Today, the vast majority of homes in the US rely on electricity, natural gas or oil for heating. However, many do still burn wood. And no one can deny that wood-burning fireplaces offer not just an incredible ambience, but provide a great deal of utility (think about power outages, or even moving to off-grid living, for instance). With all that being said, fireplaces, and the chimneys that serve them, require care and maintenance throughout the year. Chimney cleaning is one of the most essential.
Why do chimneys need to be cleaned in the first place?
The chimney attached to a fireplace serves a crucial purpose – it pulls the smoke (and some of the heat) from the fire and emits it into the air above the home. Without a chimney, the room would fill with smoke quickly. However, smoke is more than just vapor. It carries tiny particles with it. Over time, those particles collect on the walls of the chimney, restricting the flow of smoke from below. Those particles are also flammable, and chimney fires can start if regular maintenance is not performed.
There are other reasons that you need to ensure your chimney is cleaned regularly. In addition to restricted airflow and the risk of fire, smoke contains acidic chemicals that will attach to the masonry of your chimney. Over time, it can eat into the mortar, causing significant damage, up to and including the need to replace the entire chimney.
There is also the fact that if you don’t use your fireplace very often, there’s the chance for wildlife to build homes in the chimney. Regular cleaning helps prevent birds, rodents and other animals from claiming that space, which could cause serious problems when winter arrives and you build the first fire of the season.
How are chimneys cleaned?
Anyone who’s ever seen Disney’s Mary Poppins knows a thing or two about chimneys. They’re cleaned by sweeping (that practice actually survives today). Chimneys must be “swept” with special brushes that will remove the buildup from the walls and prevent fires, while ensuring proper airflow through the chimney. Really, it’s more like scrubbing than it is sweeping.
How often should my chimney be cleaned?
There’s really no “hard and fast” rule here. You should clean your chimney as often as necessary. Usually, that’s when the buildup on the interior walls reaches about an eighth of an inch in thickness. Any more than that, and you run the risk of restricted airflow and potential chimney fires.
There are several ways that you can check to see if you need to have your chimney cleaned. One option is to just arrange for an annual chimney inspection (which is recommended for all homes with fireplaces or wood burning stoves). An inspector will check the condition of the chimney, the buildup level within it, and other elements, and then arrange for cleaning if needed.
You can check the level of buildup by looking up into the flue from the fireplace. Use a flashlight and look for black buildup (granular or tar-like). If you see any buildup, the chimney needs to be cleaned. If you only see black soot, scrape it with your fire poker. If it is very thin, you don’t need to have it cleaned yet.
Chimney cleaning is an essential consideration for anyone who uses their fireplace or wood burning stove. Make sure to have yours inspected once per year to ensure safety and to see if it needs to be cleaned to ensure proper airflow and to prevent the threat of chimney fires.