Tips for a Safe Fireplace and Chimney

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What You Need to Know and Do to Keep Your Fireplace & Chimney Trouble-Free

" />Ah, cool days, long nights-the perfect time of year for cozying up to the comfort of wood fire. But before you pile on the wood and strike the season's first match, there are a few precautions you need to take. Since last season, your fireplace and chimney have likely endured more than a few fires, soot buildup, and normal wear and tear. For these reasons and more, it's imperative to have your chimney and fireplace (as well as other heating systems) inspected annually by a professional. However, this doesn't mean you should leave the entire process up to the pro! There are a few preliminary steps you can take right now to make sure your chimney is prepped and ready for another season.

Use Your Eyes

Start by conducting a once-over of your own. Make a note of any fissures or cracks on your chimney and fireplace. You want to first make sure everything is in proper working order. Make sure the flue (the vertical interior section of the chimney that funnels smoke outside) is in proper working order. Often smoke and creosote can damage the flue over time so use a flashlight to get a close look to be sure there are no cracks other noticeable issues.

Be aware that some flues have bends in them, so you may not be able to see all the way to the top. Take a look at the base of the flue to see how much debris and soot are there. But remember that most of the activity in a chimney occurs at the very top and this is where the greatest build up is likely to occur.

Make sure your damper functions correctly and remind yourself how to open it and close it.

The exterior of your chimney is extremely important as well. If you can't easily (or safely) access the top of your chimney, use a pair of binoculars to do your inspection. You're looking to see if there is a lot of debris blocking the top of the chimney. The crown is the overlap portion at the top of most masonry chimneys. This is a prime location for birds to nest. You'll want to be sure this area is free of any excess debris.

The spark arrestor is bombarded by wind, rain and snow over the course of its lifetime and often succumbs to the abuse. If you see that yours is damaged, this is something you'll want to have replaced immediately. This is one of the few things that keep sparks from flying out of the flue and onto your roof-it also protects the flue by keeping out the elements.

Bringing in a Pro

This is an option that many do-it-yourselfers might be reluctant about, but there are those times when a pro is a downright necessity.

Professional chimney inspectors have years of experience and know exactly what to look for. A crack that looks somewhat innocent to the untrained eye might be a clue to a more significant issue. The standard recommendation for most homeowners is to have your chimney inspected and/or cleaned at least once a year especially in those areas where weather conditions are prone to affect the lifespan of your chimney and its components.

That said, for those who use their fireplaces somewhat sparingly or live in relatively mild climates, a bi-annual inspection is often enough.

Often a chimney sweep will double as an inspector, but either way when you're considering hiring a professional there are a few things you'll want to take into consideration.

  • To begin, what TRAINING does the inspector have? Are they certified to the job you're hiring them for?
  • Make sure you get a clear EXPLANATION OF SERVICES and the CHARGES they will incur well before you allow them to start work. Remember, they work for YOU, so you want to be in charge of this situation and know exactly what to expect.
  • What kind of INSURANCE do they have? Are they bonded? Chimney inspectors of any worth have full insurance and are more than happy to share this information with you to assure you that you will not be liable should they be injured while on the job.
  • Lastly, you want to be sure they have a valid list of REFERENCES. Don't just get the references be sure you actually contact them, too! Check with your neighbors, friends, and co-workers.

Most importantly, make sure you shadow the inspector as they work. This is your opportunity to learn as much as you can about your particular fireplace. Many professionals are more than happy to share some basic tidbits with you to help you understand ways to get the most out of your chimney and how to maintain it year round.

For future reference, the best time to bring in the pro is toward the end of spring when the weather starts to warm up a bit. First off, you'll miss the last minute rush in the fall to get your chimney inspected before you need it, and you'll avoid that nasty smell of leftover wood and ash that can fill your home during the hot summer months.

Other Useful Information

Besides investing in your annual cleaning and inspection, keep in mind that the type of wood burned in the fireplace can drastically reduce soot buildup in your fireplace. When burned, sappier wood, such as pine, emits a substance called creosote that tends to clog the flue and is the primary culprit behind most chimney fires. It also helps if the wood is completely dry. Open the damper completely every time you build a fire to prevent creosote from sticking, and every so often burn an anti-creosote log, available at your grocery or hardware store. This log changes the consistency of creosote buildup from a sticky to a flaky substance.

Creosote also tends to smell, and even a thorough cleaning cannot guarantee elimination of the odor. Pick up a chimney deodorant. Yes, there is such a thing!

Cleaning Basics: Getting Down and Dirty

While we recommend hiring a chimney sweep once a year, that doesn't mean you are off the hook completely. Ash tends to build up on the floor of the fireplace and should be swept up or vacuumed when the pile is more than a few inches high. Before you do so, protect your flooring and surrounding areas by covering them, just in case some of the ash blows off your dustpan. If you thought wine was hard to get out of a white carpet, wait until you experience fireplace soot!

Use a dustpan for the big pile of ash, and then vacuum the rest (we suggest a shop vac, since this is often a nasty job). Dispose of the mess in the garbage can, or you can toss it in your compost pile if you have one. Some fireplaces have a hatch at the bottom where you can push or relocate the ash. There is an access door at the exterior of the house where you can remove the ash and not spill any at the interior.

Jane Tip: This may seem obvious, but only burn wood in your fireplace! Never try to dispose of wrapping paper or other garbage by burning it. If you need to use paper to start the fire, use newspaper.

Besides removing the ash, you can easily improve the look of your fireplace with a thorough cleaning. Not only will this clean the fireplace, it will take years of use off it!

Again, you will want to wear old clothes and protective gear such as a dust mask and goggles (not safety glasses as the dust can often find its way behind the lens), but this time, add latex gloves to the shopping list. Most masonry cleaners are harsh, and you don't want them to come in contact with your skin.

Step 1

Cover the floor surrounding the fireplace with plastic drop cloths and tape them down to make sure they stay in place.

Step 2

Remove any ash sitting in the fireplace. Also, remove any screens, pokers, or decorative mementos on or around the mantel and fireplace.

Step 3

There are a couple of different routes you can take when it comes to choosing a solvent. First, try the tested-and-true soap and water combination, using a wire brush as a scrubber.

For tougher stains, you may want to buy some TSP (trisodium phosphate). This solvent will remove soot and grease stains, but should be diluted with water first. Read the directions for the exact cleaner-to-water ratio and use latex gloves and protective eyewear while scrubbing away. Muriatic acid, a very toxic chemical agent used to unclog drains and clean masonry, is another option to consider in lieu of TSP. Again, read the directions for how to dilute muriatic acid (usually nine parts water to one part muriatic acid), and remember to protect yourself!

Place your cleaner and water in a bucket of water and get scrubbing! Most of soot and stains should lift pretty easily, but face it: there are may be a couple of stubborn spots that simply won't come up. Don't fret. The final product will make up for a few lingering stains here and there.

Once the fireplace is clean, ultra-ambitious Janes may want to consider painting the fireplace, especially if it is a dated red brick. Masonry paint can be purchased at your local hardware store or online and is relatively easy to apply.

Let it Burn!

Even though you won't be able to see the results of your new, spotless (well, maybe not spotless) chimney, the reward far outweighs the effort. With your chimney swept and your mind at ease, you can enjoy fires all season long. Now, have that faux bearskin rug dry cleaned, stock up on wood and nestle in for the winter ahead.

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