Fireplace & Chimney Care & Maintenance

How To Hire A Chimney Sweep

The Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) recommends that people take a few steps when considering which chimney sweep will perform an annual inspection or related service on their chimney or vent. Because proper care and attention to service can help protect people from unnecessary fires and carbon monoxide poisonings, it is important to choose the professional wisely. While the CSIA recommends that people consider a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep®, there are additional questions that should be asked to ensure that the person hired is a credible service technician:

  1. How long has the chimney sweeping company been in business?
  2. Does the company offer current references?
  3. Does the company have unresolved complaints filed within the city or state consumer protection agency or Better Business Bureau?
  4. Does the company or individual carry a valid business liability insurance policy to protect your home and furnishings against accidents?
  5. Does the company ensure that a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep will be on the job site?
There are more than 1,300 CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps located within North America. To ensure that homeowners receive a certified sweep at every job, all chimney sweeping companies promoting the credential are required to have a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep on every job site.

Three Estimates
You called a chimney sweep out and received an estimate that seemed too high. So, you called another company out for a second opinion. The second contractor provided you with an entirely different scenario. So, getting frustrated, you called a third company intending to get to the bottom of this confusing scenario. Now you have three inspection reports that appear to contradict each other and they each seem to arrive at different conclusions.

How do you decide the best course of action?

Any reputable contractor will be able to provide sufficient documentation to support their estimate. Photographs of the issue in question are one of the best methods of demonstrating the need for repair and to later demonstrate the solution provided.

It is of utmost importance to choose a contractor that you feel comfortable hiring to provide the work. Likely price will not be the most important factor in the decision-making process.

The Inspector's Judgment
There are areas where the judgment of the inspector plays a role in the level of information communicated back in an inspection report. Nearly every chimney in America, for example, has missing mortar between the tile liners. Does this mean that it is okay? Of course not. Does it mean that there is an immediate danger? That question is not as easy to answer, we can only go by the standards in place and recognize that the potential for risk is elevated. It is the inspector's responsibility to bring it to your attention and then allow you, as the homeowner, to decide whether you are willing to take that risk.

Real Estate Inspections
Often conflicting inspection reports will come to light when a home is being sold. It is typical for the seller to have a chimney inspected with the expectation that everything is fine. The buyer then asks for an inspection and expensive repairs are indicated. This is often when it becomes more difficult to define the right and wrong of either inspection. As stated earlier, a chimney may be in ordinary condition and be working well and still have numerous defects. In addition to the missing mortar, there may be other issues related to the clearances that should have been maintained, but are clearly not there.

Occasionally, the homeowner, without knowledge of the industry standards for clearances to combustibles, may have added something to the house themselves that is in violation of the proper clearances. For example, bookshelves on the sides or rear of the fireplace are often added in living rooms.

In other cases, the hearth may not meet the required depth based on the size of the fireplace opening. That fireplace may have been in use for fifty years and was considered acceptable at the time of construction. Some inspectors will make a note of this deficiency and others may not.

But is it "safe"?
Many homeowners really just want to know if the chimney is safe. Commonsense tell us that a situation that involves combustion (ex: a fire in your living room's fireplace) should be tempered with the knowledge that it will never be perfectly safe. Many things can go wrong. The inspector has no control over the operation of the fire and many parts of the chimney structure cannot be seen without intrusive or destructive methods.

Deciding Not to Use the Appliance
Other homeowners will be risk averse and want every detail repaired so they know they have done everything in their power to reduce the risk of a chimney fire or carbon monoxide intrusion. Others may adopt a more cavalier attitude and will not be willing to acknowledge the inherent risk of using a combustion appliance. The most important consideration is to make certain that the products of combustion are contained in the chimney and are vented outside the home.

Because of economic issues some may elect to use their fireplace infrequently and take that chance that the fireplace will not create a problem. In some instances, a homeowner can elect to discontinue use of the fireplace until the appropriate repairs have been made. Keep in mind that the flue serving the furnace will be used any time that the thermostat calls for heat and the appliance kicks on. It is for this reason that the furnace, boiler and water heater venting systems should be considered a priority.

Obvious Problems
In some cases, it is relatively easy to determine when a fireplace is not operating properly. For example, smoke stains above the fireplace opening are an indication of spillage. The smoke spilling from the fireplace may happen infrequently or it might happen every time the fireplace is lit. It could be the result of a flue that is either too small, a chimney that is too short or has offsets or some other restriction. Many homeowners expect a fireplace to smoke from time to time, which is why you often hear "I just love the way it smells when I burn my fireplace". This is not a fireplace that is venting properly while the homeowner may think it is normal.

Most homeowners do not understand the details of fireplace construction and the clearance requirements. That is why there is a need for CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps to perform those inspections. The inspection process requires much more skill than simply sweeping the chimney. Based on the individual attitude and preferences of individual inspectors, it is quite possible to receive varying inspection reports on the same chimney. Most importantly, CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps, as reliable professionals, should be relied upon to be able to discuss their findings and present options in a way which will allow you, the homeowner, to make an informed decision about your chimney.

Care & Maintenance of Your Factory-Built Fireplace

Throughout history, fire has been crucial to human existence. Primitive people relied on fire to cook their food, to keep them warm and to provide light. Although we no longer depend on fire in quite the same way, images of children around campfires and holiday gatherings around an open fireplace abound. Our use of fire has changed over the centuries, so too have fireplaces and heating appliances that contain the fire and make it useful. Classical Greek and Roman homes contained simple fire pits. In Medieval Europe, simple masonry fireplaces were developed. In the 1800's a nobleman, Count Rumford improved masonry fireplace design.

As in the past, masonry fireplace and chimneys are constructed onsite as the house is built. The performance of the fireplace was often dependent upon proper construction. Today, there are factory-built fireplaces, which are manufactured according to an engineered design. Proper installation, however, is still a critical factor in the safe operation of these units.

Annual Chimney Inspections

Storks nesting in chimneys were once believed to bring good luck, according to European folklore. But, in fact, nests in chimneys—or blockages of any kind—are nothing short of bad news. They can cause smoking problems, chimney fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.

In 2005, there were 24,500 residential fires in the United States originating in chimneys, fireplaces and solid fuel appliances, according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. These fires resulted in 20 deaths and $126.1 million in property damage.

Virtually all of these fires were preventable according to the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), a non-profit institution dedicated to public and chimney professional education. Both CSIA and the National Fire Protection Association recommend yearly chimney inspections to help prevent these hazards.

Many American homeowners think their chimneys only need to be cleaned and inspected if they burn wood in their fireplaces or wood stoves. But almost all heating appliances, whether they burn gas, oil, wood or coal, rely on the chimney to safely carry toxic gases produced by the heating system of the house.

A carbon monoxide detector can warn homeowners of potential poisoning after the deadly gas has already entered the living area, but an annual chimney check can help prevent carbon monoxide from entering the home in the first place.

Each fall, homeowners shift into home-improvement mode. They clean gutters, garages and basements—preparing homes for winter. But they usually don't inspect, repair or clean their chimneys, despite the potential for damage to their property or even to their lives.

An annual chimney inspection by a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep® is a modest investment that can reduce the danger of chimney fires or carbon monoxide poisoning. CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps have earned the industry's most respected credential by passing an intensive examination based on fire codes, clearances and standards for the construction and maintenance of chimneys and venting systems.

In fact, when chimney fires occur, many insurance investigators rely on CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps to determine whether a fire originated in—or damaged—the chimney system. The CSIA, established in 1983, is a non-profit, educational institution, dedicated to educating the public about the prevention of chimney safety hazards.

Water and Your Masonry Chimney

The chimney is one of the most taken-for-granted parts of a home. Typically it tends to receive neither the attention nor the concern usually accorded other household service systems. The fact that chimneys may do their job reasonably well, even when abused or neglected, contributes to this atmosphere of indifference. Chimneys are far from the passive black holes that most people assume them to be. They perform several vital functions, and their simple appearance misrepresents their complex construction and performance requirements. A chimney deteriorated by constant exposure to the weather can be a potential safety hazard. Weather-damaged lining systems, flue obstructions and loose masonry materials all present a threat to residents. Regular chimney maintenance is essential to prevent damage, deterioration and future high-cost chimney repairs.

Masonry Chimneys
A masonry chimney is constructed of a variety of masonry and metal materials, including brick, mortar, concrete, concrete block, stone, flue tile, steel and cast iron. All masonry chimneys contain combinations of, or possibly all of, these materials, most of which are adversely affected by direct contact with water or water penetration.

Water Penetration
All masonry chimney construction materials, except stone, will suffer accelerated deterioration as a result of prolonged contact with water. Masonry materials deteriorate quickly when exposed to the freeze/thaw process, in which moisture that has penetrated the materials periodically freezes and expands causing undue stress. Water in the chimney also causes rust in steel and cast iron, weakening or destroying the metal parts.

Note: While most stone is not affected by water penetration, large amounts of mortar are required to bond the stone together properly. Therefore, a stone chimney—just like a brick chimney—should be protected from the effects of water penetration.

Water penetration can cause interior and exterior damage to your home and masonry chimney including:

In addition, when water mixes with creosote in a wood burning chimney system, it will generate a highly disagreeable odor that can permeate a home.

Preventing Water Damage
Chimney caps, also called rain covers, are probably the most inexpensive preventive measure that a homeowner can employ to prevent water penetration and damage to the chimney. Chimney caps have long been recognized as an important chimney safety and damage prevention component. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) specifies that any chimney lining system that is to be listed to their test standard must include a chimney cap.

Chimneys have one or more large openings (flues) at the top that can collect rainwater and funnel it directly to the chimney interior. A commonly-sized flue has the potential to allow large amounts of rain or snow into the chimney during just one winter when freeze/thaw cycles are common.

Chimney caps also provide other benefits. A strong, well-designed cap will prevent birds and animals from entering and nesting in the chimney. Caps also function as spark arrestors, preventing sparks from landing on the roof or other nearby combustible material.

A chimney cap should be easily removable to facilitate inspection and cleaning. For a long and effective service lifetime, a cap should be constructed of sturdy, durable and corrosion resistant material. Caps may be designed to cover a single flue, multiple flues, a large portion of the chimney or the entire chimney top. A full coverage chimney cap usually represents a larger initial investment. However, it is probably the best investment for long-term protection because of its ability to protect the entire chimney crown.

Repair or Replace a Damaged Chimney Crown
The chimney crown (also referred to as the chimney wash) is the top element of a masonry chimney. It covers and seals the top of the chimney from the flue liner to the chimney edge. The crown should provide a downward slope that will direct the water from the flue to the edge of the crown. The overhanging drip edge, by directing the run-off from the crown away from the chimney, helps prevent erosion of the brick and mortar in the chimney's vertical surfaces.

Most masonry chimneys are built with an inadequate crown constructed from common mortar mix that is designed for years of weather abuse without cracking, chipping or deteriorating. A proper chimney crown should be constructed of a Portland cement-based mixture and cast or formed so it provides an overhang projecting beyond all sides of the chimney by a minimum of two inches. The flue liner tile should also project above the crown a minimum of two inches.

Repair Deteriorated Mortar Joints
Deteriorated mortar joints on the chimneys exterior are entry spots for water. Proper mortar joints have no gaps or missing mortar and are shaped in a way that directs water out of the joint. When mortar deteriorates from exposure to weather, it becomes much more absorbent. A common repair for deteriorated mortar joints is called repointing. In this process, the existing mortar joint is cut to an appropriate depth and the joint is repacked with new mortar. The joint is then cut to form a concave surface that will direct water out of the joint. A good repointing job, using proper materials, will give the chimney a much longer life span, and often will enhance its appearance.

Repair or Replace Flashing
Flashing is the seal between the roofing material and the chimney. Flashing prevents rainwater or snow melt from running down the chimney into living spaces where it can damage ceilings and walls and cause rot in rafters. The flashing is the expansion joint between two dissimilar materials. It is designed to allow both the roof and the chimney to expand and contract at their own rates without breaking the waterproof seal in either area.

Install a Cricket to Stop or Prevent Leaks
If the chimney is located on the low side of the roof where water run-off is directed against the chimney, the installation of a cricket will afford additional protection against water leaking into the home. A cricket is a water deflector that serves to direct rainwater away from the chimney. Crickets are recommended on chimneys more than 30-inches wide and they are especially important on steep roofs.

Waterproof Your Chimney
Most masonry materials are porous and will absorb large amounts of water. Common brick is like a sponge, absorbing water and wicking moisture to the chimney interior. Defective mortar joints or the use of improper mortar or brick can greatly increase the tendency to absorb and convey water to the interior of the masonry chimney.

Several products have been developed specifically for use as waterproofing agents on masonry chimneys. These formulas are 100% vapor permeable, which means that they allow the chimney to breathe. Therefore, water that has penetrated and the vapors produced when the chimney dries out or the water vapors produced during use are allowed to escape, while the waterproofing agent prevents water from entering from the outside. These products usually have a five- to ten-year warranty. Paint or clear sealers should never be used as a waterproofing agent because they will trap water vapors and moisture inside the chimney causing further deterioration.

Waterproofing is a preventive measure. When damage or deterioration (gaps, voids, cracks, missing mortar, etc.) already exists in a masonry structure, the chimney should be repaired before the waterproofing agent is applied. The chimney exterior may also need to be cleaned before the waterproofing material is applied.

How to Select Firewood

Firewood is an area where you can have great influence over how well your system performs and how enjoyable your experience will be. Quality, well seasoned firewood will help your wood stove or fireplace burn cleaner and more efficiently, while green or wet wood can cause smoking problems, odor problems, rapid creosote buildup and possibly even dangerous chimney fires.

A few minutes spent understanding firewood will be time well spent, so please read on for general background information, as well as how to buy wood and store wood.

Seasoned Wood
All firewood contains water. Freshly cut wood can be up to 45% water!, while well seasoned firewood generally has a 20-25% moisture content. Well seasoned firewood is easier to start, produces more heat, and burns cleaner. The important thing to remember is that the water must be gone before the wood will burn. If your wood is cut 6 months to a year in advance and properly stored, the sun and wind will do the job for free. If you try to burn green wood, the heat produced by combustion must dry the wood before it will burn, using up a large percentage of the available energy in the process. This results in less heat delivered to your home, and literally gallons of acidic water in the form of creosote deposited in your chimney.

Wood is composed of bundles of microscopic tubes that were used to transport water from the roots of the tree to the leaves. These tubes will stay full of water for years even after a tree is dead. This is why it is so important to have your firewood cut to length for 6 months or more before you burn it, it gives this water a chance to evaporate since the tube ends are finally open and the water only has to migrate a foot or two to escape. Splitting the wood helps too by exposing more surface area to the sun and wind, but cutting the wood to shorter lengths is of primary importance.

There are a few things you can look for to see if the wood you intend to purchase is seasoned or not. Well seasoned firewood generally has darkened ends with cracks or splits visible, it is relatively lightweight, and makes a clear "clunk" when two pieces are beat together. Green wood on the other hand is very heavy, the ends look fresher, and it tends to make a dull "thud" when struck. These clues can fool you however, and by far the best way to be sure you have good wood when you need it is to buy your wood the spring before you intend to burn it and store it properly.

Storing Firewood
Even well seasoned firewood can be ruined by bad storage. Exposed to constant rain or covered in snow, wood will reabsorb large amounts of water, making it unfit to burn and causing it to rot before it can be used. Wood should be stored off the ground if possible and protected from excess moisture when weather threatens.

The ideal situation is a wood shed, where there is a roof but open or loose sides for plenty of air circulation to promote drying. Next best would be to keep the wood pile in a sunny location and cover it on rainy or snowy days, being sure to remove the covering during fair weather to allow air movement and to avoid trapping ground moisture under the covering. Also don't forget that your woodpile also looks like heaven to termites, so it's best to only keep a week or so worth of wood near the house in easy reach. With proper storage you can turn even the greenest wood into great firewood in 6 months or a year, and it can be expected to last 3 or 4 years if necessary.

Buying Firewood
Firewood is generally sold by volume, the most common measure being the cord. Other terms often employed are face cord, rick, or often just a truckload. A standard cord of firewood is 128 cubic feet of wood, generally measured as a pile 8 feet long by 4 feet tall by 4 feet deep. A face cord is also 8 feet long by 4 feet tall, but it is only as deep as the wood is cut, so a face cord of 16" wood actually is only 1/3 of a cord, 24" wood yields 1/2 of a cord, and so on.

Webster defines a rick simply as a pile, and truck sizes obviously vary tremendously, so it is very important that you get all of this straight with the seller before agreeing on a price; there is much room for misunderstanding. It is best to have your wood storage area set up in standard 4 or 8 foot increments, pay the wood seller the extra few dollars often charged to stack the wood, and warn him before he arrives that you will cheerfully pay only when the wood actually measures up to an agreed upon amount.

Another thought concerning getting what you pay for is that although firewood is usually sold by volume, heat production is dependent on weight. Pound for pound, all wood has approximately the same BTU content, but a cord of seasoned hardwood weighs about twice as much as the same volume of softwood, and consequently contains almost twice as much potential heat. If the wood you are buying is not all hardwood, consider offering a little less in payment.

Top Firewood Tips
It is far more important that the fuel be dry as compared to the species.

Do not burn any construction scraps of treated or painted wood, especially treated wood from decks or landscaping ties. The chemicals used can release dangerous amounts of arsenic and other very toxic compounds into your house.

If the "seasoned wood" you bought turned out to be pretty green and you elected to try to burn it anyway, be sure to have the chimney checked more often than usual, you may build up creosote very quickly. You don't have to burn only premium hardwoods. Less dense woods like elm and even soft maple are abundant and make fine firewood as long as you're willing to make a few extra trips to the woodpile.

If you have access to a variety of species, learn to manage your woodpile. Save the more dense fuel for the coldest months and use the "lighter" wood for kindling fires and during the spring or fall when you don't need as much heat.

Many people also have questions about burning artificial logs. Convenience is their strong suit and in general they are fine when time is an issue and you want a quick fire without all the muss and fuss of natural firewood. Usually they should be burned only one at a time and only in an open fireplace. One should be careful about poking them and moving them around once they are burning since they may break up and the fire may get a bit out of control. Be sure to carefully read the directions on the package.

All above information comes from the CSIA website.