Extinguish Fire Hazards with Annual Chimney Maintenance

You may have experienced a sudden flue fire – you’re enjoying your beautiful cracking fire and suddenly a tremendous noise roars up the chimney. People don't always know they're having a chimney fire though, because it doesn't always burst into flames with a thunderous bellow. It can smolder and sizzle for an hour or more. You could be sitting around watching a movie and not even know there is a flue fire.

Beware of Creosote Buildup

The culprit in chimney fires is creosote, a black or brown combustion residue that collects on the inner surfaces of a flue liner. Creosote is highly flammable; if it builds up, it can catch fire, reaching temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. These high temperatures can crack " fireproof" brick, stone or clay flue liners, allowing heat to reach nearby wood framing and other combustible materials. Then you’re in trouble. Luckily this scenario is easily prevented.

Make sure your flue is free of creosote by inspecting and cleaning your chimney once a year, preferably in late spring or early summer when heating season is over. Then you have enough time to complete any repairs before the heating season begins in the fall.

Here are tips on conducting inspections and making repairs yourself and how to find a credible chimney sweep who will thoroughly clean your fireplace and chimney and check it for defects.

Do-It-Yourself Inspections and Repairs

  • Wear old clothes and equip yourself with a dust mask or respirator and a pair of safety goggles.

  • Check the firebox for damaged brick and mortar that is crumbling or missing. These defects usually can be repaired with refractory cement, a tough, heat-proof sealant available through fireplace dealers.

  • Open the damper completely. It should move freely and fit snugly against the smoke shelf. Use a flashlight to check the damper for cracks, pitting or rusted-out sections. Broken or corroded dampers should be replaced by a professional. Look for and remove any debris that may restrict air flow.

  • Check for broken or damaged bricks or flue liners. Vertical cracking in the liner is a sure sign of a previous flue fire and should be considered a serious problem. Consult a professional chimney sweep or a masonry contractor who is familiar with fireplace repairs.

  • Inspect for creosote deposits. If creosote has built up to a thickness greater than 1/8 inch, remove it. If you can't see the entire flue from below, you'll have to get up on the roof and inspect the flue from above. But don't get up on the roof unless you are completely confident of your abilities. By attaching ridge hooks to the end of a section of ladder, you can make a safety ladder that lays flat and secure against the roof surface.

Shopping for a Chimney Sweep

To find a chimney sweep, start by looking in the yellow pages or online under “chimney cleaning." Or contact the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) or the National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG).

Verify the professional qualifications of chimney sweeps, especially of those found in the yellow pages or through referrals. Chimney sweeps are not regulated or licensed by government agencies, but many sweeps apply for certification by CSIA or membership in the NCSG. These organizations promote professionalism in the industry by testing applicants and offering continuing education opportunities to keep members up to date on changing technology and fire safety.

A professional chimney sweep will thoroughly clean your fireplace and chimney and check for defects. Many sweeps lower video cameras and lights into chimneys to provide a close look at walls and liner surfaces, and to take a visual record of the chimney's condition for the homeowner. Here’s what to ask your chimney sweep:

  • How long has your company been in business?

  • Are you certified?

  • Can you give referrals from previous customers?

  • What services do you provide and how much do they cost?

  • Do you have liability insurance that protects my home and belongings in case of an accident?

  • Are you qualified to complete necessary repairs, and if so, what are the additional fees?

  • If you aren't qualified to complete the necessary repairs, can you recommend a professional masonry contractor to do the job?

An annual chimney inspection and maintenance is a sound investment in fire prevention. Now you can sit back and relax in front of your fire and know that all is well.