Warning: always treat removed ashes with a great deal of respect, and do not leave them unattended for long.
Differences in Ashes
If the ashes are from wood, they make an excellent addition for gardens because they are high in potassium, calcium, sodium, magnesium, and phosphorus. In areas where there is high rainfall, the soils there are typically high in acid. Wood ash can actually help decrease that acid level. Dry areas, however, tend to be more alkaline in nature. Wood ash in dry areas can exacerbate that problem. Since regions will vary, it’s best to have your soil tested through a local extension agent or garden center to see if wood ash can be helpful to your soil prior to applying.
If the ashes are from burning coal, then you must be more aware of proper removal for many reasons. First, you will have much more ash to remove versus wood. Second, coal ash is not beneficial to a garden because its potassium and phosphorus content are very low compared to wood. Third, coal ash also contains a great deal of other elements, such as cobalt, boron, and arsenic among others, which are toxic to plants, animals, and people. You must be careful when burning coal because ash can trap unburned carbon which means that more unburned fuel is tossed away with coal ash versus wood. What else can you do with the ashes once removed from the appliance? In more rural areas, people will place them on their driveway to help overcome a slick surface during winter. With coal ashes, you may do the same, but coal ashes can affect springtime vegetation as it washes away during the late winter. After a period of time when you feel that there are no longer any potentially “live” coals, you should bag and dispose of coal ashes at a transfer station or the local landfill.
Proper Ash Removal & Storage:
The key is a safe removal of ashes and coals from the product, and from the living quarters. The proper type of ash “holder” or pail, for ash removal and storage should also be sheet metal. The bottom should be slightly offset from the bottom so that the actual bottom does not make contact with flooring. The edge will and should make contact, but the majority of the bottom is elevated. The pail should have a large wire handle for easy carrying. And, most importantly, the pail should have a lid that closes tightly. This is the key for safety. Spend the few extra dollars to purchase an ash bucket that has the features just mentioned. The are many ash buckets in our industry that are quite decorative as well so aesthetics need not be too ignored. And, do not place the bucket directly on a wood porch or breezeway floor, but instead, on a non-combustible surface such as stone, concrete, brick, or slate.
You’ve taken great measures to install your product safely and up to code, now remove ashes from your home just as safely.