As temperatures drop and thoughts once again turn to lighting fires and sitting down with a good book, it's important to revisit chimney maintenance. Even though chimneys do not require daily upkeep, regular maintenance efforts help chimneys operate safely and prevent deaths and injuries while protecting homes from fire.
Various problems can arise when chimneys are not well maintained. Such problems include chimney fires, carbon monoxide poisoning and early failure of the chimney and heating sources that the chimney vents.
Carbon monoxide can be scary, as it is virtually invisible without a proper detector. The National Vital Statistics System says that, in 2015, 393 deaths resulted from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States. When carbon monoxide is breathed in, it builds up quickly and combines with the blood, reducing the blood's ability to carry oxygen. The Canada Safety Council says that body tissue and cells can't function without oxygen.
Chimney fires are another potential byproduct of poor chimney maintenance. The Chimney Safety Institute of America notes that chimneys expel the byproducts of combustion, including smoke, water vapor, gases, unburned wood particles, hydrocarbon, tar fog, and assorted minerals, which can condense on the inside of the chimney flue. The residue, called creosote, is highly combustible. With the right conditions, a chimney fire can occur.
To avoid chimney fires and other risks, take these precautions, courtesy of CSIA, HomeAdvisor and Popular Mechanics.
- Have chimneys inspected annually and properly cleaned by a professional chimney technician.
- Make sure tree branches and other obstacles are cleared away from the top of the chimney.
- Use seasoned hardwoods that have been split for several months to a year. "Green" wood creates more creosote.
- The top-down method of building a fire produces less smoke. This means using larger pieces of wood on the bottom and the smallest twigs and kindling at the top. The fire will burn from the top and down, igniting the wood beneath as it goes.
- Put a cap on the chimney to keep out rain, snow and small animals.
- Keep fires small; otherwise, the intense heat may damage bricks and mortar in the chimney. Repair any damage promptly before lighting another fire.
- Open the damper and fireplace doors so that air supply flows freely and can vent the smoke promptly, reducing residence time in the flue; otherwise, creosote can form.
- Install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms throughout the home and routinely check the batteries.