Maintaining and upgrading your fireplaces and chimneys

Maintaining and upgrading your fireplaces and chimneys

The green movement has swept the nation, and like many American homeowners, you’re looking for the most natural and energy-efficient options for your home. Fireplaces are no exception, as fires are the most natural form of heat and require little to no energy. So as you prepare your home for your winter hibernation period, pay close attention to your fireplace. Get it cleaned and inspected, upgrade its facade and make it exactly how you want it to maximize its function.

Chim, chim, cher-ee

Whether your fireplace is wood-burning or gas, it’s important to get an annual inspection and, if needed, a cleaning. For a wood-burning fireplace, this annual check-up reduces your risk for a chimney fire, water damage and damage to the fireplace flue. “Normal use would dictate having a certified chimney sweep look at your flue before each burning season to assure there has not been excessive creosote buildup,” says Jeff Stevens, president and founder of Fire Rock Products LLC. “The primary fuel for chimney fire is creosote. A chimney fire can lead to chimney failure and, ultimately, a house fire.”

In other words, you avoid compromised safety and costly repairs with regular maintenance of a wood-burning fireplace. The same goes for gas fireplaces, as the fireplace may not be venting properly or gas may be leaking. Aric Thompson with Chimney Solutions identifies another  problem with gas fireplaces: “Gas logs get a carbon buildup that, when continually being burnt without cleaning, emits carbon monoxide into the room,” he says.

For a modest price (see Cleaning Costs at the end of this article), you can have a certified professional inspect and clean your fireplace and chimney, ensuring your home and family’s safety. As Terrell Bearden, owner of Atlanta’s Top Chimney Sweep LLC, points out, the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Standard 211 says that chimneys, fireplaces and vents should be inspected at least once a year for soundness, freedom from deposits and correct clearances. “Cleaning of chimneys should be done by methods that don’t impair structural or thermal performance,” he adds. “Inspections should be conducted by a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep, followed by a cleaning, if necessary.”

Who you gonna call?

For something as important as your family’s safety, it’s key to hire a professional you can trust, which is why the Chimney Safety Institute of America developed a certification system for professionals in the industry. The CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep credential makes it easy to identify professionals who are up-to-date on the latest techniques and trends, and who are trustworthy to complete a full, proper inspection and cleaning.

Step by step

When you hire a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep and it is determined that your chimney needs to be cleaned, you can expect him or her to perform the following, Thompson says:

STEP 1: Tarps are laid in the work area
STEP 2: A vacuum is placed outside the home, and the hose is laid over the tarps to the opening of the fireplace
STEP 3: The flue is cleaned with a series of poles and brushes
STEP 4: The firebox is swept of ashes and the firebrick is brushed off with a fireplace brush
STEP 5: A video inspection of the flue system is performed
STEP 6: A roof inspection is performed, examining your flashing, the outside condition of your chimney chase and the pan or cap

If, during the video or rooftop inspections, the professional finds an issue, he or she will speak to you about how to properly correct it, according to NFPA 211 codes for fireplaces, Thompson says. “Make sure the company is licensed, bonded and insured. Many companies claim to be certified and insured—be sure to check and make sure they are,” he warns.

Damper dandy

After it’s been cleaned and inspected, your fireplace should also be used properly to further reduce the risk for safety hazards. This means opening and closing the damper in your flue when needed. “Open the damper just prior to lighting the fireplace,” Thompson says. “Close the damper only after you’re sure all the embers in the bottom of the fireplace have been extinguished completely.”

“Anytime there is combustion and therefore combustion byproducts being created in the firebox, including those times when a fire is being allowed to ‘burn itself out,’ the damper should be in the open position,” Stevens says.

Draft woes

Despite the natural heat a fireplace provides, a chimney is still an opening in your home’s thermal envelope, thereby creating the potential for a draft and reduced energy efficiency. A properly installed, working fireplace should not have this problem. “Most fireplaces are installed with fully functional dampers at the throat level, which keep conditioned air in the home,” Stevens says.

However, if you feel a draft when your flue damper is closed, Stevens suggests installing glass doors on the front of the fireplace. “This installation, coupled with an outside air kit, provide a full view of the fire and take little or no conditioned air from the room.”

Another remedy for your drafty fireplace may lie with your HVAC contractor. “HVAC companies have a product to correct pressure problems in houses,” Thompson says. The experts at the CSIA explain, “The real problem is the air being drawn down the chimney, a symptom of overall pressure problems in the house. Some makeup air should be introduced somewhere else in the house. A tight-sealing, top-mounted damper also will reduce this air flow coming down the chimney.”

Introducing makeup air elsewhere in the home can also prevent smoke from one fireplace from invading the living area(s) of the other fireplace(s) in the home. “This has become quite a common problem in modern, airtight houses where weather-proofing has sealed up the usual air-infiltration routes,” the experts at the CSIA say. “If the house is fairly tight, the simplest route for makeup air to enter the structure is often the unused fireplace chimney. As air is drawn down this unused flue, it picks up smoke that is exiting nearby from the fireplace in use and delivers the smoke to the living area. The best solution is to provide makeup air to the house so the negative-pressure problem no longer exists, thus eliminating not only the smoke problem, but also the potential for carbon monoxide to be drawn back down the furnace chimney.”

Retrofit it

While almost everyone enjoys a cozy, wood-burning fire, many homeowners don’t use their wood-burning fireplaces because they require too much work to set up, light and clean. If this is your situation, or if there’s another reason you don’t use your current fireplace, retrofitting with a gas or electric insert may be the option for you. However, both Bearden and Thompson agree that electric fireplaces are not recommended, as they are not realistic looking, not a good source of heat and don’t work during a power outage.

“The best technology to come down the pike for retrofit fireplaces is the development of a vent-free fireplace,” says Phil Saylor, director of architectural design with Tuscan Stone Mantels. “If you want to add a fireplace without going to the expense of building a chimney, this is the way to go. These fireplaces have all the necessary stamps and are very energy efficient because no direct heat escapes to the outside. The technology which allows this to happen is in the gas log set. Unvented gas log sets burn super hot, thus achieving almost full combustion.

“All unvented log sets also come equipped with an oxygen- depletion sensor (ODS), which turns off the gas should the carbon monoxide reach dangerous levels,” Saylor continues, adding that these sensors should not replace your home’s carbon-monoxide detectors. He indicates that vent-free fireplaces cannot be installed in every room in the home, though. “If you want a fireplace in your bedroom, you can’t use a vent-free unit, but you still don’t have to go to the expense of a chimney—you can get a vent-through-the-wall unit. See your fireplace supplier for that,” he says.

For any fireplace retrofit or upgrade, Thompson recommends talking to your chimney technician. “We have seen and done many different things with fireplaces,” he says. “We can usually tell you right away whether what you’re looking for is possible and give you an idea of the cost.”

Facade fashion

Enjoying the look of your fireplace is just as important as enjoying its function. Today, there are many refacing options, from budget-friendly to eco-friendly to high fashion.

“Refacing your fireplace involves laying an overlay on your current fireplace surface,” Bearden explains. “It can mean tiling or applying a new brick, natural-stone or artificial-stone facade to the existing fireplace surface. If you have a stained and chipped surface, or perhaps the bricks no longer match your current decorating style, refacing is an excellent option.”

Norris A. Wood, sales and marketing manager for Native Custom Stone, recommends refacing or installing a new fireplace facade using stone veneers. “The realistic appearance of manufactured veneer stone has made it a favorite for new and remodeling fireplace projects,” Wood says. “The fact that it’s lighter, less expensive and easier to install than natural stone on any new or existing fireplace gives it a distinctive advantage.”

Another option for homeowners looking to replace or build a new fireplace facade is cast stone. “Upgrading to a cast-stone mantel for your fireplace can dramatically increase the appearance and value of your main focal point,” Saylor says. “The increased value is noted on appraisals, just like granite tops versus Formica. Because the stone mantel is built in a separate facility and delivered to the home, the change out can usually be accomplished in one day. The hearth, insert panels, legs and header look as if they were quarried from the same stone, resembling travertine or limestone.”

DIY options

While cleaning and maintaining the safety of your fireplace requires the work of a professional, refacing or redecorating your fireplace facade can be a DIY project, depending on the complexity and difficulty of the task. “While you can [reface a fireplace] yourself by purchasing tile or natural stone at a home store, you can also purchase refacing kits through online vendors,” Bearden says. “These kits often include a lightweight or veneer-type refacing material that can look as good as the real thing at a much lower cost.”

Beautifying and maintaining your fireplace can add value to your home and keep it cozy and energy efficient. As you prepare your home for the coming cold-weather seasons, be sure to consider the safety, function and beauty of your fireplace. Upgrading and maintaining this age-old favorite amenity may be one of the best home-improvement projects you’ll perform this year, and will ensure you keep the home fires burning all winter long.

Cleaning Costs

$105–$149: The average cost range of a fireplace and chimney cleaning during the summer

$129–$169: The average cost range of a fireplace and chimney cleaning during the fall, winter or spring

$75–$95: The average cost range of a chimney and fireplace inspection only (without cleaning)
—Terrell Bearden, owner, Atlanta’s Top Chimney Sweep LLC

Did You Know?

There are more than 1,900 CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps in North America, and approximately 20 are within 50 miles of downtown Atlanta. To ensure that homeowners receive a certified sweep at every job, all chimney-sweeping companies promoting this credential are required to have a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep on every job site.
—The Chimney Safety Institute of America

Top Ten Safety Tips

  1. Get an annual chimney inspection by a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep.
  2. Keep tree branches and leaves at least 15 feet away from the top of the chimney.
  3. Install a chimney cap to keep debris and animals out of the chimney.
  4. Choose the right fuel. For burning wood in fireplaces, choose well-seasoned wood that has been split for a minimum of 6 months to 1 year and stored in a covered and elevated location. Never burn Christmas trees or treated wood in your fireplace.
  5. Build it right. Place firewood or firelogs at the rear of the fireplace on a supporting grate. To start the fire, use kindling or a commercial firelighter. Never use flammable liquids.
  6. Keep the hearth area clear. Combustible material too close to the fireplace could easily catch fire. Keep furniture at least 36 inches away from the hearth.
  7. Use a fireplace screen. Use metal mesh or a screen in front of the fireplace to catch flying sparks that could ignite or burn holes in carpet or flooring.
  8. Install smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors. Check and, if needed, change the detectors’ batteries in the spring and fall.
  9. Never leave the fire unattended. Before turning in for the evening, be sure that the fire is fully extinguished.
  10. Get gas logs cleaned to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

—The Chimney Safety Institute of America and Aric Thompson, Chimney Solutions

Tax Credit

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, homeowners can qualify for a tax credit on the purchase of efficient biomass-burning appliances to replace existing appliances in their primary residences. The tax credit is 30 percent of the cost of the appliance (up to $1,500), and only qualifies for purchases in 2009 and 2010. The appliance must be 75-percent efficient to qualify. Wood- and pellet-burning stoves are included. Consult the product’s manufacturer to learn if the product qualifies for a tax credit. Find IRS guidance on the tax credit at
—Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association

By the Numbers

24,500: The number of residential fires originating in chimneys, fireplaces and solid-fuel appliances in the United States in 2005

20: The number of deaths that resulted from these fires

$126.1 Million: The amount of property damage caused by these fires
—United States Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Chimney Safety Institute of America

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