Taking Care of Fireplaces and Chimneys Home Fires Burning

A fireplace is a wonderful amenity in a home, but before you go off and light that first log, its important for association members to remember that a chimney and fireplace require special care and attention to make sure they remain clear of debris and function properly. Without an annual inspection, a fireplace can become dangerous—even deadly.

The Soot's Afoot

In 2003, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there were 388,500 reported home fires in the United States, resulting in 3,145 deaths, 13,650 injuries and $5.9 billion in direct property damage. Smoking was the leading cause of home fire deaths overall, but in the months of December, January and February, smoking and heating equipment—including fireplaces—caused similar shares of fire deaths.

When was the last time you had your chimney inspected and cleaned? In fact, annual inspections of chimneys, fireplaces, and vents are recommended by the NFPA to prevent fires, carbon monoxide exposure and to ensure safe and efficient operation of your fireplace, home heating system, and solid-fuel appliances.

Ideally, the time to have your fireplace and chimney cleaned and inspected is in the spring when chimney sweeps aren't as busy. However, if you haven't already done so, don't wait till the thaw. There's still time to hire a professional now for a cleaning and to prevent serious problems.

If you haven't cleaned the chimney in quite some time, do not start a fire until your cleanup is completed. Although homeowners might attempt it as a do-it-yourself project, a professional can easily spot structural damage and perform maintenance checks quickly and efficiently, making this investment well worth the cost.

The View from Your Flue

This doesn't mean a homeowner shouldn't have basic knowledge of the fireplace and chimney, or any appliance in the home for that matter. The knowledge helps you to be aware of any new problems that may arise.

Simply put, a chimney is an upright tube that's designed to draw the combustible smoke and gasses from a fireplace (also known as the firebox) to the outside. There are several types of chimneys and fireplaces—the most common being a durable and long-lasting masonry like brick, concrete or stone—but there are new factory-built, or "pre-fab," chimneys and fireplaces constructed of metal and other products. The flue is the passageway that connects the fireplace to the chimney. The inner flue is lined with a common material (usually terra cotta, steel, or aluminum) that makes it easy to clean.

It's important for homeowners to know what type of chimney, flue and liner has been installed. A properly designed chimney will accommodate the exhaust that's being emitted, keeping you and your family safe from carbon monoxide buildup and potentially deadly fires.

A fireplace and chimney that haven't been properly designed or maintained can lead to a host of other problems, including water damage, deteriorating liners and a buildup of creosote, a material used to treat and preserve wood. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), creosote is the resulting residue that sticks to the inner walls of the chimney. It's black or brown in appearance and can be crusty and flaky, hard and shiny, or tar-like, drippy and sticky. All three forms commonly occur in one chimney system.

Certain conditions encourage the buildup of creosote, including restricted air supply (from closed damper or fireplace doors), unseasoned wood and cooler-than-normal chimney temperatures. Creosote is highly combustible, and too much build-up can lead to a fire inside the chimney walls.

To cut down on the build-up, "Don't just throw any type of wood on the fire," says Robert Brancaccio, president of American Chimney Service in Hackensack. "Use seasoned wood, which has been dried for two years and there isn't as much creosote build up."

As a rule, homeowners shouldn't use anything to light their fire other than seasoned wood, says Bob Harris, president of Top Hat & Tails Corp. in Belleville. "To prevent creosote buildup, don't burn pine, sappy wood, wrapping paper, ink stuff, pizza boxes or your Christmas tree."

Other Dangers

Fires, carbon monoxide and creosote aren't the only hazards of having a fireplace. The warmth of a roaring fire is also a welcome invitation to unwanted guests, and that isn't just Santa Claus shimmying down the chimney.

"My worst experience was removing a raccoon that had worked its way into the chimney, got stuck and died," says Harris. "Raccoons, birds, bees, squirrels and leaves can enter your chimney, and so it should be capped with a heavy-duty screen. The screen has an opening to let smoke and carbon monoxide escape, but it keeps out these things."

What happens if you have a blocked chimney or stopped up flue? "Your whole house can fill up with smoke, it can cause a chimney fire, or deadly carbon monoxide can fill up your home," says Brancaccio. Hiring a professional to clean and maintain your system can prevent these dangers.

An inspection and cleaning service generally takes between 30 minutes to an hour to perform and, on average, can cost between $75 and $150. During the inspection, some businesses can perform a chimney video scan to get an even clearer picture of what's going on in the chimney shaft. The company will use a camera that's lowered inside the chimney. The special light and camera will document the condition of the chimney and flue and uncover any cracks in the structure or blockages.

"This is vital especially if you're buying a new home to know what the chimney looks like before you buy," says Brancaccio.

The Pros Know

When hiring a chimney sweep, first check with your homeowners association to see if they have contracted with a company to perform annual inspections of all units. When hiring a company, search for a business that is certified with the CSIA, although be aware that certification isn't required throughout the industry. Certified professionals have earned a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep credential by passing an exam based on standard chimney service practices and applicable fire safety codes. To pass, candidates must earn a score of 80 or higher. Certification is valid for three years from the exam date and certified sweeps must take continuing education courses or take the test again to become recertified. Also look for membership in The New Jersey Chimney Sweep Guild, an association of professional chimney sweeps and service companies.

Another good tip is to find out how long the company has been in business and be sure to ask for references. Perform a background check and check for complaints with the Better Business Bureau or the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. Make sure the company or individual also carries a business liability insurance policy to protect your home and furnishings against accidents.

No matter what heating system you have, make certain that you've hired a professional to clean and maintain it. Then you'll feel comfortable knowing that you and your family are safe and warm when old man winter comes knocking.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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