Basic Chimney Sweep & Repair Blog
Properly maintained dryer vents are as crucial to home safety as properly maintained chimneys. When to clean them also depends on a myriad of variables such as amount of use, what is going through them, and other house-specific circumstances. The best advice anyone can offer is to consult a professional about the frequency of safety cleanings given your individual situation.
That said, variables of critical importance are:
- number of turns and jointed corners
- shared venting with other appliances
- exterior caps
- what you put in the dryer
The last is why spring always brings a reminder from venting professionals to include dryer vents in your seasonal house cleaning. Considerably more bedding is typically put in dryers, along with sweaters being packed away until fall. That means more lint is going into the vent, if it is functioning properly to begin with, and that lint is dangerous.
A Seasonal Reminder
We believe no home owner is unaware at this point that dryer vents are the source of many house fires. You would literally need to live under a rock to remain oblivious to the constant news reports and public service messages in this regard. We also believe that every homeowner has a lot going on in spring and forgetting to clean the dryer vent is completely understandable.
So we remind you now: If you do not have short straight dryer venting — unshared with other appliances — that you can access completely, call a pro. If you do not have an exterior cap on venting you know to be clean and in good condition, cap it.
If your venting does meet those requirements, please exercise care appropriate to the venting material. Flexible aluminum venting is more easily damaged, but even metal vents can sustain damage if cleaned improperly. Remember, too, that more baby animals are looking for a nice hiding place in spring, so do not leave your vents open to the great outdoors.
“Renovating your firebox” is taking on more meaning as the range of decorative choices expands. The insertion of them into the realm of interior decor is also increasing their popularity with homeowners. These days, your fireplace can have the look of a masonry fireplace without the hassles of a chimney. You can also replace the panels of your firebox… or you can undertake the traditional renovation of a masonry fireplace and do some repointing.
As more pre-fabricated units reach the natural ends of their lives, their replacement offers a great opportunity for renovation. Furthermore, with so many options available, even people with masonry fireplaces are choosing inserts for their fireboxes. Some homeowners are realizing that what they love is a warm glow, not a roaring fire and the masonry chimney it requires.
Redecorating with Firebox Renovation
The result of all that is an explosion of ‘firebox renovation’, and manufacturers respond with more and more options. What can sometimes be forgotten in all the ‘redecorating’ is that most of these pre-fab units are “decorative appliances”! Whether it is a plug-in electric fireplace, a vent-less gas fireplace, or an insert, it is not designed or constructed for a roaring fire!
Another important thing to remember about fireplace inserts — to make it a safe renovation — is that proper installation is required. Basically, the firebox has to fit the flue, which is why pre-fabricated fireplaces come with pre-fabricated chimneys. They are designed as a system. They are interdependent, if you will.
That does not mean you cannot put a pre-fabricated fireplace system under a masonry chimney. It just means that much more is involved than plugging in a portable fireplace, and the ‘renovation’ needs inspection. A good idea might be to ask the certified sweep who does your annual chimney inspections how the two can be organized to coincide!
The chimney sweep appeared when people found they needed to vent their indoor fireplaces. Those same people could afford to pay someone else to keep those vents clean, and a profession was born. By the time the majority could afford the first, the profession had completely changed because of the reduced vent sizes necessitated by their popularity.
Adults could no longer fit into chimneys to remove debris and clean them with special brushes. The profession was now only ‘supervised’ by an adult, and instead, performed by a child, typically an orphan or from a very poor family. Those children were the ones sent up into chimneys, and – because of whom they were – little attention was paid to their safety.
As injuries and deaths of children began to rise in the performance of their jobs, some took heed and laws were passed. Although children were the first ‘professional’ sweeps, the real profession in its modern form was shaped at this point. Recognized dangers to both sweeps and homeowners — due to a lack of ongoing inspection of their chimneys — gave rise to present-day certifying institutions.
True For All Time
It was clear that even children could be trained to brush soot off the flue liner without causing damage. The problem, obviously, was that they were not trained to inspect the chimney either before or after cleaning it. Quickly in and out, they failed to detect cracks in flue tiles or evidence of water damage.
Even if they saw it, these easily trainable ‘sweeps’ had no idea what it might mean and, frankly, did not care. They were earning their porridge and mat and it is, no doubt, that basic need to survive that motivates uncertified sweeps today. Homeowners, however, also have a basic right to survive, which is why you should always choose a CSIA certified sweep.
It could be a number of things, and it is good that you are not taking it lightly because it signals an unsafe fireplace system. A chimney should remove smells from the home, not introduce them, so something is interfering with proper draft. Whatever it is needs to be corrected and the chimney needs to be inspected before you can safely build a fire.
Damp and Musty
If it is a stale, damp smell, check around the fireplace carefully for other signs of water entry. Look for stains on the ceiling and walls around it, and feel the walls of the fireplace, to check for obvious dampness. Make sure your chimney cap is still up there and if you are up to it, inspect the mortar and flashing for cracks or gaps.
Smoky and Acrid
This could be either creosote deposits heating up or a nest obstructing the chimney and sending smoke back into the house. Either one of these really needs to be checked by a certified chimney sweep to ensure it is done properly and safely. Some nests are protected by law and can only be removed with a permit, and the dangers of creosote are well known.
Rotting and Foul
A critter probably got stuck in the chimney. Even if it is within reach, you probably do not want to deal with this yourself either. Since its being there indicates a real problem with the chimney, you can let the professional that checks it do the dirty work. A different kind of “rotting and foul” might be the smell of mold, and you are back to water damage.
Whatever It Is, It’s Bad
Regardless of what accounts for the smell, the chimney is not drafting properly and the fireplace cannot be used. Furthermore, whatever its cause, more serious ramifications have to be prevented by a professional inspection of the chimney. As a result, that smell coming from your chimney is an announcement that you need a CSIA certified sweep.
The best way to approach cleaning anything is to know with what you are actually dealing. Grass stains are different than mechanical grease, and that is a different thing than cooking grease. The situation is the same inside your chimney, so a camera-assisted inspection by a certified sweep before and after cleaning is a really good idea.
Try This At Home….
What exists in the flue that cannot be seen from above or below determines how the chimney needs to be cleaned. Soot is different than later stage creosote, and they indicate different things as well, at least to professionals who understand them. The condition of mortar is important not only on the roof but within the chimney too, as is the ability to see and assess it.
Homeowners instinctively get this, but tend to trust in the uniformity of the chimney’s condition, which just should not be blindly relied upon. The safety of the whole house and family is at stake, so assumptions and risks just are not worth it. Once a year, the whole chimney needs to be visually inspected by a CSIA certified sweep who knows what he is looking at.
…But Not By Yourself!
Routinely performed as part of cleanings and inspections by certified chimney sweeps, the practiced lowering of specially designed cameras reveals more than the obvious. Please note important words of caution here: If you do not know what you are doing, you can damage your flue. Even if you are lucky enough not to, your untrained eyes are likely to miss what could be early, cost-saving, warnings.
To spell it out a little more clearly, no homeowner should be lowering a cell phone on a string into a flue. This is serious work with serious consequences and it really needs to be handled by professionals. Knowing what you are getting out of the chimney is a great idea, but you should be using your phone to call a certified sweep.
Whether or not the fireplace is in use, the chimney needs to be maintained in good working order year round. There are a number of reasons for this, but they all come down to safety in good air quality. The chimney can provide a continuous air-replacement system or a trap for air that is downright dangerous.
Clear the Air
If all is well with a chimney, it draws air from the fireplace up and out, continually pulling ‘new’ air through the system. That helps to remove toxic gases from the home even when generated elsewhere, emitted by a leaky furnace perhaps. It also helps to clear the air of dust particles that otherwise settle back down and aggravate allergies.
In addition, the sooner problems with a chimney are caught, the less expensive they are to correct. Some do not even need to be problems, such as creosote accumulation, which can be completely avoided with regular professional inspections and cleanings. Other relatively inexpensive improvements, like caps and waterproofing for chimneys in good condition, may eliminate costly damage to the flue by rain or birds.
Protect Family and Investment
Neither inadequate drafting nor creosote buildup stops when the last fire is out beneath the chimney. If either exists, it persists, and it either presents the same stale air or it actually gets worse, true for both creosote- and water-caused damage. The importance of well-maintained fireplace systems cannot be stressed enough, since they are essential to home safety whether used or not.
Just as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should not be taken down because the fireplace is not in use, the home’s chimney should not be neglected either. Organizations, like the CSIA, are responsible for the certification of professional sweeps make sure they are qualified to keep every chimney operating safely. All homeowners really need to do is remember to call them and schedule twice-yearly inspections.
“Heaters” can be all kinds of things but, from fireplace inserts to electric space heaters, they present a fire hazard and need to be safely used. If they can warm you up quickly, they do the same for other things, so space heaters need to be carefully positioned. If cozy fires can heat the room, even a little, imagine what they can do to the chimney above them, so fireplaces need clean chimneys.
Otherwise, it does not take long for the space heater to catch the drapes on fire and the fireplace to ignite the creosote. There are safety concerns with the use of every type of heater, whether inside or outside the home. Portable fire pits carry their own dangers and outdoor ovens get just as dirty as the ones inside.
Heating Up More than the Den
Obviously, heat from fireplaces raises enormous risks, hopefully up the chimney and out of the house. When chimneys are not kept clean and in good working condition by CSIA certified sweeps, those risks remain in both your chimney and your home. If obstructions block updrafts or creosote accumulates unnoticed, the “family room heater” can become a deadly weapon.
In addition to risks of fire with improper use, even space heaters can stir things to life in air you do not want to breathe. This gets compounded when apparent vents in bathrooms and kitchens actually go nowhere except the crawl space above them. Those need to be checked by venting professionals when they clean your other air ducts and vents.
Remember All Your Heaters
From mere conveniences to basic, built-in parts of your house, “heaters” pose many of the risks of fire whether or not they involve it. Their portability increases the likelihood that small heaters will end up too close to the wrong thing and bring on real heat. The big guys, from gas furnaces to wood fireplaces, are especially dangerous “heaters” – because too often we forget the danger they can bring.
It is that time of year! – when warmer weather draws us outdoors and keeps us there for barbeques in the still chilly evenings. This almost universal love of eating and relaxing outdoors with friends explains the soaring popularity of fire pits. Warm and attractive, they make perfect portable outdoor heaters…but they do not come without some fire dangers.
Long at the center of outdoor gatherings, fire has always brought people together, whether around bonfires or wood stoves. Now fire comes in pretty outdoor packaging, with a huge array of choices for consumers, including full-on outdoor fireplaces. Far cheaper and simpler fire pits are the ones stealing the home show, raging with popularity and small, controlled fires.
There’s the Rub
That “small, controlled” part is essential to safety around fire pits, since the last thing you want is to start a much bigger fire. That can happen for several reasons:
- placement too close to flammables
- too much fuel for the fire in the pit
- failure to put the lid on it
- sudden gusts of wind that lift sparks through screens
- pit fires left burning unattended
As much as we like to think that we are careful when we build fires outdoors, entertaining our friends distracts us from lots of things. We start the fire and run indoors to spice-rub the steaks, forgetting to specifically ask someone to keep an eye on the pit. Our friends, however, are playing darts and shooting hoops and nobody is really minding the fire.
Slings and Arrows
It only takes a spark to start the fire you did not intend, so never walk away from an unattended fire. Run the risk of a few verbal barbs and designate a pit minder if you are busy. ‘Tis nobler to be a drag than completely irresponsible, so put up with the ribbing you might get and play it safe. When the fire is no longer small and controlled within your pit, your risks rise with the flames.
Lovable Bert, who forever left us with an impression of chimney sweeps as soot faced rooftop dancers, was in some ways a fitting caricature. He was, after all, a jack of all trades, selling kites one minute, cleaning chimneys the next. That can be what you get these days if you do not ask the right question when you choose a chimney sweep.
Professional Fitness for a Changing Job
It is important to remember that this profession began with less than scrupulous simple vent cleaners who were no longer a good fit for modernized chimneys. That pretty well describes some of the “chimney sweeps” who completed a quick training in the use of specialized brushes and got a business license. They may be equipped to clean a modern chimney, but they are a bad fit for modern fireplace systems and they are not really into them.
Bert was not the guy to handle an inspection of the chimney to assess its condition, safety, and performance. He was the type to tap dance around clearances without ever knowing they were there. You may love him, but Bert is far from a CSIA certified chimney sweep, and not the guy you want to entrust with your home safety.
One Tip Is All You Need
The ability to professionally inspect your chimney is the primary thing for which you should be looking. That is what takes years of training and ongoing education, and that is what results in chimney sweep certification. Young boys living in orphanages were quickly taught to clean chimneys, but nobody relied on them to do more than that.
The most important tip we have for you is really the only one you need…to make a good choice. Ask the sweep you called if they have proof of industry certification in addition to a license and insurance. If he is not a certified sweep, simply look elsewhere to find someone that is truly qualified to clean your chimney.
Creosote is an unavoidable result of fireplace use so, if the fireplace is more than just a decorative feature, creosote will be in the chimney. It can be there in any or all of three forms, or stages, of development, and the sooner it is gone, the better. In addition to being traps for many of those horrible smells that linger in fireplaces, creosote is also extremely corrosive.
Stage 3 Creosote – Image Courtesy of The Mad Hatter Chimney Service in Indianapolis, IN.
Danger in All Three Forms of Creosote
Every time smoke goes up the chimney, it carries what will become creosote with it, which is commonly known as soot. This is the first stage of creosote development, and the easiest for chimney sweeps to deal with. When the fire goes out and the chimney cools, the tars in soot condense on the walls of the flue liner.
Enter stage two, when creosote is a sticky, tar-like, corrosive substance on the chimney walls. This gooey gunk eats away at the flue liner, exposing it to moisture which then completely compromises the chimney’s integrity. The primary danger that creosote poses in spring and summer is the steady corrosion of the flue by the stage two goo dried into porous chunks of gunk.
Stage three unfolds when the gunk solidifies into a hard shiny buildup, known as chimney glaze, which is extremely difficult to remove. Under no circumstances can a fire be lit in a fireplace with stage-three creosote in the chimney, unless you are trying to burn the house down. Indeed, another danger of creosote buildup is a chimney fire, with its loud roar and menacing shake of the structure.
Time to Go
As the seasons change, and we get ready to do our spring cleaning and yard work, it is important to remember to schedule a chimney cleaning and inspection. Not only will our homes smell fresher, but our chimneys will be ready to handle the showers and downpours and steady drumbeats of rain that are coming. With corrosive creosote removed, their dangers are a thing of the past, until the next time the fireplace is used.