What’s better than curling up by a crackling, wood-burning fire on a cold winter night, snuggled up under a blanket with a warm drink and a good book in hand?
Proper fireplace maintenance, that’s what.
While it may not be a warm and cozy topic to think about, taking good care of chimneys should be on homeowners’ minds as we approach the winter months. Unfortunately, many people with wood-burning fireplaces in their homes neglect this vital aspect of home maintenance. The consequences of that can be pretty serious.
If you have a fireplace in your home, you might be wondering what, exactly, you should be doing to keep it working properly and safely. Here’s what the experts say.
Are Chimney Inspections Really Necessary?
Whether you’re busy, you don’t use it every day or you just aren’t sure what you’re supposed do, it can be easy to fall behind on your fireplace maintenance. Unfortunately, it can also be dangerous.
“Safety is the most important reason for an annual chimney inspection by a (CSIA) Certified Chimney Sweep®. You are lighting a fire in your living room and it’s serious business,” says Zach Zagar, director of marketing and communications for the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA).
Heating equipment like chimneys are the second most common cause of home fire fatalities, and failure to clean this equipment is the leading factor contributing to home heating fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Over time, all of the smoke, gases and particles from the fires you’ve burned will create a buildup in your chimney. This residue, called creosote, is extremely flammable and when it’s allowed to build up, it can cause a chimney fire.
“The two biggest risks associated with not having a (CSIA) Certified Chimney Sweep® inspect your system are chimney fires and carbon monoxide poisoning,” Zagar notes.
When creosote first begins to build up, it’s fairly easy for a technician to remove with a brush. However, as the buildup gets worse, it becomes more difficult to remove. Eventually, the only way to effectively remove the creosote may be to replace the chimney liner, which can be expensive.
How Often Should You Get It Done?
Once a year, according to both CSIA and NFPA.
“An annual inspection will detect potential issues with your system to keep your family safe,” says Zagar.
What Does It Entail?
When you get a chimney inspection done, the inspector will take a look at your chimney for buildup, obstruction, damage or any structural issues. They’ll likely sweep your chimney as part of the inspection to make sure they’re getting an accurate look at your system. Then, if they deem it necessary, they’ll recommend any required work.
There are three levels of chimney inspection, depending on the condition of your chimney.
- Level One: This is a basic inspection that involves examining the easily accessible portions of your chimney, checking that the structure is sound and ensuring that all the components are working properly. If your chimney is in good condition and you haven’t had any problems with your fireplace, this will likely be the level of your regular, annual inspections.
- Level Two: This level of inspection will likely involve your chimney sweep using equipment such as a camera to fully inspect the inside of your chimney. They will inspect all parts of your chimney that are accessible without the use of special tools, and may inspect your attic, crawl space or basement. You’ll get this sort of inspection done when any changes are made to your chimney, such as a change in fuel type or getting a new liner, or after any potentially damaging events like a fire or an earthquake. This level of inspection is required when you sell your home, according to CSIA.
- Level Three: This is a thorough inspection of all parts of your chimney, including any covered or hidden portions that can only be reached using special tools. It may require demolition and rebuilding parts of the chimney, depending on what needs to be done.
Can You Do It Yourself?
It’s best to leave this one to the professionals.
“An inspection will find internal and external issues with your system that a homeowner is not trained to identify, whether it is a crack in your chimney liner that you can only see from a certain angle or signs of water damage inside or outside of your flue,” describes Zagar.
Only a professional chimney sweep is qualified to inspect and clean a chimney so that it remains safe for use. Not only do they know to look for things that a layperson might miss, but the average homeowner probably isn’t properly equipped to thoroughly inspect their chimney in the first place.
“Today’s technicians are often using camera equipment specifically designed for chimney inspections to inspect the inside of your chimney from the bottom to the top,” explains Zagar.
What Should You Be Doing?
Other than getting regular inspections done, there are a few things homeowners can do to keep their fireplaces and chimneys in good condition.
Zagar recommends that all homeowners be familiar with the manufacturer’s instructions on how to operate all their heating equipment, like their system’s damper or gas source.
If you burn wood, make sure you’re only using well-seasoned, dry wood. Cut wood that has been left to dry for at least 6 months in storage will make the best firewood and give you a cleaner burn.
Learn how to properly store your firewood as well. Don’t allow your stores to be ruined by exposure to the elements. The best place is a firewood shed, according to CSIA, with a roof and open sides for air circulation. You can also keep the pile in a sunny location and cover it on rainy or snowy days. Be careful about inviting insects like termites into your home – never store wood inside, and don’t lean it against your house. Only bring in what you plan on immediately burning.
Keep your fireplace clean and make sure you’re frequently cleaning soot and ash from the hearth.
Do You Still Need an Inspection if You Have a Gas Fireplace?
According to Zagar, it’s a common misconception that only those with wood-burning appliances need regular inspections.
“Gas fireplaces, water heaters, furnaces and boilers that utilize a chimney also need to be inspected annually,” he says.
While gas-heated appliances tend to require less maintenance than their wood-burning counterparts, you should still have them checked out once a year to make sure everything is operating safely and to nip any problems in the bud before they become dangerous or costly. Plus, your chimney can become obstructed by animals (like birds creating nests in it), regardless of what fuel type you use. A certified technician can check for these obstructions and take care of them for you.
How to Hire the Best Chimney Sweep
In addition to advancing public awareness about chimney safety and the danger of chimney fires, CSIA provides certification for chimney sweeps. If you are looking for a professional to inspect and clean your chimney, find one who is CSIA certified.
Before hiring a chimney sweep, CSIA recommends asking them to provide references and finding out if they carry a valid business liability insurance policy, in addition to ensuring that they are CSIA certified.
For a basic, level one inspection and cleaning, you can expect to pay between $79 – $200 on average, according to Fixr.com. For higher level inspections, you’ll pay more. Level two inspections can cost between $100 – $500, and level three inspections can range from $1,000 – $5,000.
If you don’t use a certified chimney sweep, be wary of chimney scams. If the initial price seems too good to be true, it probably is. If your chimney sweep says you need to get significant, costly work done, ask for a photo or video of the issue. Get multiple estimates for the repair from different contractors.
Do you have tips for getting the most out of your chimney inspection? Share them in the comments below!
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