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.
Why does your chimney need cleaning?
Over time the particles of soot and ash, and a flammable resin known as creosote, accumulate in the chimney flue and constrict the opening. This not only affects the efficiency of the burning by reducing the airflow, but also restricts the exit of the toxic fumes and these find their way into the room and the rest of the house. If they are allowed to build up, the fumes can cause unconsciousness, illness and be fatal. Eventually the by-products lining the chimney can become so thick that they clog the flue and produce a very serious risk of catching alight and causing a chimney fire.
All these are easily remedied by having your chimney cleaned regularly, at least once a year, depending on your fuel; either in spring after the winter is over or in autumn in preparation for the coming winter. Whatever your circumstances, it is recommended that if you have more than 30 fires a year, then you need your chimney swept.
The type of fuel you use in your fireplace determines how often you need your chimney cleaned. Unseasoned wood and cheap coal do not burn efficiently and leave a lot of waste products behind. Well-seasoned hardwood logs, smokeless coal and more expensive grades of coal burn very hot and produce less soot and ash to clog your chimney.
Unfortunately chimneys are often near the bottom of the list when it comes to repair and maintenance; “out of sight, out of mind” is the old adage that fits your chimney cleaning regime perfectly. 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.
It isn’t only chimney cleaning that is required. A general inspection of the condition of the chimney is vitally important. Sulphur dioxide is a very acidic gas which over time will corrode the mortar and brickwork of your chimney, causing structural problems and, in the chimney itself, will allow smoke and gas to permeate through the plasterwork into upstairs bedrooms causing a serious health hazard. A suitably qualified chimney cleaner will be able to carry out this inspection and provide recommendations as to how to provide a solution (usually fitting a flexible aluminium or stainless steel flue liner). We will talk more about this later.
If you primarily burn wood on your fire, the residue on the inside of the chimney will be mainly creosote, a highly flammable residue. To ensure the minimum of creosote build-up always burn properly seasoned wood and good quality coal.
What is involved in chimney cleaning
OK. Let us say right at the beginning that chimney sweeps (or chimney technicians or chimney cleaners, whatever you call them) do not leap around on rooftops singing and dancing like Dick Van Dyke in the Disney movie, Mary Poppins. They are usually hardworking professionals whose sole desire is to ensure you get a clean and safe chimney in the shortest possible time and at a reasonable price.
The first thing a chimney sweep will do is to inspect the chimney for general, all-round integrity.
- Check chimney liners.
- Check smoke chamber.
- Check chimney exterior.
- Check firebox.
A chimney inspection may highlight cracks, structural problems or water damage, all of which need urgent repair.
Some people are wary of having a chimney sweep in their house as they expect a lot of mess to be made with soot flying everywhere.
Will there be a lot of soot everywhere when my chimney is cleaned?
A properly trained chimney sweep will have all the tools needed to prevent dust escaping from the chimney space into your living area. This usually means that he will seal off the fireplace and use special brushes to clean along the whole length of the chimney allowing the soot to fall into the fireplace where it is removed by a powerful vacuum cleaner.
How long will the clean take?
Usually the job will take from 30 to 60 minutes. This includes the time taken to cover furniture and carpets with dust sheets. If the chimney has not been cleaned for many years then it may take longer to do the job.
After the inspection and after a clean, you will receive a Chimney Sweeping Certificate, which will be a necessary requirement for your house insurance.
The sweep will do everything possible to ensure there is no soot escapes into your room. Therefore, you can see that having a clean chimney can be quite painless.
Chimney cleaning services & contractors
Chimney cleaning contractors will be either a large national company, a smaller local company operating a franchise or a sole trader or partnership. Whichever of these comes to clean your chimney, only deal with a reputable tradesman who is a certified chimney sweep and has the appropriate membership of a trade association, correct insurance and full training.
How to choose a contractor who offers good service at a fair price
When choosing a chimney sweep for an inspection and clean of your chimneys at home, always choose a qualified professional who belongs to a recognised trade association. A few of the most well-known organisations are:
- The Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA)
- The Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps in the UK
- The National Association of Chimney Sweeps in UK (NACS)
- The Institute of Chimney Sweeps (UK, Ireland & Europe)
If you don’t live in the UK or USA then there will be an equivalent organisation in your country. These organisations regulate the industry and ensure a well-trained and competent professional. Your local government offices should have a list of reputable and licensed chimney sweeps in your area.
Who should you NOT choose?
Avoiding chimney cleaning scams is very simple; just hire a contractor who is a member of a chimney sweeps’ trade organisation mentioned in the previous section. There are a number of basic questions you can ask if there is any doubt.
Ask the contractor what equipment he has. A proper sweep will have all the equipment he needs to access your roof and inspect your chimney both inside and out. He will have extendable rods and a selection of detachable brushes for the rods. He will have grinders, vacuum cleaners, dustsheets, ladders and lights. He will have personal safety equipment to avoid breathing soot and fumes and keep him safe on ladders and roofs.
Although soot and creosote removal are very dirty jobs, an experienced and properly trained sweep will create surprisingly little mess. His equipment, although well used, will be looked after and will have no soot residue from previous jobs. His dustsheets will be clean and his vacuum cleaner will be emptied before he starts on your job.
What other services will a chimney-cleaning contractor offer?
A qualified chimney sweep will provide any service that involves a house fire or chimney. They will:
Inspect chimneys. As stated earlier, chimneys require inspection to maintain them in an efficient and safe condition. A fully qualified chimney sweep, belonging to one of the trade associations will be able to inspect your chimney, inside and outside, and give an opinion on the amount of work needed to make your fire safe.
Sweeping & cleaning. This is a very labour intensive job and one that cannot be hurried. A qualified sweep will have all the equipment and knowledge to remove any build-up of soot and creosote. They will also be able to provide an inspection of the condition of your chimney at the same time.
Identify and repair large cracks. Small cracks can be easily repaired but large ones are often a sign of underlying problems that only a qualified sweep will be able to spot. By the time a crack has become more than 5mm, moisture will have already worked its way into structural timber and caused extensive damage.
Leaning chimney. This situation is very dangerous. It means that you have a complete structural failure within the chimney and where the chimney adjoins the house. Only a complete removal and rebuild can fix this problem.
Installing a flue liner. An alternative to having extensive re-pointing work carried out inside the chimney is to have the chimney lined with a metal flue. Only a professional will know the correct flue diameter and material to fix this problem and make your fireplace safe. Some fuels that produce excessive sulphur dioxide need a stainless steel flue liner otherwise a flexible aluminium liner may be used. Your chimney sweep will be able to install a liner properly and provide a guarantee.
Installing a wood or multi-fuel burning stove. These are often preferred to an open fire as they reduce the amount of dust and smoke entering the living space and ensure the most efficient use of the produced heat. Stoves with a ‘back boiler’ can also provide heat for central heating systems. A qualified chimney sweep will be able to install the correctly sized stove for your house and ensure that all joints are sealed against the ingress into your room of toxic gases.
Advice. A certified chimney sweep will be very pleased to give you advice and educate you on the proper way to build a fire and will address any worries or concerns you may have regarding your solid fuel, oil or gas heating systems.
Chimney cleaning cost breakdown
Average chimney cleaning costs are as follows:
| ||National Average||Typical Range||Low||High
|To sweep one chimney||$224||$124 - 328||$85||$800
|Chimney inspection ||$125 - 250||
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, 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:
- Prevent rain from entering the flue.
- Protects the chimney bricks and mortar.
- Prevent pests from entering your home.
- Prevent sparks from flying out of the chimney opening.
- Prevent birds from nesting in the chimney pot and blocking the smoke outlet.
- Prevent animals or birds from falling down the chimney and becoming stuck.
DIY vs Professional. Which is best?
Although you can hire the specialist chimney sweeping brushes and other equipment from your local hire shop, I would not recommend you do the job yourself unless you know exactly what you are doing. In the hands of the naïve amateur chimney sweep, such cleaning can be at best very messy and at worst very dangerous. The amount of soot dislodged by your brushes can be severely underestimated and before you know where you are, you will have a fall of soot producing a dirty black cloud floating in the air inside your room and settling on carpets, upholstery and you! Even after a supposedly successful clean, you may think you have removed all the creosote and soot, only to find a few weeks later that you have a chimney fire to contend with.
There is no real substitute for a proper chimney clean. There are however some DIY remedies that can be used to help your chimney remain safe for a few days while waiting for the professionals to arrive.
Potato and citrus peelings. Burning citrus peelings in your fireplace are said to reduce creosote build-up. Potato peelings supposedly react with the creosote to prevent it from burning. Whether you believe this is up to you, but it will not replace a thorough clean from a professional chimney sweep.
Cleaning logs. Chimney cleaning logs, when burned, release a chemical that loosens tar and creosote from the chimney walls. Although this is a good thing, the pieces fall either into your fireplace or into any crevices or ledges within your chimney. Once again, only use this as a temporary solution until the sweep arrives.
DIY. If you really want to clean your own chimney, there are many products available to help.
- A 2 pound tub of cleaner will cost about $20.
- A chimney brush, about $20.
- Fireplace brick & stone cleaner, about $10 a bottle.
- Fireplace scrubbing pads, about $25 per pack.
Although cleaning your own chimneys might appeal to some folk, it is very labour intensive, messy and time consuming. In addition, you will not have the benefit of a professional inspection to identify any damage or other serious problems, and you will not receive a certificate to prove the safety of your chimney.
10 questions to ask the contractor before hiring
1. How long have you been in business?
Ensure the contractor has the necessary experience to be able to handle all aspect of your chimney problem.
2. How many operatives are needed ?
Usually just one person is needed, make sure the operative is certified. Often the qualified person will have a trainee or apprentice who is receiving ‘on the job’ training. Some tasks just need two people anyway, especially when one is needed on the roof and one downstairs in the fireplace.
3. When can you begin the job?
You obviously need to organise access and allow them into the house and to lock up when finished. You may also require additional quotations or second opinions.
4. How long will the cleaning job take?
This depends on the work being done, but usually, for a straightforward clean will be 30 to 60 minutes. Allow more time if the chimney hasn’t been swept for a long time or if an inspection is required. The contractor will be able to tell you how long everything will take.
5. Do you foresee any major problems?
Very important question but the contractor may not be able to answer this without doing an inspection first.
6. Can I have a firm quote?
You obviously need to know how much the job will cost, but often the only definite price will be for an inspection and a basic clean. If anything else needs to be done then you must expect to pay more.
7. Have you any references from previous customers?
Find out if there are any previous customers nearby whom you can contact and ask their opinion of his work.
8. What is your ‘after sales service’?
Does the company provide a chimney cleaning certificate to pass on to your home insurance company? What happens if the work is unsatisfactory? What happens if an accident or damage occurs.
9. Ask to see the operative’s certificates.
If the sweep belongs to one of the trade associations, they will be able to provide proof of membership and ‘sign off’ every job. Every job must have a certified sweep on site at all times to supervise work. Does the company or individual carry appropriate liability insurance to protect you and your property against accidents?
10. What will he expect of you?
Always ask the contractor what is required from you. Usually the fire will need to be extinguished and cold for several hours before any work can begin. There must be easy access to the fireplace, chimney and roof. Obviously you will need to organise entry for them to do a complete job. If the job to be done is small it may be useful if you have the payment ready in cash or by cheque. Sometimes the contractor may have a portable card payment machine, or he may invoice you for a large amount. Whichever way you agree to pay the bill, always make sure you have a proper invoice and cleaning certificate as proof the work was done.
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?