Who doesnt enjoy a blazing and crackling fire to warm the home when the cold winter winds begin to blow? But to ensure a safe experience, like your HVAC furnace, it is important to have all your chimney components evaluated and cleaned on a yearly basis or more often, depending on the type of fuel you burn.
What is Creosote and Why is It Dangerous?
Creosote is a byproduct of burning wood or coal. Of course, coal burning in American homes is mostly a thing of the past, but firewood is still very popular, despite the fact that processed and packaged fire logs have taken the market by storm over the past few years.
Fire logs also produce creosote, even if it is to a lesser extent. Special fire logs are available that help with removing creosote. Keep in mind that pellet-burning stoves also produce it. Heres how the process works; when you burn wood to produce heat, gasses are produced that do not efficiently burn away.
These gasses now condense into liquid form. The liquid sticks to the inside of your chimney walls and/or liner. Over time it dries in the form of creosote. Insidiously, it continues to build up, layering on like a stalagmite, on the surface of your chimney liner or your flue tile every single time you and your family enjoy a fire.
Why is this dangerous? This is a highly flammable substance that can quickly erupt into a blazing chimney fire if subjected to a high enough temperature. That is why it must be removed periodically.
To make matters worse, creosote is also a cancer-causing carcinogen. If you begin to get a back-draft into your home, breathing this is a very bad thing. In short, maintaining a clean chimney is not an energy-efficiency issue, it is a health and safety issue.
Removal by Chimney Sweeps or Commercial Products
Hiring a chimney sweep is the traditional way to clean the inner surface and restore safety to the home. Granted, sweeping is not as big a trade as it used to be, but it is still around. Sweeps will use a special steel brush to scrape it off. Its a messy job but someone has to do it. DIY chemical creosote-modifying products are also available and are effective to varying degrees.
Some of these products dont actually remove creosote, but simply chemically alter it, leaving it in a state that is much easier to scrape off.
In many cases, this can make the job easy enough so that the homeowner can do the job and save some money on the labor end. If you do decide to tackle the job yourself, there are a couple of points to keep in mind.
First, keep your fireplace doors closed when sweeping; as stated above, this is a messy operation. No doors? Block the opening up securely with sheet plastic to keep the ashes from migrating into your living room.
Secondly, tackle one section at a time. Start at the top and work your way down. Use a powerful flashlight and check your progress as you go; be sure to get it all.
How Often Should a Chimney be Swept?
To a large extent, this depends on the fuel used. Here are some general guidelines.
Bituminous coal: Quarterly when in use
Smokeless fuel: At least once a year
Gas: Once a year
Wood: Quarterly when in use
Oil: Once a year
The bottom line? Hire a pro or take your time removing creosote build-up yourself to prevent fires. It is an investment in the safety of your family. Without proper chimney sweeping at the recommended intervals, you risk a fire from creosote build-up.
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About the Author:
Kelly R. Smith was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelors Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation and financial and energy trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.