Wood-Burning Fireplace and Stove Maintenance

One of the most important things you can do to keep your fireplace or stove in peak condition is to have it inspected and cleaned annually.


Enlarge Image You can take a quick look into the flue with a good worklight, but for a thorough inspection, don googles and a respirator, too.

Inspecting a fireplace isn't a particularly difficult job, but it is a dirty one. Wear old clothes (including a hat). Put on a dust mask or respirator and safety goggles.

Browse our inspection tips below.

  • Check the firebox for cracks and loosening joints. In a masonry fireplace also check for damage to bricks and mortar. Make minor repairs to firebox joints and cracks using refractory cement; it's designed to handle the extreme heat conditions in a fireplace and it's readily available at fireplace stores.
  • Open the damper completely. It should move freely and sit snugly against the throat. Make sure the metal is solid with no cracks, severe pitting, or rusted-through sections. Replacing a damper is not a do-it-yourself job; if the damper is in bad shape, hire a professional to replace it.
  • Using a high-powered flashlight or worklight, look up the flue to check for damage. Metal flue liners should be clean and the joints well aligned. Tile or masonry flue liners should be solid and free of cracks. All repairs should be done by a certified professional.
  • Make sure the chimney is unobstructed of leaves and other debris that may have fallen into the chimney. Chimneys are also favorite nesting places for birds and squirrels, even if it's only been a few months since the fireplace was last used.
  • If you can't see the entire flue from below, you'll have to check from the roof. If you're at all uncomfortable doing this or have no experience working on a roof, hire a professional chimney sweep to inspect and clean the chimney.
Enlarge Image A picture like this is reason enough to hire a sweep to clean your fireplace and chimney!

If you prefer to leave the messy job of inspecting and cleaning your fireplace or stove to someone else, hire a professional chimney sweep. Look in the Yellow Pages of your phone directory under "Chimney Cleaning." Expect to pay $100-$200 for a straightforward inspection and cleaning.

Some sweeps use tiny video cameras and lights to get an up-close look at every inch of a flue and establish a visual record of the chimney's condition for the homeowner.

The chimney sweep industry is not regulated or licensed by a government agency, but many sweeps apply for certification by the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) or membership in the National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG). These organizations promote professionalism in the industry by testing applicants and providing continuing education opportunities to keep members up-to-date on current technology and fire safety.

Creosote
Enlarge Image Schedule regular cleanings by a chimney sweep if you use your fireplace often.

When wood burns, it produces water vapor, gases, and smoke. Ideally, all these are swept up the flue and out the chimney. However, as these warm vapors reach the upper parts of the chimney they encounter the cooler outdoor air and condense, forming creosote.

Creosote is a black or brown residue that clings to the inner surfaces of the flue liner. It can be hard and glassy, sticky, or even dry and flaky. When creosote builds up in a flue, it may catch fire. Although new flue liners must be rated to withstand 1700-degree temperatures, a flue fire can reach 2,500 degrees. Should a flue fail in a fire, the nearby wood framing members and insulation in a house can ignite.

Flue fires can be insidious events. A small hot spot can smolder for hours after the fire in the firebox has been safely extinguished. Hidden in the chimney, a fire can build and spread throughout the flue undetected.

That's why, in addition to removing soot and other debris from a flue, be sure all creosote is removed every time the fireplace is cleaned. Remember, too, that chimney sweeps see a lot of fireplaces and flues so their eyes are better trained to recognize the difference between creosote build up and plain soot.

Enlarge Image A good fireplace cleaning starts at the top.

Use common sense to decide if you want to clean a chimney yourself; take every precaution to protect yourself and ensure safety. Working on a roof is inherently dangerous. The cost of hiring a good chimney sweep is usually modest, and these folks have all the right equipment for the job.

As a homeowner, you should know what the work entails to ensure the work done on your home is thorough. So take a few minutes to understand the work that needs to be done.

Enlarge Image Cleaning a fireplace is dirty work -- dark, too.
  • If you choose to clean the chimney yourself, start by getting the right brushes. Chimney-cleaning brushes are large, with stiff wire or plastic bristles. The handle of this type of brush is threaded so you can attach a series of flexible, fiberglass rods that allow the brush to reach and clean the full length of the flue.
  • Inside the house, lay dropcloths around the hearth area and close the glass doors. Have a heavy-duty shop vacuum ready to remove the debris loosened by the cleaning.
  • Start at the chimney opening, brushing the entire surface of the flue within reach. Then add a length of rod to reach further and continue cleaning.
  • Finish cleaning in the firebox and use the shop vacuum to clean up; be sure to also vacuum the damper area and smoke shelf.

Fireplace Safety Tips

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