Chimney Maintenance - Fuel, Usage and Condition
Looking after your chimney
Chimney maintenance is crucial in order to keep the fireplace burning efficiently and to prevent chimney fires. Chimneys should be inspected and cleaned at least once a year and sometimes more depending on the frequency of use, the fuel used and the chimney's condition.
These checks should be done by a professional chimney sweep but it is also useful for the homeowner to do some checks of their own as this will provide some idea of the condition of the chimney and a clearer understanding of the professional evaluation. Have the chimney serviced before the winter arrives to ensure that it will be ready for use when it is needed. Having said that, fall is the busiest time of the year for chimney sweeps so it is advisable to book early.
Chimney fires can vary in size and severity. In some cases the fire will be confined to the chimney but sparks and heat could ignite other flammable substances nearby, such as the roof. Cracked or damaged chimney liners could allow the fire to spread to other areas of the house. These fires are not usually a subtle occurrence and are accompanied by a loud rushing noise created by the sudden gust of air flowing into the chimney to feed the fire.
A large part of chimney maintenance is the proper operation of the fireplace. Burning hardwood is a better option than soft wood as it burns more easily and more efficiently releasing less smoke and gas emissions. Be sure, however, to choose seasoned wood as this is wood that has been allowed to dry before being sold. Burning dry wood releases less combustion by-products than freshly cut wood thereby creating less creosote deposits in the chimney.
Using a strong light, look up into the chimney to see if it needs to be cleaned. It is a good idea to open the damper and give the soot some time to settle before this is done and if possible, wear a pair of goggles. In wood burning fireplaces it is of particular importance to look out for creosote build-up on the chimney lining. This is a by-product of incomplete combustion and forms when wood smoke is condensed. It presents itself as a black or brown substance that is either flaky or bubbly in appearance. Also look for damage or signs of deterioration to the chimney lining as this component keeps fire and heat from affecting the surrounding walls and creating a fire hazard. When the creosote deposits lining the chimney are approximately one quarter of an inch thick the chimney will need to be cleaned by a professional chimney sweep.
Masonry chimneys require more maintenance than metal chimneys as metal is better able to cope with the corrosive elements of the weather. However, these do still need to be serviced annually. When checking masonry chimneys look out for loose bricks, cracks or chips and check to see if it is leaning. In metal chimneys look for deterioration, loose sections, bending and stains on the metal. If possible, check the chimney cap for deterioration or damage. A pair of binoculars can prove useful if getting onto the roof is not plausible. Chimney caps are important as they keep water, debris and animals out of the chimney. While animals and debris can be a real nuisance, water can cause a lot of damage to the masonry. Peeling wallpaper or paint, leaks and stains are telltale signs that there is water damage which will need to be dealt with immediately.
Surprisingly, fireplaces that are used continuously throughout the winter season tend to need less cleaning than those that are only used occasionally. This is because the regular high temperatures in frequently used fireplaces burn off a lot of the accumulated dirt and residue. Do not burn small and smoldering fires as these do release a lot of smoke.