People are drawn to the warmth of a burning fire in the fireplace that they tend to ignore the mess and hassle that accompanies its maintenance and operation. Burning fires in the fireplace lead to the accumulation of soot and creosote, which shouldn’t be ignored. Creosote is a gummy, sticky, foul-smelling substance that is the byproduct of combustion, which can cause fires if it is not removed. A significant number of house fire cases have been caused by dangerous accumulations of creosote in chimneys.
Because of this reason, cleaning a chimney is a task you shouldn’t forget. Hiring a professional chimney sweeper can get expensive if you use your fireplace frequently, so it wouldn’t hurt to learn how to clean your chimney yourself.
Here are some indications that it may be time to clean your chimney:
- When soot or creosote sometimes fall into the fireplace
- When thin, flaky creosote in the flue is more than ¼ inch thick
- When thick and puffy or honeycombed creosote is present in the flue
- When smoke accumulates in the house every time you fire up the fireplace
- When you often burn unseasoned or inadequately seasoned wood, or artificial logs
- When you tend to keep the damper a bit open to slow the fire and keep it burning longer
To start your cleaning job, here’s what you need to do:
1. Determine and inspect if you can DIY
If you are using your chimney regularly, it has to be inspected twice a month. At the very least, it must be cleaned every year in the late summer or early fall, so it would be ready during the cold weather before you start any fire.
Grab a bright flashlight and peer inside the chimney flue. It’s best to strap on a pair of goggles and face mask before doing so, especially if you haven’t cleaned your chimney for some time now. Use a pencil or a plastic knife or any scraping tool to scrape off a bit of creosote on the side of the chimney. If it’s more than 1/8 or ¼ inch thick, it’s time for cleaning. You can do it yourself or call a pro. If the buildup is deeper than that, or if it has a shiny, tar-like appearance, it means the creosote buildup is heavy. Stop using your fireplace for a while and call a professional chimney sweep.
Most chimney fires can start in the smoke chamber or smoke shelf, so this is the most important area to clean. Check if you can reach into it and still have space to move a brush. If you can’t reach it or if space is too tight for you to move, cleaning isn’t for you to DIY.
To clean the chimney, you may need to go on top of the roof. If you can access your chimney crown and have no problem working on the roof, you can DIY. But if you have a very steep roof pitch or aren’t comfortable with heights, call a pro.
2. Prepare the chimney
Once you have decided to do it on your own, it’s time to prepare the chimney for cleaning. If it has been a while since the last time you used your chimney, check for animals before you begin. Birds, raccoons, and squirrels like to stay there, especially in colder months. If you find an animal, remove it first before doing anything.
The next thing you need to do is to measure your chimney flue to get properly-sized tools. Through the fireplace, measure the sides of your chimney from top to bottom. You may also measure it from the top using a ladder. Determine the shape and size of your flue, which will either be square or round. This will allow you to get the wire chimney brush fitting to your chimney.
Also, determine the height of your chimney. If you aren’t sure and you need to guess, it’s better to overestimate to make sure the chimney brush will reach the entire length of the chimney.
3. Get chimney cleaning supplies
To clean your own chimney, you need the proper cleaning tools. You might need to buy some of these, but chances are, most of the items you need can be already found in your house.
Here are the tools you specifically need to buy:
- Chimney brush – as mentioned earlier, the brush you must buy should be specific to the size and shape of your chimney flue
- Fiberglass extension rods – these are 48-inch-long rods that connect end-to-end, carrying the chimney brush down the flue
Other tools and materials:
- Long handled, small wire brushes
- Bendable noodle brush
- Sheet plastic
- Drop cloth or tarp
- Duct tape
- Dustpan and broom
- Shop vacuum
- Old clothes, including long-sleeve shirt
- Dust mask
- Safety glasses or goggles
4. Protect your furniture
Before you begin cleaning, you may need to seal off your fireplace so that none of the soot will get into your house and your furniture. Lay the drop cloth or tarp on the floor surrounding your fireplace. Roll back your rugs. Cover the furniture with some of these as well, or simply move away from the furniture that is near the fireplace.
Then, using a thick sheet plastic and duct tape, seal the front part of the fireplace completely. Just make a little hole to insert the shop vac cleaner hose. Make sure it’s completely sealed without any gaps, so fine dust would not enter your home.
5. Vent to the outdoors
Lengthen your vacuum hose by adding sections, then connect it to your shop vacuum. Insert the hose on the little hole you made, and secure it in place with duct tape. Place the shop vacuum outside, then close the doors and windows on that side of your house to prevent soot from reentering your house.
6. Gear up
Once you are ready to clean the chimney, wear protective gear first. Wear old clothes, especially a long-sleeve shirt, that you don’t mind getting messy with soot. Cover your hair with a bandana. Wear goggles or safety glasses to protect your eyes, and a dust mask to protect your nose and mouth from the soot, ash, creosote and other debris that can irritate your eyes and respiratory system. You may also want to wear work gloves to protect your hands.
7. Start cleaning from the roof
With the help of a ladder, go to the top of the chimney and remove any hardware that is obstructing the top, whether it’s an animal guard or chimney cap. Assemble the brush and one section of the extension rod, then insert the brush into the chimney. Continue moving down and adding rods until you can’t feel any brush resistance anymore. This means you’ve already reached the smoke chamber.
Ask help from a person in your household and have him/her turn on the shop vac. Once the vacuum cleaner is running, ram your chimney brush up and down several times in the small section of the flue. Brush from the top down, then work your way toward the smoke shelf, which is the flat area in the crook behind the damper. Take your time and use your flashlight to make sure you’re reaching it and doing a thorough job.
When you’re done brushing the flue, disassemble the brush and extensions. Put back the hardware you have removed and make sure it’s properly secured. Make your way safely down the ladder and turn off the shop vac. Allow some time for the dust that is not sucked up by the vacuum to settle into the firebox.
8. Clean the bottom of the chimney
After the dust has settled, peel back a small portion of the sheet plastic you have placed to block the fireplace. Turn on your flashlight and examine any debris that might have been overlooked. Using a long-handled wire brush, clean the bottom of the flue that you may have missed with the chimney brush, then use it to clean soot off the sides of the firebox. Use the bendable noodle brush to clean the smoke shelf. Use the brush and dustpan to clean up the debris. Empty the dustpan into a waste bucket. You may need the broom to sweep off the dust that spread outside the firebox.
Don’t dispose of the soot and creosote you’ve collected in the shop vac and dustpan in the trash. Check your local laws on how to dispose of it because it’s a flammable substance and may need to be disposed of in a particular manner.