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Everyone likes to sit in front of a roaring log fire or a modern heat efficient solid fuel stove on a cold day in winter. It gives a cosy and nostalgic feeling to your house. But the warmth and cosiness come with a price. Burning coal and wood do not just have useful products such as heat and light, they also produce unwanted waste products such as soot, ash and toxic fumes that must be eliminated from the house. Most of the ash and clinker (partially burned coal impurities) remain in the fireplace or fall through the fire cradle to be removed manually when the time comes to clear the grate.
Small particles of soot and ash and the toxic fumes such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide exit the fireplace and the room via the chimney. If you have a heating system that requires the burning of fuel such as coal, wood, oil and gas, ensure you have sufficient ventilation to allow oxygen to enter the room and the fumes to exit the room. Always install a carbon monoxide detector and alarm to alert the user in case of build-up of poisonous gas.
Like everything in the home, things become dirty. Usually it is just a case of looking a bit scruffy, nothing serious. Chimneys and flues, however, although we cannot see that they are dirty will need regular cleaning to prevent the build-up of creosote, soot and ash. The trouble is that because we cannot see the inside of the flue, we don’t know when to do the job. There isn’t a simple rule to say that after 30 uses you must clean it, because there are so many factors that can change the amount of by-products formed. Let us just have a quick look at these before we go any further shall we?
Creosote. This sticky resin lines the flue and is produced when you burn un-seasoned wood. The substance starts life as different types of hydrocarbon resin of differing density and boiling points (these different substances are called ‘fractions’). As the fumes are drawn up the flue, they become cooler and condense at different distances from the fire depending on their boiling points.
Soot. This word encompasses many different granular deposits carried up the chimney by the updraught. Not only does it contain solids from the smoke itself but also ash drawn up from the fire grate. Some types of soot are unburnt carbon deposits, some are partially burnt and some are completely burnt and only contain non-flammable solids.
Incomplete combustion. The creosote and soot are formed when a fire hasn’t enough oxygen or heat to completely burn the fuel. When this happens the fire becomes smoky, which is vented to the outside via the chimney. The smoke contains many different hydrocarbon fractions such as tar, creosote etc as well as carbon and impurities which attach themselves to the flue lining and slowly build up. If you already have an open fire at home (or even just a charcoal barbeque) you will have noticed that a lot of smoke is produced when the fire is initially ignited but as time goes on the fuel started to glow and heat is given off without much smoke.
Complete combustion. This is the ideal aim for every fire. To get complete combustion we need:
When you have these conditions you will have conversion of all the flammable fractions to heat and light with carbon dioxide and ash as the only two by-products.
In the real world we can never obtain 100% complete combustion in a domestic fireplace so will always have some impurities collecting in the chimney flue. This is what we have to remove when we clean the chimney.
Eventually the build-up of solids and sticky resins lining the flue will constrict the opening. This will reduce the efficiency of the fire by reducing the airflow. This will then cause a build-up of poisonous carbon monoxide fumes within the room and eventually the rest of the house, especially if the house has modern doors, windows and draught proofing. The fumes will cause sleepiness, nausea, unconsciousness and eventually death. Carbon monoxide mainly causes this by attaching itself to the oxygen in the blood (as there wasn’t enough oxygen feeding the fire) to form carbon dioxide thereby depriving the body of much needed oxygen.
If unburned solids and resins are allowed to continue building up in the chimney, eventually a spark or cinder will find its way up there and ignite the highly flammable deposits lining the flue. You then have a serious chimney fire to contend with as well.
All these problems are easily overcome. All you need to do is ensure your chimney is cleaned regularly, at least once a year but more frequently if your fuel is particularly resinous, dirty or wet. The best times to have your flue cleaned are in the autumn in preparation for the oncoming winter and its continually burning fire or in the spring after the winter is over and you no longer need a fire. Whatever your circumstances you should not have more than six months of fires without having the chimney swept. As an added precaution you should buy and install a carbon monoxide monitor and alarm.
This is a small plastic box (usually white) about 4” square, which is fitted to the wall or ceiling in the rooms with fireplaces (Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when fitting). It will set off an alarm when the level of carbon monoxide in the room reaches a pre-determined level. This will give you warning that there is something wrong and the fire is not burning properly. This is usually a chimney cleaning problem.
We have already realised that the fuel needed to provide an efficient, smoke free fire will need careful attention. It is no good just burning anything that is flammable! If you do, you can guaranty that the fire will smell, burn with a lot of smoke, produce a lot of soot and need cleaning a lot more often. Let’s look at the different fuels commercially available and see which ones are suitable.
Unseasoned wood. This is wood that has just been cut from a tree. It is full of water and resins and will only burn with a lot of heat to produce a very smoky fire. This will clog up your chimney very quickly.
Low grade coal. This is coal which has a high proportion of non-flammable solids combined with the carbon. It will produce a lot of ash with a lot of unburned solids in the smoke. Low grade coal is cheap but also tends to have a high proportion of tar which will coat your chimney as well. It is mainly used in coal fired power stations where special processes can reduce the amount of emissions produced.
Seasoned wood. This is wood that has had a chance to dry out over a period of many months. Even though the logs may be seasoned, softwood such as pine and fir always contain a lot of resin which will stick to your chimney. The best type of wood to burn is seasoned hardwood.
Smokeless coal. This is coal that has had a lot of the lighter flammable fractions removed by industrial processes. It is almost pure carbon and so will burn hot and produce fewer waste products.
High quality coal grades. All coal is mined from the ground and each batch of coal is different, some containing more non-flammables than others. Good quality coal contains mainly flammable substances that will contribute to the produced heat and reduce the amount of unburnt fractions (ash).
We can see that if we want to reduce the amount of chimney cleaning we need to burn decent quality fuel and forget about the unseasoned wood and low grade coal.
Unfortunately chimneys are often the last on our list of priorities when it comes to maintenance, when in fact they should be near the top. A report from the American National Fire Protection Association shows that home heating equipment caused 16% of fires and 19% of deaths in the home from 2009 to 2013. Thirty percent of fires resulted from a failure to properly clean chimneys.
From what we have been talking about, it may seem that cleaning the chimney flue is the only thing you need to do. It isn’t! You also need to give your flue a general inspection periodically to ascertain the general condition of the flue in particular and the chimney in general. One of the waste products produced in a coal fire is sulphur dioxide which is very acidic and when mixed with water produces sulphuric acid. This acid will corrode the mortar and brickwork inside the chimney, causing structural problems and will allow smoke and fumes to permeate the walls through the plaster into upstairs bedrooms causing a severe health hazard. Luckily a properly qualified chimney sweep (chimney technician, flue cleaner or whatever) has the training to be able to inspect your flue for signs of problems. They will also advise on the various ways of providing a remedy for this problem such as fitting a flue liner. A flue liner is a flexible aluminium or stainless steel (depending on the fuel) tube which lines the flue protecting the chimney from effects of the acid.
Before we start talking about chimney sweeps in general, let us just say that they do not dance about on the rooftops like in the Disney movie, Mary Poppins. They are usually a hardworking profession, very conscious of the safety aspects of working at height and would definitely not dance on a roof. Their sole aim is to get your chimney flue as clean as possible in the shortest possible time while being mindful of cleanliness, safety and cost.
Contractors who specialise in chimney cleaning can be a large national company, a smaller local company operating a national franchise, a partnership or a sole trader. Whichever one you choose, ensure that the contractor is reputable, certified, trained, insured and licensed and has an appropriate and current membership of one of the trade associations mentioned in the next section.
If you want to choose a reputable chimney sweep to inspect and clean your flue, you must always choose a qualified professional who is a current member of a trade association. Some of the better known organisations are as follows:
There are many more regional organisations affiliated to these and independent. Membership will ensure that the professional is up to date with the latest methods, tools and chemicals and will be fully insured. It will also ensure that the professional uses the approved industry ‘Best Practice’ procedures.
If you don’t live in North America or UK, there will be an equivalent organisation based in your country. If you don’t know where to start, ask at your local government offices who will be able to point you in the right direction or look online.
As with all industries there are the honest, hardworking majority and the shady and dishonest minority. Unfortunately the minority always seems to be in the media and this rubs off on the reputation of all professionals. Chimney sweeping is no exception. Here are a few hints how to avoid being trapped by a contractor scam. Most of the tips are applicable to any contractor so it is well worth a read:
Avoid contractors who are not a member of a recognised trade association. Although this is not a guarantee that they will be honest, it is a good start!
Ask to see the professional’s tools of the trade. A proper sweep (and in fact any tradesman) will need their tools to make a living so you can guaranty they will be well looked after.
Ask what tools he has. A professional sweep will have all the tools necessary to clean your chimney flue and remove the soot without making a mess. He will have the tools necessary to access your chimney from inside as well as from the roof. He will have necessary ladders, brushes, vacuum cleaner, lead lights and drop sheets.
Ask what personal protective equipment he uses (PPE). A competent chimney sweep will have safety spectacles, dust mask and gloves and will have safety equipment necessary to keep him safe on ladders and roofs.
What about mess? Although sweeping chimneys can potentially be a very messy occupation, a fully trained professional will make surprisingly little mess. His well-used equipment will be clean and well looked after. His dustsheets will have no trace of soot from previous jobs and his vacuum cleaner will already be empty when he starts the work in your house.
Avoid up-front payments. A good contractor will never ask for payment before the job is done. He will give you an opportunity to challenge the quality of the work and withdraw payment if the quality is substandard.
Avoid cold callers. Contractors who call on the phone or call in person touting for work are to be discouraged. Find someone who has a local reputation for providing a good service before making your decision.
Ask about his credentials. A reputable contractor will have a licence to practice as well as being a member of recognised trade organisations. He will have proper insurance for damage done to property as well as damage done to people. Check the insurance in in force.
Check inspections. Unless you have used the chimney sweep before and trust his judgement, always get a second opinion if the inspection highlights a lot of expensive remedial work. Get your chimney cleaned first and then ask for the inspection results in writing so you can look it over at your leisure.
With the rise in the use of other fuel types besides solid fuel, chimney sweeps have had to diversify their skillset and broaden their range of services offered. The modern chimney sweep will offer services related to anything that involves a house fire, furnace or chimney.
Chimney Cleaning. No prizes for guessing this one. He wouldn’t be a chimney sweep if he didn’t offer this.
Chimney inspection. All chimneys require a competent inspection to help keep them in a safe and efficient condition. A fully qualified sweep will be able to inspect the inside and outside condition of your chimney and give advice on any repairs which need to be done to keep you fire safe.
Fuel advice. A good sweep will be able to look at the residue in your chimney and determine whether you are burning the correct type of fuel for the appliance and whether your burning habits need to be changed. A qualified sweep will be able to give advice on the proper way to build a fire and will be able to address any concerns you might have regarding the correct fuel.
Identification and repair of cracks in the flue and chimney. Some cracks in a chimney are no problem at all, but others will be a sign of underlying problems that only a skilled professional can recognise. Some of them will cause moisture to enter the structural parts of the house and cause serious problems while other cracks can vent toxic fumes into the residential parts of the house, especially the bedrooms.
Chimney instability. If your chimney has started to lean it means that the situation has gone beyond the simple repair. It means you have a complete structural failure within the chimney that needs the structure to be removed and rebuilt. Only a professional will know what this entails.
Flue lining installation. If your chimney has started to become corroded by the acid fumes inside the flue and the mortar needs extensive work, it will probably be less expensive if a flexible metal liner is fitted. The professional will know the correct diameter needed to ensure the correct airflow and will know from what material the liner needs to be made. The most common flexible liners are aluminium or stainless steel. The stainless steel version is more resistant to sulphur dioxide corrosion. The chimney sweep will be the professional to install the correct specification of flue liner and provide you with a warranty as well.
Wood and multi-fuel burning stove, furnace and water heater installation. These are often chosen as the modern equivalent to an open fireplace. They reduce the amount of dust, soot and smoke entering the home and provide a controlled environment inside which the fire’s temperature can be regulated for optimum efficiency. Many sweeps are qualified and licensed to fit these appliances. They will be able to size the appliance properly depending on the volume of your house and ensure all the joints are proof against leakage of toxic gases into the home.
Woodstove and fireplace repairs. Most sweeps will be qualified and licensed to repair solid fuel heating appliances and flues. This work and the costs are shown in more detail in a later section.
The place at the bottom of the chimney where the fire sits is normally known to people like you and me as the fireplace. Its correct name however is the fire box and if not fully enclosed in an appliance is usually made from a special heat resistant type of brick called ‘firebrick’. Often the firebricks will need repair and maintenance and this is a job very commonly done by a sweep.
Fireplaces often need repairs done to the mortar. The continual heating and cooling causes expansion and contraction and the mortar filling the joints suffers from cracks when the movement is excessive.
The cracks will need repairs done as quickly as possible before more damage occurs and the cracks become serious. It isn’t only the mortar which cracks either; moisture can be absorbed by the porous brick which if left to excess will cause the brick or stone to break. The sulphur dioxide from the flue gases also combine with the water and creosote to form a corrosive mixture which gradually eats away at the brick. They therefore need to be maintained. Even if you have a metal firebox rather than a brick one, the corrosive mixture can cause rust and excessive deterioration rather than cracks.
It isn’t only indoor fireplaces that need maintenance either. Outdoor fires such as would be found on patios for barbeques are also housed inside brick structures and are built in much the same way as indoor fireboxes. Once again the mortar can expand and contract causing cracking and the acidic moisture can corrode the brick. In addition to this kind of maintenance, outdoor fireplaces tend to have decorative ceramic tiles as surrounds and obviously the metallic parts such as grills and grates will be exposed to the elements causing rust.
Sweeps will not only work on open fires but also on wood and multi-fuel burning stoves. The most common failures with these are the gaskets that seal the door and prevent the flue gases from entering the room. Although the gaskets are essentially fireproof, over time they will break down and deteriorate and require replacement.
Moving to the other end of the chimney, and I mean the top, we have a few items there that will also need maintenance. Once again we have cracks in the outside brickwork and mortar that will need repair before water ingress becomes a problem. Likewise the lead flashing between the chimney and the roof will need to be kept in good repair otherwise rainwater will find its way into the house, causing rot and other water damage.
The hollow cylinder on top of the chimney is a favourite place for birds that want to build nests. Spark arrestors are partial covers that can be fitted to the top of the chimney pot to prevent sparks from causing bushfires and damaging neighbour’s property. They also have the added advantage of making it extremely difficult for birds to nest.
Average chimney cleaning costs are as follows:
|Cost to sweep a chimney|
|Typical range||$125 to $330|
|Cost for chimney inspection||$125 to $250|
As stated elsewhere in this article, masonry joints in stone and brickwork tend to expand and contract with changes in temperature. This can cause cracks in the mortar allowing smoke and toxic fumes to escape the chimney and diffuse into adjoining rooms. If found early enough, a simple mortar repair will provide a satisfactory solution. However if left to become worse, the problem can cost you a lot of money to rectify.
If after an inspection you find that your chimney needs some repair work, you can expect to pay the following to have it restored.
|Rebuild chimney from crown to roofline||$1000||$3000|
|Entire chimney rebuild||$10000||------|
|Replace lead flashing||$150||$400|
Rainwater can seep in through the cracks in your chimney and cause mould and wet rot. This usually takes place at the roof line where cracks in the chimney flashing occur when the sealers and lead flashing fail. The water can travel a long way through the house and cause problems with roof timbers, ceiling and floor joists.
The top horizontal surface of the chimney should always be protected with an overhanging waterproof layer of mortar, concrete, lead or copper. This protection is known as a crown and seals the exposed brickwork and mortar. The chimney pot protrudes from the crown and a wire cage (spark arrestor) is fitted to the top of the pot to prevent sparks and embers from flying out and causing a fire. A cowl may also be fitted to assist with the flow of gases and prevent blowback of the smoke into the house when the weather is windy.
The crown and spark arrestor have many jobs:
If you want a fireplace or woodstove repaired, the following tables give a typical idea of the average costs incurred.
|Costs to repair a multi-fuel stove, wood stove or fireplace|
|Typical range||$150 to $750|
If your fireplace or stove is very badly deteriorated it is possible to rebuild and install a new one. Typical average costs for this option are as shown in the next table:
|Cost to install a multi-fuel stove, wood stove or fireplace|
|Typical range||$800 to $3,300|
In order to maintain your fireplace and chimney you will need to have on hand a number of items. The following table lists these and gives a typical retail cost.
|Costs of ancillary equipment and materials|
|Creosote removal Safety Log||$15||each|
|Chimney sweeping brushes (fibreglass) Manual||$40||18ft (6 x 3ft sections)|
|Chimney sweeping bushes (nylon) to fit on electric drill||$80||26ft (8 x 39”sections)|
|Fireplace brick and stone cleaner||$10||A bottle|
|Fireplace scrubbing pads||$25||Per pack|
|Liquid creosote remover||$35||1 gallon bottle|
Without a doubt, always leave the inspections and regular cleaning to a professional. This is because the chimney sweep knows what problems to look for and has the correct tools to clean the flue without making any mess.
Having said that, there is no reason why you cannot use tried and tested methods to reduce the amount of deposits within the flue (you will find many of these mentioned in this article) and give minor ‘cleans’ throughout the year between the regular professional ‘cleans’. You can hire the chimney brushes from your local hire shop or buy a set online. They are useful to have because they are usually sold with, not only a set of heads for chimney cleaning, but also cleaning heads suitable for using the rods as a land drain cleaning tool. Although it is impressive for an amateur to see the amount of soot dislodged from the chimney, there is always the chance that the non-professional will inadvertently miss creosote build-up and leave it in place ready to start a chimney fire within a few weeks. On no account disregard the professional’s advice.
Although cleaning your own chimney might seem like good fun to some people, it is very labour intensive, time consuming and if done incorrectly can be messy and downright dangerous. You will not have the benefit of using a fully trained and insured professional who has the knowledge and experience necessary to identify problems with your chimney and remedy them. If you use a professional you can be sure to get a flue cleaning certificate to prove your chimney has been cleaned. Your home insurance company will require this in case of a future chimney fire.
We have already spoken about what happens when we have incomplete combustion within the fireplace and the flammable residue it produces on the chimney lining. Now we are going to talk about what DIY methods we can use to keep our chimney working properly.
✓ The most obvious one is to have the chimney flue cleaned regularly, especially if you have been burning fuels high in creosote and soot.
✓ The next thing to do is to make sure that the chimney sweep inspects not only the condition of the deposits on the flue but also the other parts of the chimney for structural damage or evidence of water ingress. When flue gases escape through the top of the chimney they produce a characteristic staining. If there are signs of the same kind of staining anywhere else along the chimney you will know there is a weakness in the brickwork, mortar or flue liner (or all three). Damage such as this must be repaired as soon as possible as it can lead to structural failure in the chimney itself or ingress of toxic flue gases through the bedroom walls into the living area. Other signs to look for include crumbling mortar and brickwork but the professional will be able to notice many more indications that we would probably miss.
✓ If there are signs of problems within the chimney then a proper visual inspection will need to be done. This involves a remote camera being lowered down the flue so that professionals can inspect the flue for cracks that would not otherwise be visible. Cracked chimney flues are the cause of a significant safety hazard and must be repaired or replaced. The simplest and cheapest way to repair a cracked flue is to install a flexible metal flue liner from firebox to chimney pot.
✓ All connections from the appliance (fireplace, furnace, stove, water heater) to the chimney outlet must be inspected to ensure they are all in order.
✓ If a fault is found in the chimney or flue, then a more thorough inspection must take place, targeting the structural parts of the chimney. If there are any structural timbers near the fireplace or socketed into the brickwork then any signs of scorch marks at the ends of the floor joists or in the roof space must be looked for and the problem solved.
✓ Although a sweep will give a cursory inspection before he cleans, for a more thorough inspection the chimney must be cleaned of all deposits so cracks and other damage can be seen.
✓ Make sure you have carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in your house and test them regularly for malfunctions. Make sure you have spare batteries for them. High levels of carbon monoxide in your home can alert you to problems with the venting system or air intake system. Even a small exposure to carbon monoxide over an extended period can be harmful to health.
✓ If you burn wood, avoid banking down the fire or closing dampers as this will prevent the fuel from burning properly and increase the deposits of creosote within the flue. Ensure you only burn well-seasoned wood as ‘green’ wood contains a lot of creosote and other resins which will line your flue.
✓ Always burn your wood fires as hot as possible. Hot flue gases not only prevent the condensation of creosote and other lighter hydrocarbon fractions from depositing within the flue, they also push the gases much more quickly through the chimney to open air. Obviously, if you have a wood burning stove or furnace, don’t burn the fire too hot so there are problems with scorching the surroundings. Buy a stove thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature.
✓ Use a Creosote Buster Chimney Cleaning Safety log to clear small deposits of creosote. You can buy these and other brands from stove shops and online retailers. Just add to an existing fire and the fumes from the Cleaner will disperse the creosote deposits.
✓ Use your heating appliance in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions for more efficient burning.
✓ In case you don’t want to use all these nasty chemicals, it has been said that burning citrus fruit peel in your fireplace will reduce the build-up of creosote while potato peelings are meant to prevent creosote from burning. Whether this is true or not, I do not know as I have not tried them personally. What I do know is that they will not replace the cleaning action of a good solid chimney brush wielded by a professional.
The first thing a chimney sweep will do after visiting your home will be to inspect the chimney for integrity and note their general all-round condition.
The inspection of the chimney exterior may highlight cracks in the mortar or structural damage. The internal inspections will highlight water damage, corrosion and internal damage. All these need urgent repair and a reputable sweep will insist that these are done immediately.
As stated earlier, it is mainly creosote and soot. There is also some water and non-flammable ash. Creosote is a highly flammable hydrocarbon which if ignited will start a chimney fire. Soot particles are carbon with some impurities. They will burn if the creosote ignites. Water comes from condensed water vapour which escapes from the fuel (usually wood). If the wood is unseasoned and there is a lot of condensed water, it makes the soot and ash in the smoke stick to the flue easier. The ash floats up the chimney carried with the hot air and often sticks to the inner lining of the flue.
A chimney sweep will gladly inspect and clean all the fireplaces and flues you have and will probably give you a discount as he is already there. If you have a furnace or water heater it wouldn’t hurt to ask him to inspect those too. Bear in mind that unless he is specifically licenced to deal with gas and oil flues, he will probably refuse to work on those.
Remember that every flue is different but on average, and including the time needed to lay and remove the dustsheets, a sweep will probably take from 30 to 60 minutes per fireplace. Remember that if the chimney is particularly clogged up then the time may be significantly lengthened. Another problem is with bird nests. The top of a chimney is a nice warm place to raise chicks so you must not be surprised if the sweep has to relocate a nest.
Always ask what is involved and why a chimney takes longer than expected to clean.
Most, but not all chimney sweeps will inspect your flue and the outside of the chimney for structural problems and acid corrosion. Always ask before you hire the sweep what is included and if he issues a Cleaning Certificate as well.
An experienced professional chimney sweep will be able to tell from the condition of your chimney and your individual burning practices, how often you will need your flue cleaned.
Make sure you know what you are paying for. It might just be a clean or it may be a clean and inspection.
A reputable chimney sweep will issue a certificate irrespective of whether he has just done a clean or if it is an inspection as well. A certificate is needed for your home insurance company.
Your contractor doesn’t have to have certifications to be a skilled chimney sweep, but it helps and gives the customer peace of mind. Approved professional organisations can include the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), Fire Investigation Research & Education (FIRE), National Fireplace Institute (NFI) or one of the many regional and state professional organisations that are available.
That depends. Some professionals like to clean from the top of the chimney down, and some like to clean from the fireplace up. There is no set method and each professional does what he prefers. It doesn’t matter, as long as the job is done and nothing is damaged. Don’t forget to ask as it is good if you know what is going to happen especially if you are concerned about ladders damaging flowerbeds.
Traditional fireplaces and modern woodstoves are attractive and add value to your home. Modern stoves are more energy efficient than older models and when they are sealed from the rest of the room, provide a source of heat that is relatively clean and smoke free. Any fireplace or fire appliance will need regular cleaning and maintenance to ensure they continue to work efficiently and to be safe. A professional chimney sweep, belonging to one of the trade associations, will be able to look after your chimney, inspect and clean it to prevent the build-up of soot and creosote. They will be able to identify damage in its early stages when it is easily repairable and prevent it from causing expensive problems. It is possible to clean your own chimney but only a professional can give you a certificate for your home insurance company, and anyway, when there are so many other more pleasant jobs to do around the house, why not leave the dirty, messy ones to someone else?