Soot yourself: The cleaning, care, and keeping of your chimney

Wendell Worley of Mirkwood Chimney Sweep says regular cleanings can prevent chimney fires, but proper firestarters and safety precautions are important, too. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Wendell Worley of Mirkwood Chimney Sweep says regular cleanings can prevent chimney fires, but proper firestarters and safety precautions are important, too. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

If you have a fireplace or a wood stove in your home, odds are good that you also have a chimney. And if you have a chimney, it needs to be cleaned—every 30 to 50 fires, according to Wendell Worley of Mirkwood Chimney Sweep. In addition to telling us why chimney cleaning is crucial, Worley spoke to us about chimney maintenance and fire prevention.

How does the chimney cleaning process work?

In fireplaces, the first thing we do is put down a drop cloth that our equipment sits on. We have a high-powered vacuum with a 4″ hose on the back that moves 2,800 cubic feet of air per minute. It creates a vacuum in the fireplace that gets all the dust. Next, we have a viper, a 75′ chimney rod that rolls up into a roll. You feed it up through the damper and into the flue and brush as you go up.

This time of the year is the worst to clean your chimney because most people calling today won’t get their chimney cleaned for a month. If they get it done in the spring, it’s done.

How do chimneys work and why do they need cleaning?

Fireplace chimneys exhaust the gases from the fire and take them to the outside while reflecting some heat into the house. People use them because they’re a tradition, but the fireplace itself is not efficient at all. They draw more heat out than in. A fireplace chimney will need to be cleaned every 30 to 50 fires.

Wood stoves and chimneys to wood stoves are much more prevalent in this area. A wood stove chimney is smaller, and the smoke is much more dense because most people fill their stoves up and cut the draft down so it burns real slow. Slow burning causes the chimney to get cold. The colder it gets, the more the condensation from the wood forms on the sides of the chimney. That builds up a deposit of carbon and creosote, which is flammable. These types of chimneys should be cleaned two to three times a year.

What are some other best practices for the care and keeping of chimneys?

Keep your wood dry, and let it dry naturally. Get your wood six to eight months in advance and stack it so that the ends of the logs are facing north and south and cover the top but not the sides. The north and south winds will dry the wood quickly, but covering the top will keep the rain from re-soaking the wood. After six to eight months with wood sitting out, you can cover the sides too.

Keep a fire extinguisher nearby your fireplace or wood stove at all times. Any combustible material near your stove needs to be, by law, 3′ away.

People should always have a screen on their fireplace if they don’t have glass doors. Wood pops and it could pop a hot ember out onto your carpet and start a fire.

Small fires burn less efficiently than larger fires. The hotter the fire, the less buildup in your chimney.

Never put material that will flare up in your fireplace. Wrapping paper, for example, flares real fast up through the damper into the flue, and if your chimney is dirty, it will ignite it. There are more fires on Christmas Day than any other time.

How common are chimney fires in this area?

Most people that call the fire department, it’s not because of chimney fire, it’s because they didn’t know how to heat their chimney up. They open the damper and just light a fire. If it’s cold outside, that means the chimney is cold. It’s drawing backwards. If you don’t heat it up first, when you light a fire it will fill the house with smoke. That’s when people call the fire department.

Open a newspaper up to its full length, like you’ve got your arms spread apart, roll that up into a cone and light the big end of the cone. Stick it up through your damper. Do that until you no longer feel cold air. Then you light a kindling fire. A kindling fire will burn hot and warm the chimney up. Then you add small pieces of wood until you work up to a major fire.

In addition to regular cleanings, what can homeowners do to prevent chimney fires?

Most people refill their stove in the morning, when they still have a few hot embers left. But run the wood stove pretty hot for about 20 minutes first thing in the morning, and that’ll dry out the creosote and burn it out of the chimney before a large amount has the chance to build up. There’s a chance you could set it on fire, but if you’ve got a good airtight stove, you can close the drafts on the stove and usually kill a chimney fire.

This is a remedy that some people use: Take a spray bottle with just plain water and mist it into the stove to create steam and kill the chimney fire.

But the first thing you should do if your chimney catches fire is to get everyone out of the house. Bring your phone and kids and call 911. Make sure you get the cat, too.