If you’re part of the large following of homeowners who think your fireplace and chimney is indestructible and requires little to no maintenance, then you are setting you and your family up for a major disaster. People automatically assume that masonry fireplaces require no work or maintenance. This simply isn’t true. A fireplace is not only part of your home's heating system, but it's essentially a controlled burn within your home. If not properly maintained, not only do you risk a serious fire hazard but fumes and smoke debris that can damage your health and your home. Proper maintenance is essential to using your fireplace or woodstove safely and effectively. Poorly maintained fireplaces and chimneys aren’t just safety hazards that subsequently are the cause of a number of house fires and preventable deaths each year, but minor issues left unattended can lead to very expensive repairs that could have been prevented.
The most common problems that result from poorly maintained fireplaces and chimneys are:
· Carbon monoxide poisoning
· Chimney fires
· Premature failure of the fireplace and chimney
Understanding Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide poisoning is responsible for more than four thousand deaths a year in the US and more than half of those were the result of a poorly maintained chimney. Carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion from materials burned in the fireplace or woodstove, gas water heaters, and gas and oil furnaces. Carbon monoxide poisoning is known as the silent killer because you can’t see or smell it, meaning it provides little to no warning of its presence. This is why Carbon Monoxide detectors are essential in homes as it warns occupants of the presence of carbon monoxide in the home well before levels to become deadly.
Low levels of carbon monoxide poisoning cause flu-like symptoms. High levels of carbon monoxide poisoning cause fatigue, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and even death if exposed for long periods of time. It tricks the body into thinking its breathing in oxygen. If you suspect you are the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the home immediately and call your local fire department. Do not go back into the home for anything, don’t use any electronic devices in or around the home, instead make the call from a neighbor’s house.
When a fireplace, wood stove, or chimney are poorly maintained, fumes have no way of escaping up through the chimney so they blowback inside the home. This issue is completely avoidable with proper cleaning and maintenance and regular chimney inspections from a licensed professional.
Preventing Chimney Fires
Another risk you take when you fail to properly maintain your chimney is chimney fires. As you burn fires in your fireplace or woodstove, they generate smoke. When the smoke rises up in the chimney it comes in contact with the cool interior of the chimney walls also called the flue. When this happens the smoke condenses in the same way that steam forms on a glass of a cold drink. This condensation is called creosote. It’s a black or brown gum-like substance that builds up inside the flue. If enough builds up without being cleaned it will ignite resulting in a chimney fire. The fires can be so small that they are barely noticeable at first but spread quickly and sound almost as if a low fly jet is inside your home. Just because the fire is contained to the chimney does not mean your home is safe.
Chimney fires are dangerous because of the extremely high temperatures that are produced from the fire causing damage to the mortar in the chimney and igniting the materials surrounding the chimney and fireplace. Chimney fires can spread very quickly and consume your entire house in no time making it hard to get them under control before losing your entire home.
The Dangers of Chimney Failure
We discussed how a poorly maintained chimney can cause chimney fires, but there are many other dangers associated with a poorly maintained chimney. Fires can cause damage to the mortar joints and cracks in the chimney that will cause it to crumble further and some of these fires may have never been noticed. Carbon monoxide leaking into the home through the cracks is another danger. You also risk water damage to your home. As cracks form on the exterior walls of your chimney water seeps in. As the water freezes and thaws it causes the cracks to spread allowing more water into the home. This will start to rot the materials around the chimney causing water damage, mold, and mildew, which once again presents another health hazard.
Clearly, it is not just the damage to your health you are risking, but the health to your home is in serious jeopardy when you fail to properly care and maintain for your home's chimney.
Understanding the Chimney Inspection Process
Now that we’ve discussed the dangers of not maintaining your chimney lets talk about the inspection process. Chimney inspections are essential to preventing all the hazards we discussed above. A licensed professional can find anything seriously wrong with your chimney and guide you to the proper steps to resolving any issues.
It is recommended that if you have your chimney cleaned and inspected at least once a year depending on the frequency you use your fireplace or woodstove. If you burn unseasoned wood in your fireplace or stove you should have a cleaning done twice a year. This is because unseasoned wood burns at a much lower temperature than seasoned wood, producing more smoke and creosote.
A common misconception is that if you don’t use your fireplace frequently during the winter then you don’t have to worry about creosote building up in your chimney but this is false. The colder the flue, the more condensation that is produced thus creating more creosote build-up.
Maintaining Fireplace and Chimney
Maintaining your fireplace and chimney in between cleanings and inspections is essential to protecting yourself, your family, and your home. There is a detailed process of regular maintenance that will protect you while you use your fireplace or stove through the winter months.
Start with Removing Ashes
Sounds simple, yet some homeowners neglect this the most. During the cold months make sure the ashes in your fireplace or stove do not build up to a depth of more than two inches. When the cold season is over, remove all the ashes from your fireplace and give everything a good scrub down and dusting.
The easiest way to remove ashes is to use an ash vacuum but you can also use a flat fireplace shovel and scoop them into a bucket for easy removal and disposal.
Getting rid of soot and fire stains from the firebox itself takes a little more energy and elbow grease but is very important. You can start this task by spraying everything down with a soap and water mixture. Completely soak the area and let it sit for at least thirty minutes. Once everything has softened you can scrub the surface with a stiff wire brush.
Removing the soot and fire stains from the firebox will take a little more effort. Start by spraying on a mixture of soapy water. Spray on liberally and let the solution stay on the surface for about 30 minutes.
Maintain Your Chimney From the Outside
Chimney repair and maintenance should be left for professionals. However, there are a few things you can check for yourself. Make a list of things you find wrong to show to the professional to ensure nothing is missed.
Start with the chimney cap and ensure it is in good condition and not clogged with leaves or other debris. The cap should have a wire screen will keep debris and animals from actually getting into your chimney.
Next, examine the mortar between the bricks to make sure that it isn’t cracked or flaking.
While inspecting the mortar, give the flashing a once over. This is where the chimney meets the roof. It should have a watertight seal. If the seal is damaged or cracked it should either be replaced (if it is beyond repair) or patched with caulk.
Maintaining your fireplace, wood stove, and chimney all tie in together. Even though the different elements require different levels of cleaning and care, they are all the same level of importance. Keep your fireplace looking beautiful, your home safe and your family safe by following these few simple steps. If you’re ever in doubt contact a professional. Fireplace Doors Online has a great staff ready to answer any questions you may have concerning the maintenance of your fireplace and wood-burning stoves. If you have any concerns about your chimney always contact a chimney professional. Proper maintenance can potentially save your home and your life.