Chim Chiminey, Chim Chiminey

By Lauren Baumbauer

December 31, 2009 5 min read

The fireplace may be your favorite spot to snuggle in front of and keep warm. Or you may enjoy how it looks with decorations above it in the spring. But do you ever wonder about how to maintain it? Do you have a messy fireplace and wonder whether you should clean it?

If you're new to your fireplace or it doesn't get much use, you may not even know whether it's clean. Do you know how to get started or why it should be cleaned?

Cleaning a chimney is very important -- especially in the springtime, after a winter full of use. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to chimney and venting system safety, dirty chimneys can cause fires, possibly destroying homes and injuring or killing people.

But fires aren't the only hazard of an unkempt chimney. "The gradual accumulation of soot can seriously affect the way your chimney performs," CSIA says.

Thick layers of soot physically restrict the chimney's flue more than thinner layers, but a little buildup can go a long way in air restriction. For a typical masonry fireplace chimney, a 1/2-inch buildup can restrict airflow by 17 percent; it's 30 percent for an average prefabricated chimney, according to CSIA.

Another aspect of unkempt chimneys that may not come to mind for a fireplace owner is how many leaves and twigs can be found inside. CSIA warns that birds and other small animals often take up house in chimneys, and this may go unnoticed by the human residents.

In order to prevent chimney fires and maintain the chimney properly so it stays fully operational, the chimney must be kept clean.

There are several ways to check whether a chimney needs to be cleaned. According to the Family Education Network -- a consumer network of learning and information resources personalized to help parents, teachers and students of all ages -- if burned wood odors come from the fireplace when it's not being used, the chimney needs to be cleaned. When a fireplace is being used, a fire that burns poorly or that produces a lot of smoke in the room indicates that a cleaning is needed. A damper, which should be situated right above the firebox, gets caked with creosote; when it's black, your chimney needs a good cleaning.

Keeping a tidy and safe chimney isn't a small task by any means, and it's almost impossible not to make a bit of a mess. In fact, most fireplace keepers should hire a chimney sweep. The National Chimney Sweep Guild is a great resource to investigate when searching for a chimney sweep organization; it will help you avoid scams. CSIA recommends a professional cleaning at least once a year, but more regular cleaning may be needed, depending on how often the fireplace is used.

If professional help isn't an option, though, or you'd like an idea of how to have more regular maintenance without losing too much cash, it is possible to try it on your own.

To get started, you'll need a chimney rod and stiff-bristled cleaning brushes. The Log Rack ( -- a one-stop source for information on outdoor and indoor stoves, fireplaces and starting a fire -- suggests always using the brush that is the same size as the flue tiles, so you should make sure to have paper and a pen handy to take measurements. Which brush to use is also determined by how much creosote buildup there is. A little black soot requires only a wire brush; a flat-wire or double-spiral brush provides more surface contact. A vacuum cleaner with a crevice attachment is highly supported by the Family Education Network for making regular chimney cleaning easier.

A ladder is also important, as it allows you to climb onto the roof. Eye protection, gloves and a dust mask are necessary. The Family Education Network recommends a respirator mask so you can avoid inhaling creosote dust and soot. It also suggests using dropcloths to cover the fireplace opening or any furniture in the area to protect it and keep the rest of the house as clean as possible. Use a strong adhesive to attach the cloth or sheet to the opening. Also, a broom is needed for sweeping up extra debris.

Cleaning the chimney may require more or less scrubbing than anticipated, depending on what you find. Be cautious and find a neighbor or friend to help for safety purposes; it also will make the process go a little faster. Always be careful with where the creosote and soot end up, and stay protected.

Remember to check the chimney regularly and maintain its cleanliness in order to get the most out of the coziest spot in the house.

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