A roaring fire can make a home more inviting, what with the flickering flames, those crackling sounds and the magnetic warmth it gives off. But before you think about throwing a log into the fireplace when another cold spell rolls around, make sure your chimney is up to the task. Calling in a chimney sweep to do an annual inspection, along with having a cleaning and any necessary repairs done when needed, will help keep your home safe from a devastating chimney fire. Such maintenance applies not only to traditional fireplaces, but also to wood stoves, pellet stoves and gas-burning fireplaces or any wood-burning appliance that sends smoke up a chimney.
Too often people wait for the arrival of cold weather before they call a chimney sweep.
"When the nights start getting colder, that's when thoughts turn to taking care of the fireplace," said Sally McKnight, a chimney sweep for more than 25 years and owner of Alameda-based The Irish Sweep.
As with any service work, it's a good idea to do some homework and research before you hire a sweep, experts advise. Ask neighbors and friends for recommendations, said Rick Carpenter, fire marshal for the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. When hiring a sweep, people should get things in writing, he said.
"A lot of people go by word of mouth," said Carpenter, adding that cleaning a chimney is not the type of do-it-yourself job that a homeowner wants to take on.
"It's very, very dirty," he said. "The clear benefit from having a chimney sweep come in is they will clean up any soot that blew up inside the flue (and if they inspect) they will see any crack or gap in the masonry or split in the pipe. They will look at that and make a recommendation for (any needed) repairs."
Not only that, but sweeps look for bird nests or other obstructions that could have fallen through the top of the chimney, he said.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends chimneys be inspected annually to make sure they are structurally sound and free of obstructions so they operate safely and properly. Cleaning and repairs should be done when necessary.
In California, chimney sweeps who do cleanings and inspections do not have to be licensed with the Contractors State License Board. However, if a sweep does chimney repairs that cost more than $500 for labor and materials, then he or she must hold either a general contractors, masonry or specialty license related to the work being done.
In California, home insurers do not provide a policy discount for chimney inspections and cleanings since the work is considered a maintenance issue, said Tully Lehman, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California.
Since chimney sweeps get busy during the colder months, try to call one during the spring or summer. If you've moved into a new home, it's a good idea to have an inspection done before using a fireplace for the first time in cases where there is no record of a recent inspection.
The Contra Costa County Fire Protection District and the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommend hiring a certified chimney sweep.
State certification is voluntary and provided to sweeps who keep current with training in their field through the Golden State Chimney Sweep Guild (http://www.cachimneysweepsguild.org). Many state-certified sweeps also have national certification through the Chimney Safety Institute of America (http://www.csia.org). Both sites have a Web-based referral system for finding certified chimney sweeps in your area.
"Chimney sweeps are not created equally," said Tom Gallagher, treasurer of the Golden State guild. "The ones that are certified are the ones that have gone the extra mile ... There are certified chimney sweeps and then there are ones that just brought a brush."
On a typical call, many chimney sweeps will do an inspection and cleaning at the same time, which for a traditional fireplace runs from $130 to $250. The cost for a wood-burning stove may run higher, Gallagher said.
"When you get into wood burning inserts that are put into fireplaces, many of those have to be removed to be cleaned," he said.
In cases where a cleaning is not needed, a chimney inspection can cost anywhere from $70 to $100.
Cleaning a chimney involves the removal of creosote, which is a byproduct of burning wood that accumulates on the interior walls of chimneys when the fire that is burning starts to cool. "It sticks in the chimney like steam sticks in the shower," Gallagher said.
An excessive build-up of creosote can lead to a chimney fire when a fire is burning, he said.
While some of the newer wood stoves may do a cleaner job of burning wood and require less wood than a traditional fireplace, burning wood in a wood stove can still lead to creosote formation, McKnight said.
"Any time you burn you are always going to create creosote," she said.
Using artificial logs may result in a cleaner burning fire but creosote will still form, McKnight said.
Natural gas fireplaces are very clean burning. That's why their chimneys are less likely to need cleaning compared to chimneys connected to fireplaces and wood stoves, McKnight said.
"They are fueled by gas but also have electrical components. They need to be cleaned, the glass needs to be tested, they need maintenance," she said.
The more fires you burn over the year, the more creosote buildup there is. So what kind of rule-of-thumb gauges are there to figure out when the chimney might need a cleaning?
"An easy way for the homeowner to check their own chimney is to get a flashlight and look up inside the chimney," Gallagher said. "If it's black and smooth, like a piece of cloth, that's generally not too bad. But if it's starting to get fuzzy, then you want to call a certified chimney sweep."
How much wood you burn is another measure that consumers can use.
"Seventy-five fires would be appropriate for a fireplace and a cord of wood would be appropriate for a wood stove," she said. "An open fireplace uses way more wood than a wood stove would."
Eve Mitchell covers personal finance and real estate. Reach her at 925-952-2690 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Between professional inspections, do your own checks and maintenance to monitor and enhance the unit's performance.
You can minimize creosote by burning dry hardwoods, since their lower moisture content promotes more complete burning.
A hot fire produces less creosote than smoldering woods. Increase the air supply if necessary so that wood burns more completely.
FIND A SWEEP
Here are some questions to ask when looking for a chimney sweep:
How long has the chimney sweeping company been in business?
Does the company offer current references?
Does the company have unresolved complaints filed within the city or state consumer protection agency or Better Business Bureau?
Does the company or individual carry a valid business liability insurance policy to protect your home and furnishings against accidents?
Does the company ensure that a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep will be on the job site?
Source: Chimney Safety Institute of America (www.csia.org)