Banking a fire calls for using hot coals from a fire and covering them with a layer of ashes to preserve the coals for a few hours or overnight. This makes the fire easier to start back up. This must be done safely in a fireplace, however, or you risk fire damage to your home.
Fireplace or Wood Stove?
In centuries past, when fireplaces were the main source of heat for many homes, families would pile hot coals from the day's fire against the wall at the back of the fireplace each evening before turning in. They would cover the coals, add some small logs, and the remaining coals would be enough to start a fire in the morning.
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Nowadays, fire experts suggest that if you want to bank ashes for an easier start, then you should only do this in a closed unit, like a wood stove or insert. Banking a fire in an open fireplace can be done, but it is unsafe, and you risk burning down your house.
If you have a wood stove or insert, however, banking the fire before you go to bed at night can make it easier to start on cold winter mornings. When you do this, you're not actually extinguishing the fire. What you're doing is slowing it down so that it is smoldering throughout the night.
How To Bank the Fire
The first step is to let the logs burn down to hot, glowing coals. Once you have a nice bed of coals, open the flue all the way. Then, use a small fireplace shovel to prod the coals to the center of the stove or insert. Place one or two small logs above the coals.
Here's where you will actually "bank" your fire. Cover the coals and logs with ashes. To keep a wood stove or fireplace insert working properly, you need to clean ashes out of the firebox regularly. When you do let the fire go out, remove ashes when they are cool by scooping them into a metal ash pail.
Use the cooled ashes from the bucket to completely cover the coals and logs. You shouldn't be able to see any glow from the fire. Then, partially close the flue. In the morning, reopen the flue over your banked ashes. Scoop most of the ashes back into your bucket. Where you had logs, you should have glowing coals. Put a couple of small logs behind the coals and your fire should restart.
More Fire Banking Tips
When you remove ashes from your wood stove or fireplace insert, make sure you carry the ashes outside. You don't want to leave ashes indoors because a stray ash may land on something combustible and ignite. Storing ashes in a small, metal pail with a lid is best. This way, your ashes won't get wet. You can also use the ashes for other purposes if not to bank a fire.
A banked fire is not a heat source, so you may need to use an auxiliary heat source overnight. Instead of banking the fire at night, it can be more efficient to let the fire die out at night and start a new fire the next morning.
You need to periodically clean the ashes out of your wood stove or insert. Too much ash is not only messy, but it can make your fire burn less efficiently and become a fire hazard. A thin layer of ash, however, can insulate and protect the firebox. At the end of the heating season, clean out the ashes. Otherwise, ashes can draw moisture and cause the metal components to deteriorate.