Fall Home Maintenance Series - Part 2: Fireplaces and Chimneys

Fall Home Maintenance Series – Part 2: Fireplaces and Chimneys

That chilly little nip in the air and the early morning frost warns us winter is coming. It also means it’s time to get your home ready for that cold weather. Preparing your home in the fall may sound like a lot to do, but in reality, it only takes a little time to get things ready. With our Fall  Home Maintenance Series, we’ll show you why it’s a good idea to spend a few hours over the next few weekends inspecting and preparing your home for the arrival of winter. With these practical tips, you can protect your home’s value, keep your family comfortable, and reduce your energy usage (and hopefully, energy bills!) all winter long.

In our second installment, we’ll help you prepare your fireplace and chimney as a way to cultivate and enhance the winter ambiance of your home. Fireplaces might create a sense of warmth and tranquility to your home, but that crackling toasty sensation can create potential problems. Cinders, ash, creosote, and other volatile resins create a dangerous fire hazard if they are not routinely and properly cleaned. That said, there a few things you can do yourself to keep your home fires burning bright.

Fall Home Maintenance Series - Part 2: Fireplaces and Chimneys
Now THAT is a proper fire in a fireplace.

Up On the Housetop

Make sure the chimney cap is securely attached to the chimney. Chimney caps prevent leaves, debris, and animals from getting into your chimney and blocking it. Check the condition of the cap’s mesh. Mesh on the chimney cap also acts as a spark arrestor, preventing sparks from starting fires outside your home.

Check the condition of the masonry. Loose or cracked brickwork should be repaired promptly. Depending on where the trouble is, you might want to contact a professional chimney repair service.

Cut back any tree limbs overhanging your chimney. Not only do these pose a fire hazard, they can knock against the chimney, which can damage it or cause an obstruction to the chimney’s ability to exhaust.

Inside Your Home

Eliminate backdraft or negative pressure problems. The heat generated in fireplaces and woodstoves pulls air from inside your home (also called the “stack effect”) and shoots hot air and gasses out the chimney. In homes that are tightly sealed or not designed properly for fireplaces, the fire is unable to draw enough air for the wood smoke exit through the chimney. Consequently, smoke, cinders, creosote, and dangerous carbon monoxide will be trapped in the home.

Operating your furnace with return vents in the same room as the fireplace will pull air into the furnace and create negative pressure in the room. The same can occur while running a clothes dryer because the dryer is blowing air out of the house. While closing off the return vent and avoiding running the clothes dryer while you have a fire going are temporary fixes, adding a fresh air supply to your fireplace or wood stove would be ideal.

Inspect the damper. Fireplace dampers are designed to control the flow of exhaust from the fire. Many traditional fireplaces have built-in dampers (also called “throat dampers “) at the mouth of the flue. If you don’t want to have a fire, then ideally, you can close the damper and keep out the cold weather. Unfortunately, coatings of creosote and ash can prevent the damper from closing (or opening) properly.

You can test to see how well your damper closes by first shutting it and then hold a lit candle in the fireplace. If the flame flickers, then it’s likely indoor air is flowing up out of the chimney. An easy, inexpensive fix is to use an inflatable fireplace damper balloon that gets stuffed inside the chimney to reduce drafts.

Know Your Firewood

Perhaps the best way to prevent problems with your fireplace or wood stove is to pay close attention to the kind of wood you burn. Dried, seasoned wood burns hotter and more completely, making it less likely to produce creosote and carbon monoxide. Here’s what to keep in mind when you’re looking for firewood.

Fall Home Maintenance Series - Part 2: Fireplaces and Chimneys
I’m not sure that blocking your garage and driveway is the best way to store your firewood, but at least the wood looks good.
  • Start fires with dry kindling, pine cones, or newspaper. Never use gasoline, kerosene, or charcoal starter.
  • Don’t use wet, rotten, diseased, or moldy wood.
  • Don’t burn painted wood, pressure-treated wood, or plywood. These can give off toxic chemicals.
  • Use local firewood. Firewood from other regions spreads disease and pests. For example, the emerald ash borer has killed 50 million ash trees in the US (costing home owners thousands of dollars) just by being moved around in firewood.
  • Use wood that has been seasoned for 12 months and has a moisture content of less than 20% Moisture determines how well the wood burns and how much creosote will form in your chimney.
  • If you buy firewood this year, store it for use next year. That way, you can be sure it’s properly dried.
  • If you cut and stack your own wood, be sure to store your firewood off the ground. Keep it covered on top but leave the side open for air to circulate.
  • Use the right kind of wood for the kind of fire you want. Oak and other hard woods generally burn long and hot. Soft woods, like pine, will burn fast and fiercely hot. However, if soft woods are not properly dried, the water content in their resins will produce high amounts of creosote.
  • Always keep a fire extinguisher handy. It only takes one spark to cause trouble —so it’s best to be prepared.

Creosote and Chimney Fires

Creosote fires in fireplace flues and chimneys can reach 2000° F — hot enough to easily melt metal liners, fracture brickwork, and spread flames into your attic. If you find signs of cracked and discolored masonry, be alert for signs of creosote flakes or ash. If the chimney cap is warped, then you may have had a chimney fire — and you could face another.

Fall Home Maintenance Series - Part 2: Fireplaces and Chimneys
We recommend that you do NOT hire a chimney sweep who looks like a Charles Dickens or Mary Poppins character.

Now is the best time to get your fireplace or wood stove ready for winter by getting your flue and chimney inspected and cleaned by a professional chimney sweep. Trained chimney sweeps can show you how well your fireplace or wood stove is working and what you can do to get the most heat out of it safely.

Up Next in our Fall Home Maintenance Series: Doors and Windows.

About 

Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.