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.
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.
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.
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.