Clean Sweep

By Tom Roebuck

June 20, 2008 4 min read


Proper fireplace care to protect hearth and home

By Tom Roebuck

Copley News Service

The family-room fireplace is a natural gathering place during the winter months. The soft, flickering light of the flames has a soothing quality that contrasts with the heat generated by the red-hot embers. You're drawn closer, yet you still need to keep your distance.

While a chimney may have no moving parts other than the flue, it does require attention. Years of fires can leave deposits in the chimney that need to be swept out and moisture can build up, damaging brick and mortar. Experts from the Chimney Safety Institute of America recommend annual inspections for all home chimneys.

And the best time for an inspection is soon after the burning season ends, allowing time for a chimney sweep to be called or to make any needed repairs. Waiting until the weather turns cold is like trying to get your air conditioner fixed just as the first heat wave arrives. Good luck.

When the time comes to have your chimney inspected, it is important to choose the professional wisely, because proper care and attention to service can help protect people from dangerous fires and carbon monoxide poisonings.

"Hiring the right professional to inspect and maintain the system is one of the most important steps that a homeowner can take to ensure safety and efficiency," said Ashley Eldridge, director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute.

Eldridge offered homeowners three tips to help find a qualified chimney professional:

- Verify advertised credentials. Reputable national credentials must be renewed on a regular basis to remain valid. Check with the organization granting the credentials to be sure that the individual you hire holds the credential he or she advertises.

- Ask for and check references. Conscientious companies will have references available from previous clients and are eager to share reports from local consumer advocacy organizations such as the Better Business Bureau or Angie's List.

- Learn the language of chimneys to level the playing field. The interactive fireplace glossary at outlines the 13 most important terms you need to know to communicate with any professional chimney sweep. The site also offers short presentations on chimney sweeping and inspection processes.

Choosing the right firewood will help avoid having to hire a chimney sweep. Choose well-seasoned wood that has been split for a minimum of six months and stored in a covered and elevated location. Do not burn treated wood, and certainly don't cram the Christmas tree into the fireplace.

One alternative to burning wood in a fireplace is Java-Log, made from spent coffee grounds and vegetable wax. Simply place the log, still in its paper wrapper, in the fireplace and light the wrapper - it will burn for two to three hours. Since coffee has three times more energy than wood, the flame is brighter and it gives off a sweet, natural, woody smell. Java-Log releases 83 percent less particulate matter than firewood and 87 percent less creosote and carbon monoxide, easing stress on both your chimney and the Earth's atmosphere.

Sooty deposits aren't the only chimney challenge - rainwater can get into an uncapped chimney and become acidic when it comes into contact with exhaust gasses, eroding the brick and mortar. Water can also seep into cracks and expand during freezing weather, causing the chimney to crumble and chunks to break loose. And animals can find their way into an uncapped chimney. Fortunately there's an easy and cheap solution: Install a chimney cap.

"They don't cost much, something like 50 bucks," Eldridge said. "And a chimney without a cap is like a house without a roof."

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