The recent weather hasn't quite been the cause to stoke a warming fire in the fireplace. But now's as good a time as ever to take all the steps to make sure your hearth, fireplace or stove and chimney are in tip-top shape for the rest of the winter season.
Most chimney sweeping and maintenance experts suggest inspecting and cleaning your home chimney system every 12 months, or per every cord to cord and a half of wood burned.
Certified chimney sweep Thomas "Tom" Reynolds of the Lee, Mass.-based Clean Sweep says, "Anyone who plans on burning wood continuously through the season should have their fireplace and chimney cleaned before snow starts the fly."
Regular cleanings preserve and prolong the life of the chimney, which can increase a home's value and appeal. Inspections also ensure that the chimney system is safe and up to building code.
Whether you inspect it yourself or hire a professional, the first step to take before making a fire is to conduct a visual inspection of all the chimney system components, from the base of the hearth to the top of the flue.
According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, homeowners should be able to identify their chimney systems as one of two types: a hand-built masonry fireplace or factory-built prefabricated fireplace. Masonry fireplaces tend to have a boxy complex brick chimney system extending from the home's foundation through and above the roof, while a prefab fireplace tends to be made of metal and have more of a cylindrical shape to the system.
The visual inspection, also known to chimney sweeps as a Level I inspection, involves looking for cracks; soot and ash buildup, blockages or other apparent damages to the chimney system that can compromise the efficiency and safety of the fireplace or other chimney-based home heating system. This wear can be caused by age, regular use, weather and previous chimney fires.
Chimney systems can also be blocked by nesting animals and storm debris or can be corroded by moisture mixed with soot, which is why a chimney cap is an important component in preserving and protecting your system.
Certified chimney sweep Eric Brown, owner of Green Mountain Chimney Sweep based in Poultney, Vt., said, "Take a flashlight and look up the chimney. Common sense will tell you if you think there's a problem."
Brown said homeowners should also inspect the hearth and ash dump system itself.
"The best thing to do is look at any cracks and for loosening of mortar around the hearth and firebox floor. That way they can get addressed before they become more severe. Embers can fall in there and sit there and smolder," he said.
If nothing visual can immediately be spotted, but there are issues, such as a smell or smoke build up when the fireplace or other fuel-burning heating system is being used, a licensed professional can be called to use video equipment or, in more severe cases, to open up a component of the wall and chimney, to get a more thorough and deeper look into potential problems.
Reynolds noted that regular inspections are particularly important for owners of second homes and people who use their fireplaces more infrequently, unlike regular users, who are more likely to notice any changes in operation and efficiency.
"Any sort of turbulence around the home, minor earthquakes, construction, et cetera, can cause things to internally shift or crack. Any smoke spilling into the room is not normal and could be an issue with the internal structure of the chimney," Reynolds said.
The main thing to keep watch for in chimneys is the buildup of a substance known as creosote, a tar-like residue that develops in stages, based on the degree of combustion of wood. The better the air flow and better quality of seasoned wood used in a chimney system, the better the combustion and the less heavy the creosote.
A standard chimney sweeping, depending on the system size and buildup, can last between 40 minutes to two hours. So-called chimney-sweeping or cleaning logs can reduce creosote buildup, but it's no replacement for actually cleaning it off the brick and liner.
And while it's tempting this time of year to burn other combustibles, like Christmas tree trimmings, piles of wrapping paper, or remnants of boxes, experts say it's better to recycle these items, or at least burn them outside in a controlled bonfire away from the house.
"The fireplace is for burning wood, that's it's only purpose," said Reynolds, noting that the above items won't burn as easily and could potentially lead to a chimney fire.
In 2014, there were 712 fire incidents involving chimneys, fireplaces, and woodstoves in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services. These fires were responsible for three civilian deaths, four civilian injuries and six firefighter injuries. They resulted in $2.7 million in property losses. These incidents made up 41 percent of all fires linked to heating systems
Another good practice, said Brown, is to make sure to regularly clean out and properly dispose of ashes from the fireplace.
"With ashes, you have to make sure you empty them out in a metal container and store them outside the house on non-combustible ground, away from the structure. Don't leave an ash bucket indoors. They can smolder for awhile and next thing you know, they could be burning on a deck or a carpet," he said. "You never want to assume with fireplace safety, and that's something that should be practiced all year."
In this story:
• Clean Sweep: Lee, Mass., 413-243-1691 or cleansweepma.com
• Green Mountain Chimney Sweep: Poultney, Vt., 802-353-2379 or greenmountainchimneysweep.com
To find out more about chimney care and to locate licensed and certified services:
• Massachusetts Chimney Sweep Guild: mcsguild.org
• National Chimney Sweep Guild: ncsg.org or 317-837-1500
• Chimney Safety Institute of America: csia.org or 317-837-5362
• Chimney & Wood Stove Safety brochure: http://ow.ly/WgMHl
• About chimney cleaning and repair scams: http://ow.ly/WgMVg