Is it time to sweep your chimney?

Shannon Lee | Improvement Center Columnist | February 22, 2016

Wood burning stove with stacked logsA wood-burning stove is the epitome of 'cozy' during the winter. But without proper maintenance, those lazy nights by the fire can quickly turn into fire hazards; in fact, The Chimney Safety Institute of America reports that chimney fires were responsible for over 22,700 residential fires in between 2010 and 2012, resulting in almost $112 million in damages and 10 deaths.

The best way to keep your home and family safe from chimney fires is to ensure regular, thorough maintenance of the stove, chimney, and any related parts. Now is the time to get that chimney swept!

Best practices for everyday stove care

Your wood-burning stove is designed to last for decades. But that kind of longevity only happens if you do your part in caring for the unit and using it properly. Here are a few tips to remember:

  • Burn only seasoned wood. Anything else, such as artificial logs, green wood, trash, and even that big pizza box can lead to stove or chimney damage. Besides that, they don't produce the kind of heat that seasoned wood does.
  • Burn small, hot fires. A hotter fire burns away volatile gases and gives you better air quality. From time to time, look at the smoke that comes from your chimney. The less smoke, the more efficient the stove.
  • Consider a stack thermometer. A thermometer on the stove flue can tell you how efficiently the stove is working. A good temperature range of gases leaving the stove is between 300 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Clean ashes regularly. This doesn't mean just emptying the ash pan, though that is certainly a must. From time to time, you should also sweep or vacuum ashes from air intake vents and any other areas of the stove you can reach.
  • Upgrade if necessary. Though stoves can last a lifetime, most will eventually wear out, even with proper care and maintenance. If your wood-burning stove is ancient and doesn't seem to heat properly, it might be time to look for a more efficient model.

Do-it-yourself chimney maintenance and inspections

It's always important to do a quick inspection of the chimney before you use it. Look at the stove pipe where it connects to the chimney -- you are looking for any signs of corrosion or other wear. Look for cracks on the inside of the stove. Ensure the baffles aren't damaged. Inspect the door gaskets by placing a dollar bill between the door and the stove, then close the door and try to pull the dollar out. If you can pull it out, it's time to replace the door gasket.

If it's the dead of winter and the chimney is in constant use, look for potential problems on a regular basis. The most important point about do-it-yourself chimney and stove inspections is simply knowing your unit. Over time you will know very well what it should look like, which areas should be hot, and even what the metal will sound like as it expands. If something seems a little off, it probably is.

How to hire a professional chimney sweep

Though there is a great deal you can do on your own to ensure safety, nothing beats a thorough inspection and cleaning from a certified chimney sweep. These experts know what to look for when peering into the chimney, and they can spot problems that most homeowners might miss.

To make sure you are hiring a reputable chimney sweep, follow these guidelines:

  1. Look for a long history. Good chimney sweep companies have been honing their craft for a long time. Seek out those that have been in business for several years and have great reviews.
  2. Ask for references. A company worth their salt will have plenty of references for you to contact. Ask for a short list. If they refuse, that might be reason enough to look elsewhere.
  3. Do they have insurance? Chimney sweep companies should have liability insurance to protect your home and furnishings. Keep this simple: No insurance, no hire!
  4. Do they hold any certifications? This can help prove that a chimney sweep knows exactly how to handle your stove and chimney. The Chimney Safety Institute of American currently certifies more than 1,600 chimney sweeps across the nation.

One more thing…

Even if you do everything right with your wood-burning stove and chimney, problems can still occur. To protect yourself and your family, the National Fire Protection Association recommends placing a smoke detector in each bedroom, outside each sleeping area and on every floor of the home, including the basement. Install carbon monoxide detectors on every level of the home and outside of each sleeping area as well.

For even more protection, make sure they are on an interconnected system; when one sounds, they all do.

Now that you know what to do to keep up with stove and chimney maintenance, get started! There is no time like right now to make sure your home is safe and your heating is as efficient as it can be.

About the Author

Shannon Lee is a freelance writer and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.