The fireplace is the heart of your home during the long, cold months of winter. There’s not much that’s cozier than gathering around a blazing fire while the cold winds blow outside.

But just like the human heart, your fireplace needs maintenance and good habits to stay healthy. There are safety tips you’ll need to follow each time you light a fire to make sure the fireplace operates safely and cleanly for years to come.

Check out the following fire safety and maintenance tips and then gather a warm throw blanket, a mug of hot chocolate and enjoy your fireplace all winter long!

First, make a call to a chimney sweep.

Yes, it’s another home maintenance expense, but don’t try to save on household expenses by skipping this one.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that chimneys be swept at least once a year at the beginning of the winter to remove soot and debris. You can find a certified sweep in your area via the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

A professional will make sure your fireplace is fit for the winter season. Considering that fireplaces and chimneys are responsible for 42 percent of home heating fires, it’s an important first step before firing up the fireplace.

A certified sweep will be on the lookout for creosote buildup. Just like fats can clog a heart’s arteries, soot and creosote are dangers to a fireplace. Using seasoned hardwood or manufactured logs can go a long way to minimizing build up. But remember that manufactured logs burn hotter than regular wood and you should follow the directions on the bag for lighting and use. Burning things such as wrapping paper and foam peanuts can release toxic fumes.

If you decide to purchase real wood, look for seasoned wood. This is wood that has been cut and dried under cover for at least 6-12 months, registering less than 20% moisture with a meter. Split wood dries more thoroughly and burns better than whole logs. Well-seasoned wood makes a sharp ringing sound when two logs are knocked together, while green wood makes a dull thud. Green wood will not burn as thoroughly, creating more soot and creosote.

Burn hardwoods, not soft woods. Hardwoods like oak, ash and maple are denser and heavier, delivering more heat than lighter softwoods like pine, poplar and cedar.

Ensure fireplace logs are stacked as far as possible to the back of the fireplace so that sparks and embers don’t spark out of the fireplace and into your carpet. Open the damper before you light the fire, and keep it open until the fire is completely extinguished.

It’s a good idea to light a test fire before the start of the season. Test out the function of your fireplace by lighting a few small pieces of seasoned wood, lit from the top down. If smoke doesn’t exit vertically from the fireplace into the chimney, but enters the room, immediately troubleshoot and correct any problems. These can include that creosote/soot build-up, other debris in the chimney like bird or animal nests, a damper that is closed or partially closed, or wet wood that isn’t burning well.

It’s also important to keep combustible materials such as carpets, curtains and holiday decorations away from the fireplace when a fire is burning. A fireplace screen or guard will help keep children and pets away from the flame.

Once you start using your fireplace, remember to keep the firebox (where the logs burn) clean by cleaning up the ash when it builds up; you can leave about an inch to act as insulation and help keep the fire burning. Keep the firebox completely clean during the months when the fireplace is not in use.

According to Good Housekeeping, a wet/dry vacuum with a disposable bag will handle ash cleanup, once the pile has cooled for at least four days. But if you don't have one of those heavy-duty suckers — or just don't feel like hauling it out — do this instead: After the ash is completely cold, sprinkle it with damp tea leaves or coffee grounds to cover the stale smell and keep down dust (so you don't inhale it). Then scoop the pile with a fireplace shovel and dump it into a metal can, bucket, or even an old stockpot or clay flowerpot. Discard the mess outside, ideally in a metal trash container, but definitely away from your house.

To remove light soot or a cloudy film from glass doors, mix a solution of equal parts white vinegar and warm water and pour into a spray bottle. Spritz a bit on a paper towel and dip it into the fireplace ashes to use as a gentle abrasive (smart, right?). To finish, spray glass and wipe clean with a microfiber cloth. If it’s really stubborn, scrape it away with a razor blade.

 If you have smoke stains on your fireplace facing, begin by squirting them with water — it'll keep the cleaning solution from soaking in too fast (this is particularly important with brick). Then dip a brush in a solution of 1/4 cup all-purpose cleaner to one gallon water; give spots a quick scrub; rinse with a clean sponge; let dry. For marble or other stones, squirt with water, then go over with a soft cloth dipped in mild dishwashing liquid and water. Rinse and wipe dry. One exception: If brick facing is more than 50 years old, it may crumble if you scrub with a cleaner. Just vacuum the surface with your soft-brush attachment.

Using and cleaning fireplaces are a little more work, but a crackling fire during the winter will provide warm nights and happy memories.