Q: We’re new homeowners. We bought an older home with a wood-burning fireplace in the living room. We’re looking forward to spending cozy nights in front of the fire this winter, but there is a concern.

When we bought the house we had a termite inspection, a roof inspection and a general home inspection. But we did not have a specific fireplace inspection. The home inspector did note that he found no problems with the fireplace, but we’re uneasy with what seems to be his cursory look. Should we have the fireplace checked out before using it? We’d appreciate any input you might have.

A: We strongly recommend a thorough fireplace inspection and having the chimney swept by a licensed chimney sweep. These professionals will not only clean the chimney of built-up creosote but will alert you to defects in the flue or firebox that can be downright dangerous.

There are a lot of bad things that can happen with a malfunctioning fireplace — the worst being a chimney fire that can spread to the roof structure and cause major damage.

Here’s a list of things a good chimney sweep will inspect:

  • There should be a cap with a screen on the chimney to prevent rain or snow from coming down the chimney and to prevent birds or other critters from nesting there.
  • He or she will look at the condition of the bricks and mortar. It’s possible the bricks exposed to the weather need to be reset or the mortar needs repointing.
  • The sweep will check out the flue liner and note excessive creosote buildup or cracked flue tiles. If the chimney hasn’t been swept recently (it probably hasn’t) he or she will recommend that it be cleaned before laying your first fire of the season. The leading cause of fires from wood-burning fireplaces, inserts or wood stoves is partially burned fuel (creosote) deposited on the walls of the chimney flue.
  • If the fireplace has glass doors, the sweep should inspect the gasket material around the door opening. Defective gaskets should be replaced to ensure proper operation of the fireplace. This is especially important if you have an insert or a wood stove, which are meant to be airtight. If an airtight appliance is operated without these gaskets effectively sealing the openings, excess air can leak into the firebox creating an over fire condition, which may permanently damage the appliance.
  • As part of the service the sweep should clean the blower if your fireplace is equipped with one. These blowers do not have a filtering system to prevent the buildup of dust and hair on the blower. Excessive dirt will shorten the life of the blower and may be a fire hazard.
  • The inspection may reveal broken or deteriorated brick lining in the firebox. Replacement of the damaged bricks may or may not be necessary depending on the severity.

When the fireplace inspection is done and the chimney is swept, there is one final task for you to perform. Replace the batteries and test any smoke or carbon monoxide detectors you have in your home to ensure these monitors are operating properly.

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