As fall starts putting a bit of a chill in the air again, it’s time to start thinking of things to do around the house to get ready. If you burn wood in a fireplace or a wood stove, whether it’s your primary source of heat or just for an occasional pleasant evening fire, one thing you can be sure of is that your chimney’s going to get dirty. It’s simply an inescapable fact of life that chimneys and soot go hand in hand, and that combination can equal some serious, life-threatening danger if you don’t take care of it.

As wood burns, not all of it is consumed, and what isn’t consumed goes up your fireplace chimney or wood stove flue pipe in the form of creosote and soot. Creosote is a thick, oily material that results from the distillation of wood smoke, which solidifies as it cools. Soot is basically particles of partially burnt material that builds up in chimneys, metal flue pipes, and flue caps.

Over time, the soot and solidified creosote build up and clog the interior of the chimney or flue pipe. When the temperatures in the flue get high enough, which they can easily do when a fire is burning in the fireplace, the creosote will ignite. The result is a flue fire, which can destroy your entire home!

Chimney sweeping

The only way to get rid of the soot and creosote is through regular cleaning. Chimney cleaning — or sweeping as it’s more properly known — is a matter of physically brushing the inside of the chimney to dislodge the built-up material.

Chimney sweeping can be physically tiring and even dangerous. Tall chimneys, long ladders, steep roofs, and icy conditions can make for a hazardous combination. If your chimney needs cleaning but undertaking the work is not your idea of a fun weekend, consider hiring it out to a chimney sweep.

Chimney sweeping is an honored profession that goes back centuries — in fact, some legends suggest that chimney sweeps bring good luck. Today’s chimney sweeps are licensed, bonded and insured — something you want to be sure and check on before hiring them. They have the proper tools for the job, and are also experienced enough to detect potential chimney and flue problems and bring them to your attention before they result in a house fire.

Typically, chimney sweeps will begin with a physical inspection of your fireplace or wood stove, the chimney or flue pipe, the spark arrestor, and any other components of the system. If they see any problems, they’ll typically make specific suggestions for repair, or they may recommend masons, wood stove technicians, or other professionals who can assist you with any necessary repairs.

Next, they’ll cover the interior portion of the fireplace with plastic as necessary to contain any soot and dust that’s created during the cleaning process. Then they’ll head up onto the roof and, using a combination of long poles, brushes and scrapers, proceed to thoroughly brush and clean the insides of the chimney, causing the hardened material to break off and fall to the bottom. The final step is to clean out the inside of the fireplace, then vacuum up any dust.

Do-it-yourself chimney sweeping

Armed with the proper tools, chimney sweeping is well within the capabilities of most do-it-yourselfers. You’ll need one or more chimney brushes of the proper size, as well as poles or ropes to work the brushes through the chimney. You can get what you need at most fireplace and woodstove dealers, home centers, hardware stores, and some other retailers.

It’s important to use some common sense here. Use a sturdy ladder of the appropriate size for the job. Set it up correctly and don’t overextend yourself — it takes only one slip to result in disaster. Wear appropriate clothing and slip-resistant footwear.

Finally, when cleaning out the fireplace be sure and place the ashes in an airtight container. Even ashes you think are cool can still retain a remarkable amount of heat, and can burn right through paper bags, plastic garbage cans, cardboard boxes, and other unsuitable containers.

How often to clean

If you have the bad habit of damping the fire down and depriving it of oxygen so that it will burn longer, the result is a lot more smoke. That’s not only harmful to the environment, but it also produces a far greater amount of partially burnt solids. These solids will build up rapidly, so the chimney will get dirty much more quickly, and should be cleaned on yearly basis. On the other hand, hotter fires that burn the wood more efficiently also help clean the chimney, and can probably be cleaned less often, but you’ll need to rely on a visual inspection to be sure.

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