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North Hills Monthly

Proper Maintenance Key to Keeping Chimneys Safe

Nov 30, 2017 01:19PM ● By Shari Berg

After – the new crown

Creating a clear path for Santa Claus’ trip down the chimney isn’t the only reason to consult a chimney sweep this holiday season. 

According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, there are more than 25,000 chimney fires per year in the United States. These fires are attributed with causing more than $125 million in property damage and 20 deaths from smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation per year. Proper maintenance of chimneys can go a long way in preventing chimney fires. 

Creosote buildup is the primary cause of most chimney fires. Creosote is a natural byproduct of the wood-burning process, and forms a black substance that can either be powdery, flaky or glazed in appearance. In addition to creosote being a fire hazard, its buildup can affect the efficiency of your wood-burning fireplace by limiting the draft. 

Creosote isn’t the only contributor to improperly functioning fireplaces, said Lisa Williams, co-owner of Affordable Chimney Sweep of Tarentum. Debris such as bird nests and leaves can block the air flow, creating the possibility of carbon monoxide filling the home. Cracks and breaks in the flue tile can prevent proper ventilation from occurring, allowing carbon monoxide to leak into a home. Carbon monoxide inhalation can be fatal. 

“You would be surprised by the things we find in chimneys—raccoons, squirrels and snakes, to name a few,” she said. “If you’re unlucky enough to get a chimney swift bird nesting in there with babies, you won’t be able to remove it because it’s a protected species. You have to wait for it to leave on its own.

“Chimney caps are a great investment and go a long way in protecting your chimney from unwanted guests, as well as from erosion of the brick work and dampener,” she added.

Professionals who aid in the prevention of fires and carbon monoxide emergencies related to the use of fireplaces, wood stoves, gas, oil and coal-heating systems are called chimney sweeps, according to Megan Murphy of Hearth and Home Furnishings in Zelienople. “A CSIA-certified chimney sweep is trained to provide cleaning, safety inspections and repairs to existing masonry and pre-fabricated fireplaces,” she explained. 

The number one reason to have a chimney regularly inspected is to protect a home from fire. “A chimney sweep can maintain your chimney with annual cleanings and inspections, as well as alert you to potential problems and deterioration to the exterior of your chimney or the top of the chimney,” said Murphy.

Properly maintaining your chimney is the best way to avoid costly repairs down the road. “Insurance companies recommend cleaning and inspection at least once annually,” said Williams. “Usually, homeowners think about it when the weather gets colder, and they find themselves using their fireplaces more. But it can really be done at any time of year, and we recommend doing it as early as possible to avoid the rush later when a lot of homeowners will be trying to book services.”

Even fireplaces that are not frequently used benefit from an occasional cleaning, said Murphy. Williams agreed, adding they while a rarely used chimney may not need to be cleaned as often, it should still be inspected at least once every couple of years to prevent structural damage and other unsafe conditions.

“If homeowners know they aren’t going to be using their fireplaces, we highly recommend installing caps to prevent debris from entering, and shutting off the dampeners and flues,” said Williams.

A cleaning can take between one and two hours; however, if unexpected issues are discovered during the cleaning or inspection, the process may take longer. Most of the work is completed from the exterior of the home, but the chimney sweep will require homeowners to be present for the procedure and may need to come inside to clean up debris that falls into the bottom of the fireplace during the sweeping process.

While individual chimney sweep services may vary, Murphy said her company offers three levels of service. Level 1 is cleaning and visual inspection of the fireplace; Level 2 includes cleaning the chimney and using a special camera to scan the interior of the chimney from the bottom to the top, looking for voids in the flue or deterioration and cracks.  In addition to those services, Level 3 includes removal of structural aspects of the chimney or flue to assess damage. This level often is required after a chimney fire has occurred.

As with other professional service providers, consumers should do their homework before selecting a chimney sweep.

“Our chimney sweeps carry the highest industry accreditation from the Chimney Safety Institute of America,” said Murphy. “The CSIA has the highest educational standards and adheres to a strict code of ethics, protecting homeowners from scams.”

In addition to certification, Williams said consumers should make sure the chimney sweep is licensed and insured.  He said, “Check out ratings and reviews, and don’t be afraid to ask for references from those who have used the service.”