You are here

Why You Must Clean Your Fireplace

Filed Under:
October 14, 2019

Announcer: Farm and Family is a production of the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Amy Taylor: Today we're talking about why you must clean your fireplace. Hello, I'm Amy Taylor and welcome to Farm and Family. Today we're speaking with Jason Gordon, Mississippi State University Extension Service Forestry Specialist. Jason, an alarming number of 26,000 chimney fires in the U.S. account for about $125 million in damage to residential property each year. This has caused many injuries and even deaths. How do chimney fires happen?

Jason Gordon: Well Amy, chimney fires can actually be very explosive, and noisy, and dramatic, and your neighbors might even see it from where they're at. They see flames come up through the chimney. What happens typically is that when you have a fire in your fireplace, the particles go up into the cooler chimney and condensation occurs. This results in a residue that sticks to the inner walls of the chimney and that's called creosote. Creosote's that black material that you see in your fireplace and it's highly combustible. If it builds up in sufficient quantities and catches fire in the flue, then the result will be a chimney fire. One of the most important types of chimneys or most common types of chimneys that we have are in masonry chimneys and the mortar starts to melt, tiles can crack inside or liners can collapse and basically make damage to the outer masonry material. That all provides a pathway for flames then to reach into the combustible material, the wood of the frame of the house and then you really have a potential for a chimney fire to happen.

Amy Taylor: We don't always get a warning before a chimney fire, so prevention is the best method. Before we start the first fire of the season, what should we do?

Jason Gordon: If your home hasn't had a chimney and continuous use during winter and recent years, you want to inspect the chimney and make sure the house is set up to burn wood safely and efficiently. Fireplace equipment vendors, we usually have a list of chimney inspectors in your area. Just remember, before you hire ask for credentials and certifications and ask for and check references from previous clients, particularly make sure they've been around for a little bit and they know what they're doing, they have some experience. A sweep will cost between $100-150 in Mississippi and you can also buy a kit at the hardware store and do it yourself. Although, for that little amount of money, for the great safety it gives you, then I think it's worth actually hiring somebody with more experience to do it.

Another thing you do is only burn wood that has been cut, split and seasoned for at least six months and I think it should actually be even longer than six months. A year, two years. That wet wood is what causes more creosote to build up. You want to start fires with clean newspaper, dry kindling. You don't want to use cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, or Christmas trees, which can have an explosive element anyway. You want to burn large logs instead of small ones. All this has to do with burning that fire more efficiently and having less creosote. Oak, for example, is a much better species to burn.

If a chimney fire happens, you can always have a chimney fire extinguisher. Put that into the fireplace or a wood stove. You have to be careful of course with that. You want to close ... Try and shut off any oxygen that might get to that fire, so close the glass doors on the fireplace, close off any kinds of air inlets in the fireplace or wood stove. You can use a garden hose to spray down the roof, get it cooler so the fire won't spread, and then monitor the exterior of the chimney temperature throughout the house for several hours before that fire is out.

Amy Taylor: Of course, the most important thing is to prevent it. But if the situation arises where a chimney fire is happening, how do we know that it might be happening?

Jason Gordon: Sometimes you don't get a warning, but an obvious sign of a problem is that there's smoke backing into the room. There's some loud cracking and popping noise and intense smell. You don't want that back draft of a lot of smoke coming into the house, something's not right. Creosote can have a puffy texture as well when it's burning, when it's very hot. Rainbow colored streaks that has expanded beyond the creosotes normal form. There might be warped metal on the damper. You might have a discolored or distorted rain cap, that's something that I have had recently that I had to have repaired. You might have roofing material damaged from the hot creosote, so you want to monitor the area around the chimney outside. You might have cracks in the exterior masonry.

Amy Taylor: Where can we get more information or find someone to look at our chimneys?

Jason Gordon: As always, a good place to start is your local county extension agent. But the Chimney Safety Institute of America has a lot of good information as well on their website.

Amy Taylor: Thank you so much. Today we've been speaking with Jason Gordon, Mississippi State University Extension Service Forestry Specialist. I'm Amy Taylor and this has been Farm and Family. Have a great day.

Announcer: Farm and Family is a production of the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Department: Forestry

Select Your County Office