By Paul FP Pogue
If you own a fireplace and use it regularly, fall is the time to give serious thought to hiring a chimney sweep — before you light your first fire. Chimney sweeping is an intricate and sometimes high-tech job that is critical to the safety of your home. The National Fire Protection Agency says unclean chimneys are a major cause of house fires. And for that reason, the NFPA recommends an annual inspection. A clear chimney improves safety, creates a more comfortable experience, and allows smoke and gases to vent away from your living area.
You won’t always need a full cleaning, but the inspection will help identify any problems. In addition to ensuring your safety, an inspection may also identify structural problems that can be solved for less that it would cost after years of buildup.
Signs that you need a chimney inspection include a visibly thick buildup of soot and creosote, smoke entering into your living space, a weak fire and a tar smell emanating from the fireplace.
Elements of a chimney inspection
A professional chimney sweep will closely inspect your chimney from top to bottom, including the firebox, interior flue, smoke chamber, exterior masonry and flashing. They’ll look for both creosote buildup and structural damage. In many cases, house fires caused by the fireplace take place because a structural issue or cracked wall allows the fire to escape. They’ll also keep an eye out for animals, bird nests and branches.
In many cases, a sweep will inspect your chimney free of charge. On average, a full chimney cleaning will cost between $125 and $325. In extreme cases with large amounts of buildup, the cost may be higher. If you have significant structural damage, the cost may be as high as a few thousand dollars.
A professional chimney sweep will use a wire brush attached to a flexible rod that extends deeply into the flue. In some cases this is an old-school brush that hasn’t changed much since the days of “Mary Poppins;” others use electrically driven brushes to break up the soot and creosote.
What is creosote?
Creosote is the thick, oily residue deposited into a chimney by burning wood. Creosote deposits increase fire risks, and if left unattended, harden into a solid glaze that can be difficult to remove. Chimney sweeps make a particular point of getting creosote off the surface.
You may have seen creosote-sweeping logs on the shelves at your local big box store. While they’re not fully effective in preventing creosote, using them throughout the season can dry up the creosote and make it easier to flake away. It’s not a substitute for chimney sweeping, but when used properly it can improve your fireplace experience.
As always, when hiring a professional, make sure they hold the proper license, bonding and insurance to work in your area. Ask if they hold certification from a professional organization such as the Chimney Safety Institute of America.