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It depends on how often you use your fireplace and what kind of wood you burn, but generally an annual sweep is recommended. That's because even if you don't use the fireplace often, animals sometimes nest in chimney flues.
Also, chimneys are made up of several components, including the crown, flue, smoke chamber, damper and firebox … all of which should be inspected, cleaned and repaired if necessary – to ensure that: dangerous soot and creosote buildup are avoided, and, everything is working properly.
It’s particularly important to keep your chimney free of creosote buildup, because creosote can be highly flammable.
"Does the kind of wood I burn affect how often a chimney should be cleaned?"
Yes! The main issue is not the type of trees your logs come from (e.g., pine or oak), but rather, how damp the wood is , and whether or not the wood is "seasoned."
Good for Your Fireplace: Dry Wood (Also Called Seasoned Wood) Dry wood has aged naturally over 6-9 months – with outdoor exposure to moisture and breezes to dry it out over time. Completely dry wood burns hotter and cleaner, which minimizes creosote build-up.
Bad for Your Fireplace: Green and Wet Wood (Also Called Unseasoned Wood) Green wood has been recently cut. Wet wood has had more time to season, but is not fully dry yet. Green and wet logs don’t burn as hot or as clean as seasoned wood – which means they produce more smoke and cause higher levels of creosote accumulation in your chimney.
The bottom line: check that the wood you're burning is seasoned. Visible dryness and cracking at the ends of the logs, plus no signs of moisture, are good indications that the wood is OK to burn.
"How do I tell if my chimney needs cleaning?"
The following signs will let you know your chimney needs cleaning: it’s becoming harder to keep your fire lit, black soot has fallen in and around your fireplace, smoke occasionally seeps into the room, bad smells come from the fireplace area.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll know what level of cleaning is needed. First, take a sample of any sooty buildup you see from up inside the fireplace, by scraping with one of your fireplace tools:
If the soot has a dull gray matte finish, is less than 1/8 of an inch, and flakes off when scraped, it needs cleaning, but you may be able to do the job yourself if you have the right tools. (If you don't have the right tools, call a professional.)
If the soot is deeper than 1/8 of an inch, is black and granular or tar-like in appearance, you need professional cleaning, and should call a chimney cleaning expert.
"Can I clean my chimney by myself?"
You might be able to do this job yourself if you have the right tools, and, the creosote build-up is not too bad. If you have substantial creosote buildup (which happens when cleaning is left for too long), you’ll need to call a pro because creosote is difficult to remove – sometimes requiring special tools and chemicals – and can be flammable.
To know whether you can clean it yourself or whether you have to hire a pro, inspect your chimney using these steps:
Use a flashlight to look for soot, shiny granules or tar-like deposits at the top of the firebox and up in the flue.
Run the tip of your fireplace poker along the inside of your chimney – if the buildup is gray and soft you may be able to clean it yourself. If it's granular or sticky, and more than 1/8 of an inch thick, you should call a pro.
If you don’t have creosote, see if you can reach the smoke chamber area (it’s right above the fire box, directly past the damper) – this is where fires typically start so it’s crucial this area be cleaned well.
See if you can easily and effectively brush/scrape the smoke chamber area to remove dirt and soot.
Go onto your roof and see if you can reach into the crown of the chimney to clean the inside.
If you can reach all these areas and don’t have creosote, you can clean it yourself. It’s a dirty job, but if you are willing to wear eye protection, a dust mask, buy/use a scraper, have the right brushes (long-handled, noodle, and flue liner brushes), wear gloves, and have a shop vac, it can be done.
Keep in mind that even if you clean your chimney regularly, you should still have it inspected by a qualified chimney sweep once every year or two to make sure you are keeping it functional, and free of dirt, soot, creosote and animal nests.
"Do gas fireplace chimneys need to be cleaned?"
Yes, because sometimes bird nests or other types of debris might block air flow, preventing the chimney flue from properly working.
The chimney flue must be able to easily let out heat and carbon monoxide (which you cannot see or smell). Deposits in the chimney are not unusual with gas fireplaces, so regular cleaning is recommended.