Not so long ago we received a call from a new customer who lives in Howard County. She was asking what is creosote and how to deal with it. We will tell you the same as we told her. Creosote is a highly flammable residue that can build up in chimneys and cause serious problems. These problems can especially serious if they go unnoticed for years. This article has been written to educate homeowners about how creosote is created and why it is dangerous.
What is creosote?
Creosote is a sticky, highly flammable substance that is a natural byproduct of chimney smoke. Creosote builds up inside of chimneys over time.
How Does Creosote Form?
You now know what creosote, but before starting on how to deal with it we first need to understand how it forms. Smoke from burning wood cools as it exits the chimney. In some cases, the smoke cools to the point that it does not exit the chimney. The cooled down smoke sticks to the internal parts of the chimney forming into creosote. Creosote is sticky and highly flammable. Creosote can form from burning any kind of fossil fuels, but it tends to form most quickly in wood-burning fireplaces. Here’s what happens, phase by phase.
Phase 1: Wood or similar materials burn, and the smoke is carried away via the flue outdoors – everything is working as it should. However, that smoke is both very hot, and filled with a lot of particles, including particles of carbon and oils that were vaporized by the fire. As the smoke travels, these particles combine and hit the sides of the flue, getting attached. At first, this forms only a light layer of slightly sticky, burnt materials that can be scrubbed away with little difficulty.
Phase 2: Over time, creosote builds up to a thicker layer. If you’ve ever seen fresh asphalt on a road, you have some idea of what this substance looks like. The combination of heat and resin from wood creates a tarry substance that’s thick, sticky and quite difficult to remove. At this point, it takes a lot of scraping to get rid of the creosote, and the job is best left to professionals.
Phase 3: In time, the creosote layer becomes literally baked onto the inside of the chimney, a thick, hardened substance that may ooze or drip when exposed to high temperatures. Because this version of creosote is so thick and durable, it can be extremely difficult to remove. At this stage, it may also be causing problems with your chimney airflow.
You can probably see that creosote can become pretty annoying. But what makes it dangerous? Well, that baked and blackened substance can burn and exude fumes over time. Particularly in fireplaces used for heating, those fumes can enter your house and circulate around, where they cause all kinds of health problems. Notable issues include:
There is a second set of dangers associated with creosote pertain to situations that could result in chimney fires.
Chimney flues are designed to encourage airflow as much as possible. After a lot of creosote build-up, airflow decreases. This means that more heat stays in the chimney, exposing both chimney materials and the creosote to more heat than they would otherwise endure. This also occurs with clogged or mismanaged chimneys!
Creosote itself is flammable. Due to its composition, it can be very hot and can be very difficult to put out. Unfortunately, the chimney is one of the worst places in a house for this kind of fire to start: Chimney fires can quickly spread to the roof and throughout a house, and many devastating house fires start in the chimney, often caused by unknown creosote deposits.
Tips on Preventing Creosote from Building Up
Since creosote can be difficult and expensive to remove, the best solution is to prevent it from building up at all. But what can the average homeowner with a fossil fuel fireplace do about this? Here are several chimney maintenance tips to keep in mind:
Choose the Best Fireplace & Stove Fuels
You can reduce the amount of creosote buildup by burning fuels that will have the least impact on your chimney. For wood-burning fireplaces, that means only using fully dried, “seasoned” wood with no moisture, which will create very little residue when it burns.
Stay Away from Chemical Cleaners
Chemical cleaners are special logs or sticks you can buy and burn in your fireplace to help reduce the amount of creosote that forms. You have to burn chemical cleaners every time you use the fireplace for them to be effective, but if all you have is green wood, then chemical cleaners can help decrease creosote buildup in your chimney.
Schedule a Professional Chimney Inspection Every Year
Without a doubt, regularly chimney inspections and sweeps are the best way to prevent creosote buildup. It is also very important for the health of your fireplace! And family. If you don’t know the history of your fireplace or how well it was maintained in the past, then you don’t know how much creosote was built up before you started using the fireplace. On the other hand, if you’ve been using the fireplace for years without an inspection, even more creosote could have built up during this time. Either way, a professional inspection is a good idea: Fireplace and chimney experts can take a look at the health of your chimney, see what the creosote levels are, and recommend the best cleaning options.
You can find out more by contacting us at All Pro Chimney to arrange an inspection or ask more specific questions about your fireplace and chimney!
You may have heard that a woodburning fireplace needs to be cleaned every year. A homeowner in Howard County recently asked us if they need to have their gas burning fireplace cleaned. Gas fireplaces are considered much cleaner and safer than their woodburning ancestors, but they can develop issues over time. Many people don’t realize that gas fireplaces also experience buildup and need regular maintenance to work at their best. There are many reasons why gas chimneys must be cleaned every year. Read on to find out more:
Why a Gas Chimney Needs Yearly Cleaning
There are a wide variety of reasons why you should have your gas fireplace cleaned and maintained. Poorly maintained gas fireplaces can be dangerous. In some cases it may be legally required. Depending on where you live, your insurance, city, or county may require regular chimney inspections and cleaning. Skipping this can get you hit with fees or even affect your insurance status.
Ease of cleaning is one of the many reasons to choose gas fireplaces. However, over time some buildup will occur. It’s important that this buildup is safely cleared away on a regular schedule. This typically means once a year, depending on use. A good time to schedule a cleaning is at the end of summer or in the fall before the cold temperatures hit.
Why Chimney Sweeping Matters
What could happen if you don’t get regular cleaning and servicing? Here are three common scenarios:
- Scenario 1: A residue has built up in the chimney, often paired with a cloudy film inside the glass viewing doors.
- What’s the problem? The residue could ignite, starting a chimney fire. This is a potentially extremely dangerous situation that could cause permanent damage to your chimney or home.
- Scenario 2: You see damage to the doors, mortar, or crowns.
- What’s the problem? Chips, cracks, and poor seals could let moisture leak into the system, causing other problems.
- The problems continue: This might also allow toxic fumes to leak out of your gas fireplace and into the air you’re breathing. Carbon monoxide is the big concern here. It’s odorless and can sicken or even kill people.
- Scenario 3: Over the summer, a blockage developed in the chimney. This is often caused by birds building nests.
- What’s the problem? This scenario could trigger a cascade of problems including chimney fires and, through poor air flow, carbon monoxide could infiltrate your home.
When a technician performs a fireplace inspection and cleaning, he or she will start by looking at the exterior and interior of the unit. A major part of the inspection is checking that your chimney is operating correctly. This means looking for signs of both exterior and interior damage as well as making sure that the flue is clear.
If you haven’t used your fireplace in a while, some debris may be blocking the flue. This could include birds making nests, which often happens in the spring and isn’t noticed until temperatures drop in the fall. Another culprit is bad weather that blows debris and leaves inside.
The technician may also talk with you about any concerns or issues you’ve had. Next, he will check to make sure everything is operating correctly. If there’s a problem, it’s addressed. The next step will be a cleaning that removes residue from chimney, vents, and the glass panels.
Some inspections will include other, related services. For example, the technician may check that your carbon monoxide detectors are working correctly. If you want to replace your ceramic fireplace logs or have something else installed there, this is a good time.
As the weather gets colder, people start thinking about getting cozy in front of a beautiful fire. Even if you had your chimney cleaned at the end of last winter, it is a good idea to ask a certified chimney sweep to inspect before you start using your fireplace. No one wants to experience the cold season in Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia without being able to use their fireplace safely. Their many reasons why waiting until the winter for a chimney sweep is not the best idea.
Things Can Change In Your Chimney Over The Summer?
An unused chimney is not a vacuum-sealed space that stays in perfect condition until you open it up for the winter heating season. Things happen both inside and outside that can change your chimney or fireplace needs.
- Animals like squirrels love places like chimneys. If your chimney cap was damaged or missing, you made an open-door invitation to nest builders and nut storage. Animals in your chimney threaten the safety of your home.
- If a chimney swift has built a nest in your chimney, it issues by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and will usually be gone when cold weather arrives. If it is still there, your Chimney Sweep can answer your questions about your options.
- The storms that your chimney encountered during the spring and summer can cause damage to masonry and flashing. Heavy rainfall and wind drive water into those damaged areas. Your chimney could already be damaged.
Why Not Wait Until Winter?
While winter is the time that we use our fireplace and chimney, it’s not a good time to do inspections and repairs. Chimney service companies are busiest just before the winter holidays because people start a fire on the hearth then realize that the chimney isn’t clear and call in a panic.
- Your chimney could have small cracks in the mortar and flashing. These cracks turn into leaks once the freeze-thaw cycle of winter starts. It is always best to catch problems early. Small cracks quickly turn into major problems. Repairs now save you money.
- Many chimney repairs need good weather and a specific temperature window to be done correctly. Fall weather is warm enough for repairs to be completed quickly.
- If you wait until winter to call, you might have to wait longer for the sweep to come and risk waiting for needed repairs past the time you wanted to enjoy your fireplace.
- If you use your chimney without inspection, you risk the health and safety of your home. You don’t know for sure if your chimney is safe.
Why Not DIY?
Cleaning your chimney yourself is a bad idea. Certified sweeps are the best choice to do an inspection. The reasons are simple.
- Certified sweeps know what to look for and what to do about it.
- Certified sweeps have the equipment to see deep into your chimney and vents.
- Professional chimney sweep technicians have the experience and training to see current problems in addition to identifying potential problems. Early detection saves you money.
- If repairs are needed, they often can do those repairs in the same visit or schedule a time before the winter hits.
If you have a chimney, you need a sweep every year. Make sure your home is protected by selecting a chimney service professional who is fully certified and call for an appointment before the busy season starts. Waiting until the winter could be too late.
Springtime is often not the time that homeowners are thinking about chimneys but this is a good time of year for doing many maintenance tasks. Fireplace and chimney maintenance is essential regardless of whether you have a wood burning fireplace, pellet stove or gas fireplace. In fact, a spring chimney cleaning and inspection should be scheduled early to catch problems while they are small.
Eliminate fireplace odors
The smell of a wood fire is lovely while it is burning, but the scent of an uncleaned chimney and fireplace in the humidity of summer is not wonderful at all. A foul-smell can be a sign that you need chimney repairs.
- Professional chimney sweeps have the equipment and experience to remove ash and creosote without leaving a mess.
- A clean fireplace is an excellent location for your favorite scented candles to burn safely.
- Uncapped chimneys are holes in your roof for the rain to come in and mix with an uncleaned stack to harden residue and create odors.
Repair cracks that can lead to chimney leaks
The Mid-Atlantic spring is a series of freeze/thaw cycles. Water seeps into hairline cracks in your chimney, freezes, and widens those cracks so that more water can get in and freeze again. The recurring freeze/thaw cycle can split boulders. Imagine how much damage water can do to your chimney. Repairs should be an be scheduled before the summer rains start. Failure to do so can result in costly repairs.
- The cement crown is designed to shed water away from the chimney. If it is cracked, it will start to crack and cause leaks.
- Crowns can also be rebuilt or replaced.
- Mortar between bricks can be re-pointed, and a few cracked blocks can be replaced without rebuilding.
- Further damage to masonry usually requires that the chimney must be rebuilt.
- Waterproofing your chimney keeps the freeze/thaw cycle from occurring.
- Common causes of chimney leaks can be addressed, like inadequate flashing.
Keep critters away from your chimney
Did you know that chimney swifts are a federally protected species? They start coming into the area in late March and begin nesting in May. Early spring is the best time to take steps to prevent them from moving in. If there is a chimney swift nesting in your chimney, you cannot get rid of them. You must wait until they are done raising their young before removing the highly-flammable nest. Other unwanted visitors can include:
- Rats & Mice
How do these unwelcome visitors get in? If damage has occurred in your chimney cap or screen, they consider any opening an invitation. Birds and animals in chimneys and flues cause fires and keep carbon monoxide from leaving your home so it’s not something you can ignore even if you don’t mind sharing your space with wildlife. In most cases, animal problems can be prevented by installing a chimney cap.
- Check for signs of uninvited wildlife.
- Remove the wildlife following safety precautions (most people call an animal control service) and remember that chimney swifts are a protected species.
- Keep them out by installing screens and caps to your chimneys and vents.
Close The Damper
Many times the damper is inadvertently left open after the last fire of the winter is enjoyed. This can be a problem in the spring and summer:
- Open dampers can draw your expensively cooled air out of the room and up the chimney.
- Even with a screen, some unwelcome wildlife can make an appearance. Mice can fit in a hole the diameter of a pencil.
- A violent summer storm can rain sideways resulting in leakage that bypasses your chimney cap and flows past your open damper.
Make Renovations & Remodels Easier
Springtime is a good time to renovate or remodel your fireplace and chimney. As next winter approaches, everybody else will be suddenly scheduling chimney cleanings and fireplace installations. Chimney companies will take longer to schedule service, and in many cases, the prices are higher. Now is a good time:
- Think about the past winter. What did you wish you had in the way of fireplaces? Gas instead of wood? Insert or stove? A nicer view of the flames? An easier form of indoor heating? Now is a great time to see what would be involved in making that wish come true.
- Were you happy with your previous chimney cleaning experience? Check out testimonials of potential chimney services that can offer more than a quick swipe at soot.
- Ask for a professional estimate of the options that would work in your home and get a reliable estimate of the cost.
- Schedule your upgrades soon so they can be done in good weather and when it is most convenient for your summer plans.
The difference between a chimney sweep and chimney inspection is slight but crucial. Cleaning removes the deposits that have built up over time. Inspections are professional examinations of the installation, condition, and structure of your chimney. A professional chimney sweep in Washington DC always includes a basic inspection as part of the chimney cleaning. Chimney sweeps and inspections are both essential to maintaining the safety of your home.
How Often Should A Chimney Be Inspected?
According to the National Fire Protection Association Standard 211 (NFPA211), all fireplaces, chimneys, and vents should be inspected annually to make sure they are safe to use. That means they have no cracks or leaks, no deposits, and are clear of hazards. If the fireplace, chimney, or vent heavily used, it should be monitored more closely because heavy use is naturally going to create more potential for buildup of soot and creosote. All fireplaces must be cleaned every year including gas fireplaces. A cleaning will reveal whether or not a more enhanced inspection is required.
What Happens During Inspections?
Inspections should be done by a chimney sweep professional who is qualified, certified, and familiar with your local codes. They should protect your home with drop cloths in their work area and document what they are doing. Afterwards, you should have a detailed report and an estimate of any needed repairs.
There are three different levels of chimney inspection
- A Level One Inspection is verification of structural soundness and readiness for the use of the chimney. Cleaning should always include a level one inspection. The chimney tech should look for warning signs.
- A Level Two Inspection is commonly part of a real estate transaction. Most home inspectors do not have the skills or tools to inspect a chimney and fireplace properly. As a result, the buyer will hire a licensed chimney company to check the chimney. Level 2 inspections are also done when the homeowner is installing a new home heating appliance or changing the type of fuel. A level 2 inspection should include everything in Level One plus inspection of accessible areas. There should be a video scan of the flue system.
- A Level Three Inspection are required when something has been observed to indicate a need to go into concealed areas. The inspector has to go behind the walls surrounding the chimney and flue to check for damage and hazardous conditions. If this level of inspection is recommended, it is dangerous to ignore the advice.
What Happens During Chimney Cleaning?
- A professional chimney sweep will leave your home cleaner and safer than it was before.
- Since cleaning out soot and creosote is a messy job, they will use drop cloths in the work area to protect your home.
- All deposits and debris are removed from the flue system with tools designed for the task. The whole mess is removed from your home.
- A level one inspection is completed. If minor repairs can be done during the visit and you give permission, there is usually a discount for work done during the visit. Otherwise, an estimate of the repairs that will be needed will be given to you.
- The crew cleans up after themselves, and all that remains is a fireplace or stove in good working order.
Do I Need Both Inspections and Cleanings?
All chimneys should have a chimney sweep including a level one inspection every year. The sweep will determine if a higher level of inspection is needed. Following the advice of your chimney repair technician is essential. Complete any suggested repairs so that you and your family can be safe and warm. Annual chimney sweeps help prevent costly repairs.