Anytime wood is burned in a fireplace, soot and creosote are produced. Soot is sticky, black carbon particles, and creosote is an oily, flammable liquid tar. These byproducts cling to the inside of a chimney and can easily cause a chimney fire. That's why anyone who has a fireplace needs to know how to clean a chimney or should hire a professional chimney cleaning service to come in at least once a year. Taking on the task yourself is a big job, but if you are a hands-on homeowner and want to do it yourself, here are a few chimney cleaning tips to get you started.
When to Clean a Chimney
Make sure you inspect your chimney in the fall before the burning season actually starts. If birds, squirrels or other woodland creatures have built nests inside your chimney, you'll need to clean it out before the very first use. You should also inspect it inside and out for cracks and other damage that needs to be repaired.
After the burning season starts, how often you'll need to clean your chimney will depend on three factors: how much you use your fireplace, how low or high you make the fires and what kind of wood you burn. Low-burning, smoldering fires produce more creosote than high-temperature fires. And woods such as beech, pecan, pine and cedar, which create more creosote in your chimney than low-sap, low-oil woods such as oak. Make sure, too, that wood has been aged and dried, or seasoned. Dried wood burns better and generates less creosote.
If you own a gas firelplace, you're not immune to the hazards of creosote and carbon buildup, though they accumulate more slowly than they do in wood-burning firelplaces. As a rule of thumb, when you see a thich coating of carbon on your gas logs, it's time to clean the chimney.
If you've just moved in to an older home, have the chimney inspected and cleaned before starting the fireplace for the first time, especially if it's a gas fireplace. The previous owners may have been diligent about keeping the firebox clean and neglected the chimney.
For safety's sake, check the inside of your chimney often. A bright flashlight will help you see better. A good rule of thumb to follow is whenever the creosote has accumulated to an eighth of an inch thickness, it's time to clean your chimney out.
Gather Your Tools and Materials
You will need to purchase a broom that is the proper shape and size to fit inside your chimney. The broom will be used to sweep off the interior walls to remove the accumulation of soot and creosote. You'll also need extension poles to push and pull the brush up and down. You can find these chimney tools at your local home improvement store.
You will also need to gather additional tools and materials:
Protect Your Work Area
Before you start to clean your chimney, you need to protect your work area. Lay down several old newspapers around the fireplace opening, extended about three to four feet out. Then spritz the drop cloth or old, thick blanket with a spray bottle of tap water until it is damp. Before you can start to clean the chimney, drape the blanket over the opening of the fireplace so it seals it. This will help keep the soot and creosote inside your fireplace. The dampness will help trap fine particles.
Next, protect yourself by putting on coveralls or the long-sleeved shirt and pants, the hat or bandana and the safety gear.
Clean the Chimney from the Top
To clean your chimney, carefully reach up inside and locate the damper handle. Open the damper up and use the stiff-bristle brush to clean it off. Then locate the cotter keys that hold the damper in place inside the chimney. Remove them and set them aside.
Now you will need to take the chimney brush, the extension poles or ropes and the stiff brush and bring them to your rooftop. Use caution on the roof and the ladder. Watch out for loose roofing materials and stay off the roof if it's raining, snowy or icy.
If there's a chimney cap covering your chimney, remove it. Clean it, if needed, with the brush and set it aside.
Place the chimney brush in the opening. Lower it all the way down into the chimney. Hold the end of the brush and push it up and down inside the entire length of your chimney. Keep working the brush in this fashion to loosen up and remove the soot and creosote.
Once you've thoroughly cleaned the chimney from the top, remove the brush. It's now time to clean the chimney from inside the fireplace.
Clean the Chimney from the Bottom
The next step to is to carefully remove the drop cloth or blanket from the fireplace opening. Use the dustpan and brush to clean up any debris. Place the soot and creosote inside the metal container with a lid.
Then use the stiff brush to reach up inside your chimney and clean the sides as far as you can reach. Replace the damper and use a wet/dry vacuum to perform a final clean up of the area.
Clean the Chimney Downstairs
Finally, go downstairs to the basement and open the bottom chimney door. Use the wet/dry vacuum to clean out any soot and creosote that's fallen in there.
It's important to clean your chimney after a long winter of using your fireplace. If you don't want to have it done professionally, you can buy your own chimney sweep brushes and do it yourself. There are a few things you need to consider before you buy these brushes.
It happens about this time every year, the first cold evening and you want to build a nice roaring fire in the wood stove to warm up the house. Completely forgetting you never cleaned the chimney at the end of the heating season last year, that nice thick coat of creosote has had all summer to dry out.
Your fireplace provides a charming fire and toasty warmth when it's lit, but what happens when the fire is out and the fireplace sits empty? If you stop to think about it, a fireplace chimney is just a fancy hole in the roof. According to the US Department of Energy, up to 14% of the air infiltration of a normal house can be attributed to a fireplace.