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Everything you need to know about cleaning your chimney and fireplace

Before the cool, crisp days of autumn make cozy evenings in front of the fireplace irresistible, take time to make sure your fireplace is as safe as it is inviting. A 2016 report from the National Fire Protection Association states that a leading factor contributing to home heating fires was the failure to clean chimneys.

Not usually a DIY chore, it’s best to hire a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep to tackle this job, recommends Ashley Eldridge, education director for Chimney Safety Institute of America. That’s because cleaning and inspecting chimneys involves a lot more than just sweeping soot.

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Why you have less time to escape a house fire today than 30 years ago

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How often should a chimney be inspected?

Every year. New wood-burning installations such as fireplaces or wood-burning stoves should be checked midway through the first heating season to confirm everything is working properly.

How often should a chimney be cleaned?

Cleaning should be done as necessary — normally when there’s a minimum 1/8-inch of deposit in the chimney. An annual inspection will determine if any sweeping or repairs are needed.

In some cases, it’s necessary to sweep more than once a year, especially if the operator, the fuel or the venting system are not properly matched.

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Why get a chimney inspected and cleaned in the first place?

  1. The combustion process deposits an acidic material that weakens masonry or metal chimneys, causing them to deteriorate prematurely.
  2. Significant buildup of creosote, a flammable material resulting from incomplete combustion, may catch fire and spread to the attic and other areas of the home.
  3. If a chimney is used infrequently, critters and birds can collect and nest there, blocking the chimney. Leaves, twigs, pine cones and branches can obstruct the chimney, too.
  4. High winds or driving rain can also damage chimneys. CSIA recommends that, as a general rule, a chimney should have a rain cap to keep out animals and water as these are the primary reasons chimneys fail.

What should a professional chimney cleaning include?

  1. Sweeping the fireplace, checking the firebox, liners, smoke chamber and flue, chimney exterior and inspecting the appliance for proper clearances.
  2. Recommendations for proper operation or replacement of equipment and necessary repairs to equipment or structure.
  3. A video inspection. It may mean an additional cost, but it could detect hidden damage.

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How much should it cost?

According to Andy Klotz of Angie’s List, a standard chimney inspection costs about $100 to $250, depending on roof accessibility and the type of chimney inspected. Some chimney sweeps waive inspection fees if cleaning or repair work is done.

Chimney cleanings typically cost $100 to $350, according to Klotz, depending on special equipment needed or complications, like animals — which may be living or dead — in the chimney.

How do I select a qualified chimney sweep?

  1. Hire CSIA Certified chimney sweeps and verify that the certification is active. For more information, go online or call CSIA at 317.837.5362.
  2. Ask for references and warranty/guarantees for the work provided.
  3. Ask for proof of insurance (at least $300,000), and verify with the insurer that the policy is current.

What to do for other chimneys and heat sources in the home

Wood-burning stoves also have flues and chimneys that need a yearly inspection. If the stove is being operated ideally, you will find a gray ash as the predominant residue. However, if there’s shiny build-up on the inside of the door, it’s an indication that the fire is being burned much too low.

Low-burning fires produce an even greater accumulation of creosote on the chimney. But don’t be so quick to burn hotter until the chimney is swept, warns Eldridge. That’s because turning up the heat when there’s an accumulation of creosote in the chimney could cause a fire.

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Can I clean the chimney myself?

“I hesitate to recommend do-it-yourself,” says Eldridge, “because most of us don't know how to do it properly and we certainly don't have the expertise or equipment to inspect the chimney for other failings.”

There is one type of chimney that could most likely be cleaned by the homeowner, Eldridge adds. It’s one where an insert has been installed in the fireplace with a properly sized liner. To clean, insert the brush into the fireplace and flue and sweep up to the top.

“The downside is that there may be a lot of soot or creosote on the rain cap itself that must also be cleaned. Most of the work can be done from the fireplace,” says Eldridge, “but you want to be able to see through that rain cap from the ground to be sure it’s not blocked.” Also, if the chimney cap needs cleaning, that means getting up on the roof, a task not for the faint of heart.

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6 ways to properly maintain your chimney and fireplace

While it’s best to let a pro inspect and clean the chimney, there are six things homeowners can do to improve their fireplace experience.

  1. Clean the ashes from the fireplace as they accumulate.
  2. Gather firewood a year in advance to properly season it. This results in less flammable material collecting in the chimney.
  3. Make sure the damper is fully open before lighting a fire in the fireplace.
  4. Burn nothing in the fireplace except dry firewood or CSIA-accepted manufactured logs. Never burn pressure-treated or painted wood.
  5. Burn fires that consume the fuel. Burning wet or poor quality fuel results in slow fires and more creosote buildup on the flue.
  6. Consider using a top-down burn method, which burns hotter, cleaner and produces less smoke than traditional fire-building methods. Place the largest logs on the bottom of the fireplace, then add a cross layer of smaller logs. Next, add some crushed newspaper and top it all with 1-inch of kindling. Light the newspaper, sit back and enjoy the fire.
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