While annual chimney maintenance can be a chore, the time you invest in cleaning and inspecting your fireplace and chimney can pay great dividends in both ease of fireplace use during the depths of winter and keeping your home and family safe throughout the cold-weather season. To get the most out of your fireplace this winter, pay attention to the following chimney maintenance tips.

Ash Removal

An ash bed is important for creating and maintaining a fire, but if it gets too thick, it can limit the airflow around the firebox and hamper flame production. The first step in a simple cleaning should be removing excess ashes to maintain an ash layer of no more than two inches. Before disposing of them, ashes should be stored in metal containers with metal lids, and the receptacles should be stored away from the home and not in the vicinity of any flammable materials. Ashes improperly stored and disposed of can cause house fires because they may still contain live embers that can reignite. Ashes should be cooled in their containers for a minimum of four days before attempting to dump them.

Soot/Creosote Removal

Cleaning soot and creosote from the chimney is both aesthetically necessary and crucial for maintaining safety. Soot is a powdery residue that settles on surfaces in the chimney and fireplace. If allowed to build up, excess soot can reduce airflow up to 30 percent, preventing the flue from operating properly. Due to its high level of acidity, soot can also damage the brick surface inside the chimney. Creosote—a tarry residue of the smoke from poorly burning wood—can present an even greater danger. Creosote deposits are highly flammable, and their buildup on chimney walls can be directly responsible for chimney fires.

To clean your fireplace, spray a mixture of mild soap and warm water on the surfaces to be cleaned and allow the mixture to penetrate for 20 to 30 minutes to soften the residue. Then use a stiff wire brush to loosen and clean away the deposits. For cleaning inside the chimney, it is best to schedule a professional chimney sweep.

Clean Damper and Check Mechanism

The damper needs to be closed when the fireplace isn’t in use to prevent heat loss and act as a barrier to the weather. In addition, it needs to open easily and fully when a fire is lit to help maintain the fire’s heat and draw the smoke up and out of the chimney. For this reason, checking the damper is an integral part of a chimney inspection.

Since it usually sits inside the chimney, the damper can be difficult to reach. Be sure to wear eye protection and gloves when attempting to inspect or clean it. Use a wire brush to remove rust and soot buildup from the damper. Examine the damper mechanism, and make sure it works properly and that the damper can open and close fully and easily. If it sticks or can’t be opened completely, it’s time to call a chimney specialist.

Examine Outer Chimney

Exterior chimney maintenance should only be performed by a professional, but if you can get on your roof, a visual inspection of the chimney can uncover problems to be addressed. First, look at the chimney cap to assess its condition. Make sure that there are no leaves or debris clogging it and that it seems intact. Examine the wire screen to make sure there are no holes that might allow birds or small animals through; wildlife can nest inside the chimney, creating blockages.

Two other elements that should be part of your visual inspection are the mortar between the bricks of the chimney and the flashing seal around it. Exposed to the weather and the high heat from the chimney, the mortar can crack or flake away slowly over time, allowing the chimney itself to become unstable. The flashing maintains a watertight seal where the chimney meets the roof, and it must be kept in good repair to prevent water damage to both the chimney and the roof.

Chimney maintenance can be a dirty job, and some people prefer to leave even the basic inspection and cleaning to professional chimney sweeps. While this does increase the annual cost of fireplace use, one significant advantage to using a professional is that he or she can easily spot small problems and maintenance issues before they turn into huge repair bills or safety issues that might imperil the entire home. Whether hiring a chimney professional or going the do-it-yourself route, vigilance on the part of the homeowner can prevent costly fireplace repairs in the future and also ensure that the home remains safe while the fireplace warms up the long, cold winter.

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Sources: Chimney Safety Institute of America; EPA; US Fire Administration.

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