Fireplace and Chimney Maintenance

Anyone looking for a home this time of year is going to have a special affinity for any home with a fireplace. As the rain pours, the wind blows, and temperatures drop, how much easier is it to picture yourself inside a home than to see a fire blazing in the fireplace, as you and your family sit nearby, enjoying the warmth and togetherness?

But before you buy that oh-so-perfect home with the fireplace, be sure you know this attractive feature is safe and ready to be used. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), more than 18,000 home fires each year are the result of problems with chimneys, fireplaces, and related home appliances. In those fires, 200 people were injured or killed, and more than $150 million in property damaged was incurred.

“The chimney and fireplace will be covered by the home inspection, but often, the inspector will recommend calling someone who specializes in this area,” says Michael K. Wilhelm of H Soot Esquire Chimney Sweep in Alameda. “Before you use it, you should definitely have the chimney and fireplace inspected.”

Wilhelm says that, depending on when the home was built and the type of materials used, home buyers may be looking at a complete cleaning, repairs, or rebuilding the chimney and/or fireplace entirely.

“In older homes, the mortar between the bricks gets loose,” Wilhelm explains. “Chimneys move and crack on the inside, and you can’t see it from the outside.”

In fact, chimneys can seem so problem-free that homeowners may only discover problems years, or even decades, after the damage began. “We’re still doing repairs as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake,” he notes.

Both Wilhelm and CSIA recommend an annual chimney inspection, even if the fireplace has not been used in the past year. “Chimneys deteriorate over time, so they should be inspected annually,” Wilhelm adds.

That is particularly true for new home buyers, who should have the chimney and adjacent areas inspected, even if they aren’t planning to use the fireplace right away. “Even if the prior owners never used their fireplace, rain and time can damage the chimney,” he explains.

Once home buyers move into their new home, and the chimney has been inspected, the maintenance and care doesn’t stop. In addition to annual cleanings, the chimney should be cleaned after approximately one cord of firewood has been burned. “A cord is about as much wood as would fit into the back of an average pickup truck,” Wilhlem explains.

That one cord of wood creates a deposit on the chimney, called creosote, which according to Wilhelm is “extremely flammable”. The risk of a chimney fire increases if the creosote remains, as sparks from additional fires can begin burning the creosote.

Nor should homeowners necessarily rely on chimney cleaning logs. “Those work if you already have a clean chimney, and usually help reduce the build-up, but don’t always eliminate it,” Wilhelm explains.

Of course, what you choose to burn in the fireplace can also make a huge difference in the amount of build-up. “Wax logs leave a big deposit, and get the chimney dirtier in a faster amount of time. Truly compressed sawdust logs, just made of compressed sawdust, will burn a bit cleaner,” Wilhelm notes.

Above all, Wilhelm cautions against burning trash, paper, or other items in a home fireplace — so you’ll need to find another way to dispose of your old love letters. “The creosote and bits of paper will mix, often causing a chimney fire. That’s how a lot of chimney fires start,” he explains.

In addition to maintenance and the right fuel, a rain cap on the top of a chimney, along with the proper damper, can help prevent damage from the rain, as well as help keep birds and squirrels from trying to nest in the chimney.

The age of the home can often determine how much maintenance or repair is required. Wilhelm says masonry chimneys stopped being used around 20 years ago, as planning departments in the Bay Area realized the greater risk and began requiring that other types of materials be used. “Newer homes usually don’t have masonry chimneys, but will often have chimneys made out of metal. Those require very little maintenance, but they will still need to be checked and cleaned,” Wilhelm adds.

Metal or masonry, big or small, building a fire in the fireplace of your new home can be a wonderful way to make it cozy. Just be sure you have the chimney inspected and cleaned prior — or your house warming party could turn into a house burning party.

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