Chimneys Require Annual Checkups to Ensure Safety and Function

“Winter in Minnesota [causes] a significant part of the deterioration of chimneys … The biggest problem comes from the water penetration that gets in to the chimney system." —Joseph Robarge

Real life’s incarnations of chimney sweeps might not sing a jaunty tune like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but they’ll certainly work to keep chimneys and fireplaces in tiptop form.

With chilly temps nipping at the door, now is the time to make sure fireplaces are up to the task of keeping homes warm and safe. We asked Joseph Robarge of Guardian Chimney Solutions, which serves the Twin Cities, including the southwest metro, to provide some basic insight into chimney maintenance.

SWM: When is the best time to get a chimney inspected?
JR: “This depends a lot on how much you use your fireplace or stove. The National Fire Protection Association [NFPA] says, ‘chimney and fireplaces and vents shall be inspected at least once a year for soundness, freedom from deposits and correct clearances. Cleaning, maintenance and repairs shall be done if necessary.’” He adds that even if a fireplace isn’t used often, animals may build nests in the flue, or there may be other types of deterioration that could make the chimney unsafe to use.

How is it cleaned?
“The standard chimney brush is still used, along with more modern tools (vacuums, cameras and special chimney cleaning tools) ... most sweeps are done from the bottom of the chimney, [to prevent the dispersion of dust and debris.]"

How is it inspected?
“Quite a few chimney cleaning companies offer a camera service, which is in essence a fisheye lens attached to a video camera ...  [A Chimscan® is a common chimney inspection system] Chimney inspection cameras permit a more careful inspection of the condition of the entire flue interior.”

What are you looking for in an inspection?
“Typically, the number one thing you’re looking for is built up creosote; next is missing mortar between the tiles [which compromises the venting system]." Inspections also check for vertical cracking. “I would say roughly 90 percent of flues I scan are completely insufficient for safe use and need to be brought up to code.”

What are other tips?  
“The number one thing you can do as a homeowner is to burn the correct wood. You are best off using a dense hardwood, such as maple or oak . This wood must be dry as possible ... When wood burns efficiently and completely, you get a significant amount less creosote …" Wet wood also steams when burning and creates sticky smoke, to which creosote clings.

Let's save energy.
“The Lock Top Damper eliminates updrafts that siphon money out of your wallet in the form of energy cost. This product will save you $300 per year in energy costs. This system completely stops updrafts and downdrafts, as well as rain, which can cause multiple issues to the inside of your chimney over time.” It also aids in the prevention of pests like squirrels, raccoons, nesting birds and insect penetration.”  

Wise words.
Fireplaces get a workout during the holidays, adding to festive ambiances and cozy moments. Joseph Robarge reminds us to avoid burning wrapping paper, newspaper, bills and wet wood. “These types of combustible products are creosote-causing materials,” he says.

Robarge also reminds, “The National Fire Code dictates that any combustible material (e.g., wood mantel or similar trim) must be at least six inches from the firebox opening. An additional inch of clearance is needed for every 1/8 inch the combustible material or trim protrudes.”

“The National Fire Code exists to protect homeowners,” he says. “The primary goal is to help you avoid creating unsafe situations that can result in a fire burning your home and possibly causing the loss of life.”