Cozying up with your family next to a warmly lit fire is a great way to spend a chilly evening. It’s inviting for sure, but is it safe? One of the responsibilities that come with owning a home with a wood-burning stove or fireplace is taking on the job of ensuring that it’s safe and ready for your family to enjoy.

But chimney maintenance is a dirty job, and it’s not easy to do without experience. That’s where the professionals come in. A chimney sweep is someone that is licensed and has been trained in the proper way to inspect your chimney and wood burning apparatus (i.e. stove or fireplace). They will have the tools and the knowledge to spot issues and prevent smaller problems from growing bigger. A properly cared for wood stove and chimney not only looks better, they also function more efficiently.


How Your Chimney Works

A fireplace or wood burning stove is more than just a luxurious addition to your home. They are designed to be a heat source, especially in colder climates, while safely containing the fire. The chimney has the important job of making sure that all the dangerous by-products of the burning wood are safely expelled from the fireplace or stove by carrying them up and out of your home. These substances include smoke, water vapor, gases, unburned wood particles, assorted minerals, tar fog, and hydrocarbon.

But sometimes, when these by-products reach the upper levels of the chimney where it’s not as hot, condensation occurs, resulting in layers of creosote attaching to the walls. Creosote is a brownish-black substance that is highly flammable and one of the main causes of chimney fires. It has three forms – flaky and easy to remove, tar-like and sticky, and the shiny, hardened kind that is difficult to remove.


Dangers of Neglecting Your Chimney’s Care

Home heating is the second leading cause of house fires in the United States, with the main contributing factor being failure to clean the chimney. A wood-burning stove or fireplace is meant for enjoyment, but it also needs to be cared for. Potential issues with wood-burning appliances include soot, ash, and creosote build-up, debris such as nests in the chimney, wood that isn’t burning well, or the damper being improperly closed. Cracks can occur in the chimney, there could be loose bricks or a dented liner, or the damper or cap could be positioned incorrectly. These are all issues that need attention so that your chimney is in tip-top shape.

A properly cared for chimney will not catch fire. But it’s hard to clean your chimney, especially if you don’t know what to look for. This gives further reason for investing in someone to do the dirty work for you. Having a professional chimney sweep inspect your chimney before the start of winter is a good start, but you should continue proper maintenance throughout the year.


Ten Ways to Care for Your Wood Burning System

While many of these steps are for using and cleaning your wood-burning stove or fireplace, there are a few prevention measures you can take that are just as important. These ten tips go over all three components of a wood burning system:


1. Install Detectors
While it may seem like a no-brainer, many people skip having a carbon monoxide detector in their home. These are especially necessary if you have a wood burning stove or fireplace, as one of the dangers of an improperly managed system is the release of carbon monoxide into your home. Smoke detectors are also crucial for the same reason.

2. Keep Flammables Away from The Flames
Another essential step that may seem like it doesn’t need mentioning is the fact that nothing should be in the way of your stove or fireplace while a fire is roaring. It’s good safety practice to never have anything at all in or on the dedicated area around your stove or fireplace, including curtains, cords, pet beds, tall vases with flowers, shoes, etc. Begin the habit of keeping this area clear and free at all times.

3. Consider an Upgrade
Making a few changes to your wood burning system can help both aesthetically and structurally. A stainless-steel chimney lining is more durable and can handle higher levels of heat than other kinds of lining or brick. Adding heat-proof glass doors adds another layer of protection by preventing stray sparks from leaving your stove/fireplace and causing damage. They also create a barrier between your home and your chimney so that your home has better temperature control and you don’t lose money. Use a fan or vent to ensure that the heated air is dispersed evenly, making the burn more efficient while keeping you warmer.

4. Burn the Right Kind of Wood
The wood you burn matters. The best kinds of wood are hardwoods, such as oak, ash, birch, and maple. These burn better and have less creosote build-up as a result.

5. Build a Fire Safely
What you burn matters, too. You should never burn anything except dry, untreated wood, or you run the risk of adding more chemicals to your air and having a low-quality fire. You also should start your fire slowly, adding more wood as it heats and needs more fuel.

6. Get the Benefit of Ash
Ash does have its benefits in a fireplace. Keeping around an inch of ash in your fireplace can help the coals stay red hot longer, increasing the burn time. However, when you have more ash than needed, it needs to be cleaned out, but you must wait at least 24 hours after a fire to do so to ensure it is not still silently burning.

7. Watch for Soot and Smoke
A stove or fireplace, when properly maintained and working at its most efficient, should not send smoke into your home. If it does, something is urgently wrong. Soot is another harmful by-product of burning wood and, if not properly cleaned, can cause health and other issues.

8. Evaluate the Outdoor Temperature
The temperature outside plays a role in how your chimney drafts the air. A good recommendation is to open the flue damper 100% if the outside temperature is over 45 degrees. If it’s under that, you should close it to 50%. This should provide the best airflow control and could even help your fireplace stay cleaner in the process.

9. Check the Chimney Parts Often
The damper, cap, and flue all need frequent attention. The damper needs to be open when you have a fire in the fireplace to ensure that carbon monoxide and smoke can escape. The cap keeps rain, snow, and other objects from falling into your chimney and reduces downdrafts, and they have vents on the side to let the smoke through. This needs to be cleaned of debris often to maintain proper airflow. A damper can function as a cap, too, if it’s top-mounted. The flue is the long tall tube of the chimney and is where the creosote build-up occurs. This needs to be cleaned out to prevent a chimney fire.

10. Help Prevent Build-up
Two products on the market can be used to help clean your fireplace and chimney to some extent. These are not solutions, but temporary measures you can take while you are waiting for your yearly fireplace maintenance with your professional chimney sweep. The first is to use a creosote spray periodically, which will help reduce or loosen the build-up. The second is to burn a chimney-cleaning log, which can also loosen up the creosote build-up and help with your chimney maintenance.


The Bottom Line

No matter how you decide to move forward with your chimney maintenance, the important thing is that you take the maintenance of your entire wood-burning system seriously. The time, effort, and cost it takes to maintain it are far less than if you don’t.