A few tips on success with your fireplace.
A: Unless you have an efficient fireplace with glass doors or live in a one-room house, use your fireplace primarily in the fall and spring. During very cold weather, the typical open masonry fireplace loses more heated air up the chimney than it produces to help heat your house.
Almost any fireplace will smoke a little until the chimney gets warm enough to create an upward draft. Burning a few crumpled newspapers first can adequately warm the chimney. Open a window slightly by the fireplace to reduce the possibility of a negative pressure. This also reduces the amount of already heated air drawn from the house and lost up the chimney.
The two most important factors in having a fire without smoke in the room are the quality of the firewood and the design of the fireplace.
Using well-seasoned wood with low moisture content produces a hot fire with a strong draft. Ash firewood can be difficult to start, but it burns well once going. It is good idea to also use some other softwoods to get the fire started.
Many fireplaces are designed to look good but do not always create a good air flow pattern. The relationship of the dimensions (opening height/width, firebox depth, size of smoke shelf and flue) is critical. It is not difficult to modify the opening size with decorative metal strips.
There really is no one best method to build a fire. If you ask 100 people, you will get 100 best methods depending upon their specific fireplace. In general though, two of the most common methods are the teepee and English. These refer to the way you place the kindling and logs in the fireplace.
I have an efficient heat-circulating fireplace, so I use the teepee method and build the fire on the base of the firebox. This transfers more heat to the circulating room air. First put some crumpled newspapers in the center. Using some wax/sawdust fire starters or small pieces of a fire log helps. On top of the newspapers and optional fire starter, place a few long thin pieces of kindling in a teepee pattern. Next stack the logs around the kindling also in a teepee pattern. The hot burning gases and flames are channeled up through the logs creating a super hot concentrated fire. Once it is burning well, place more logs in any fashion over the flames.
If you prefer to use a grate or andirons, the English method can be very effective. Put crumpled newspapers under the andirons or grate. Lay several seasoned logs horizontally across it. Place long piece of kindling perpendicular across the logs. Place another layer of logs on top of this.
No matter what method you use, have your chimney checked by a professional chimney sweep. It is inexpensive insurance to guard against a chimney fire, which can damage the chimney lining and possibly cause a house fire.
Q: There is white aluminum siding on my house. There appears to be a narrow gap between the siding and the flashing around the window. Shouldn't this gap be caulked to stop air and water leakage?
A: When siding is installed properly, this gap should not be caulked. Aluminum siding can expand a lot with temperature changes. This gap is required to handle this expansion without buckling the siding.
There should be caulking underneath where the flashing around the window frame is nailed before the siding was installed. This creates the seal. Other openings without a flashing, such as electrical outlets and faucets can be caulked.