With an average of more than 25,000 chimney fires and 30 related deaths every year, chimney maintenance is an important task — even if you don’t burn firewood. Chimneys still need to be inspected and swept if you have a gas fireplace, because a blockage can cause a potentially lethal buildup of gas. The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends annual chimney inspections and regular chimney sweeping.
The primary job of a chimney inspector is to make sure your chimney is safe. Ashley Eldridge, director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), warns that chimneys that haven’t been used often still need to be inspected for cracks, old creosote buildup and animals or nests that could block vents. Built-up creosote (residue from burning wood) on the inside of the chimney can catch fire. Anything from a bird’s nest to a dead animal lodged in the flue (the inner part of the chimney) can also catch fire or prevent gas and smoke from venting. A chimney inspector will also note cracks or structural damage.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) classifies three levels of inspection:
Level 1 inspections are basic. The technician visually inspects the interior and exterior of the flue and chimney for structural defects and verifies that the inside of the chimney is clean and free from flammable obstructions.
A level 2 inspection is required if the property is transferred, there’s a change to the heating system or after a fire or weather event has damaged the chimney. It’s a more in-depth inspection.
If either a level 1 or 2 inspection suggests a hidden problem, a level 3 inspection may involve using a video camera or dismantling parts of the chimney and fireplace to look at components that aren’t otherwise visible.
If an inspector (some home or chimney inspectors are also chimney sweeps) finds creosote buildup in your chimney, you’ll need to hire a chimney-sweeping company to clean it. The National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG) suggests looking for a chimney professional who is licensed, insured and who doesn’t have outstanding complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau. Both the NCSG and CSIA certify chimney sweeps. You can also clean your own chimney, if you’re handy and comfortable with heights. The National Ag Safety Database suggests using a wire brush designed for cleaning chimneys — and being prepared for a messy job.
You can prevent some common chimney problems by taking proactive steps. A screened chimney cap not only prevents rain and snow from going down your chimney, it also keeps birds and wildlife from entering. If you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, avoid burning a lot of soft woods such as pine or cedar, and don’t burn plastic or household trash.
Chimney sweeping is an old profession, but it reached its heyday in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Children as young as 4 were used to climb up into chimneys to clean them in 18th-century Britain. Thankfully, children aren’t forced into chimneys any more, and since the advent of home heating oil and natural gas for heating, chimney sweeping as a profession isn’t as widely practiced as it once was.
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