During the dog days of summer, your fireplace may be far from your mind. But those cold nights will be here before you know it, and we want to make sure the chimney of your home heating appliance is up to snuff and able to keep you warm when temperatures drop. We’re answering your most common questions about what to do and when to do it to make sure your fireplace is ready for use when you need it. Let’s get started!

#1 When should you schedule an inspection?

We know it sounds crazy, but summer is the best time to schedule your chimney inspection. Why? For two major reasons:

  • Good Weather. Doing repair work on your chimney can be a challenge when temperatures drop, the days are shorter, and we’re battling snow and ice. If you don’t schedule an inspection until the fall or winter, you won’t know you need repairs until the middle of bad weather season. Summer is the time of year when we have better weather if you need repairs. Scheduling now is ideal for getting the work done safely and quickly.
  • Easier Scheduling. Scheduling is more flexible now. Once we move into the fall, our schedule is filled out weeks in advance. If you wait until fall or winter, you may not have as much flexibility in appointment availability, which also cuts into the time you could be using your fireplace.

#2 How often should you inspect your chimney?

masonry chimney with metal capThe National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) both recommend a yearly inspection. The reason for this is there are many things that can go wrong in a year’s time with the chimney. You may be thinking, “What kind of things can go wrong? I didn’t even use my wood stove, wood-burning fireplace, or gas burning fireplace all that much this past year.”

Well, we’re not just worried about a dirty chimney, we’re also inspecting to see:

  • If anything happened to the chimney exterior
  • If anything shifted or settled
  • If any large tree branches hit and damaged the chimney
  • What has happened in a year’s time from wind load or rain
  • If there has been any spalling from freeze/thaw

These are all the things we’re looking at to ensure your chimney is still good condition and able to be used as intended.

#3 How often should you sweep your chimney? Does it need to be swept every time you have an inspection?

The NFPA and CSIA both make it crystal clear that you need an inspection every year. But what do they have to say about chimney sweepings? According to both, a chimney should be swept on a yearly basis only if it needs it. At first glance, that answer is not very helpful, but here’s the thing: if you’re scheduling an annual inspection like the NFPA and CSIA recommended, you’ll know if your chimney needs to be swept.

The truth is, the frequency of a chimney needing sweeping is going to be based on the use and the efficiency of whatever the product you’re burning. That’s why there is no hard and fast rule about when you’ll need to have your chimney swept. So don’t skip inspections. During an annual inspection, we’ll look at the chimney internally and externally to determine if it needs a sweeping.

The good news is, if it is in need of sweeping, that can be done during the same visit. This saves you from having to schedule a comeback call, which means you save time and money.

#4 What kinds of issues or warning signals point to you needing a chimney inspection or sweeping?

There are a few things that can signal trouble with your system, or at least let you know you’re likely overdue for a sweeping or inspection. Some things to look for are:

  • Dark smoke/exhaust. If the smoke you’re seeing at the top of your chimney is very dark in color, that is usually an indication that the chimney is not burning correctly. If we’re talking about an oil or gas furnace or boiler, then it probably needs to be tuned. When you get the furnace or boiler tuned, you also need to sweep the exhaust pipe (the chimney) to make sure it is tuned correctly for the water heater, furnace, or boiler.
  • Smoky smells. You should never smell your fireplace or wood stove burning. If you ever get a smoky odor in your home, that is a sign that your system is not evacuating smoke correctly. This could be because you have an obstruction or a partial obstruction in your chimney.
  • Smoke coming out over the top of your fireplace. When smoke comes out over the top of your fireplace, it indicates non-performance of your fireplace. You could either have an obstruction or you could have a separation in your liner. Neither situation is a good, so a blockage removal or flue liner repair should be performed ASAP.

A Note On Smoke: You can also get back puffing if you’re not getting enough air into your firebox. For example, if your home is too airtight and the fireplace is starved for oxygen, it will want to back puff into the home. You can see discoloration or black staining above the firebox opening. Likewise, if you don’t have a correct draft due to gaps in your flue liner or separations in your flue liner pipe, it’s like drinking with a straw that has cracks or holes in it. It won’t completely siphon, and you’ll get spillage. Unfortunately, with a fireplace or woodstove, what’s spilling out is super-heated gas into the chimney chase or walls, which can eventually set the wall on fire or create a carbon monoxide issue.

#5 What are indicators of chimney troubles that you can see on the outside of your chimney?

On a masonry chimney, what you are primarily looking for is discoloration. It’s very common to see dark spots, dark growth, or green growth or vegetation on the brickwork or stonework. That’s an indication that your chimney is absorbing water, which is never good. When your chimney absorbs water, you get algae, bacteria, and different forms of plant life, which weakens the structure and creates a darker appearance on brick and stonework.

There are other visible signs to look for that signal water in your chimney as like loose mortar joints or spalling brick. If you have water in your chimney when the temperatures drop below freezing everything freezes and expands. When things warm up, that water contracts. This constant expansion and contraction of the materials put micro-fissures in the brickwork, which can make the bricks walk off of the mortar joints or loosen the mortar joints.

Trouble is, now you have larger areas for water entry, so you start getting water in your attic, wall space, or leaks in your firebox. Besides obvious water damage like masonry destruction, water also creates mold. Mold is very expensive to get rid of and it’s also a health hazard. So if you see mold, act fast!

#6 What can you do to keep your chimney watertight and prevent water from penetrating it?

When we’re checking a chimney to see how watertight it is and looking for ways to prevent chimney leaks, there are a few things we look at. On a masonry chimney, we check to see:

  • If it has a proper chimney cap. A chimney cap covers the entire top of the chimney and sheds water away from the sides of the chimney.
  • If it has a quality chimney crown. The chimney crown is a crown wash splay, which is something that’s built of cement on a slight angle atop a masonry chimney to wash the water away and down the sides.
  • How the mortar joints between the brick are looking. The mortar joints between the brick need to be free of cracks, gaps, and holes to ensure that water’s not making its way into the masonry itself.
  • If the flashing is watertight and in good shape. Flashing is what covers the base of the chimney and the area where the chimney exits the roof. We’re looking to make sure it’s sealed, free of gaps or corrosion, and keeping water out of this vulnerable spot of the home.
  • If there are shoulders. You have shoulders on the chimney when the chimney is wider at the base and gets narrower as it goes up. This is a common area for water entry because that narrowing provides a 45-degree angle and an area that’s flat enough that a lot of water can sit there and soak through. Typically, this shows up as water leaking into your firebox.

As far as corrective action goes, if you have vegetation growth on your chimney, we’re going to want to pressure wash your chimney to remove and clean the growth and mildew off. Next, we’ll want to check the mortar joints and seal the chimney. If the mortar joints are in good shape and don’t need to be ground out and repointed or restruck, then we’ll apply a water-repellent agent to the exterior of the brickwork.

We use a very specific water-repellent agent — one that is absorbed into the structure and doesn’t allow any water from the outside to come into the brick but allow any moisture on the inside of the brick to wick away out to dry.

Why does that matter?

Even if your chimney is totally dry in terms of rain when you apply a water-repellent, temperature changes alone can create moisture on the inside. Let’s say it’s 80 degrees during the day and it drops down to 50 degrees at night — this creates condensation.

It’s no different than when you go out in the early morning and see a parked car with heavy dew on it. The reason you get that heavy dew is that the car was a certain temperature inside, and the temperature dropped so quickly overnight that the car stayed hot inside, but the outside temperature is cold, so the condensation was formed.

The same process goes on on the inside of the chimney, and moisture always wants to be leached or moved to the outside to wick away and dry. The proper water-repellent agent will allow for moisture to safely escape. On a factory-built fireplace chimney or a chimney serving an exhaust pipe that’s enclosed, we’ll check:

  • The housing. This could be a metal box with bricks painted on it or a box covered in siding such as cedar, aluminum, or vinyl. We’ll check to make sure the housing is sturdy and doesn’t have wood rot, and that the siding is in place and the metal has not rusted or fatigued.
  • The flashing. We’ll check to make sure that the flashing where the chimney comes through the roof is sealed and watertight.
  • The chase cover. The chase cover is the metal lid or covering at the top of the metal box housing the chimney. We’ll check to make sure the chase cover is in good shape, rust-free, and that it fits tightly over the chase, effectively sealing it against water.
  • The storm collar. In the center of the chase cover, you’ll have a hole that a pipe will poke through, and around that pipe, you’ll have something called a storm collar. This is a round circle that looks sort of like a lampshade that’s raised in the center. This needs to be sealed at the chase cover and around the pipe, so water doesn’t enter and run down the pipe.
  • The chimney cap. At the top of the pipe, you’ll have a chimney cap. We’re going to be looking at the cap and making sure it has the proper animal screen, so you don’t have birds, squirrels, raccoons, or leaves coming in. We’re also going to make sure (if it’s a wood-burning fireplace) you have protection against large sparks coming out and landing on your roof. The spark arrestor screen on the chimney cap provides added protection!

Regardless of whether we’re checking a masonry chimney or a factory-built chimney, when we’re done with an inspection, we’ll have pictures that show exactly what’s going on with them. If everything is in good shape, we can show you that you’re in good shape and that your system is ready to be used this coming fall or winter. If you have deficiencies or problems, we can show you those as well, and let you know what we can do to take corrective action.

We hope this was helpful! Remember, now’s the time to schedule those inspections, so take a break from the pool and give us a call!