It’s a good time for chimney inspections

By: Julie Snyder | C&G Newspapers | Published June 12, 2019

 The fireplace may be out of commission for the season, but experts say that now is the time to have an annual inspection and cleaning done to prepare for winter. A certified chimney sweep can tell if a chimney is healthy enough to safely take on another winter of wood-burning fires. An annual inspection and cleaning are recommended to ensure the stability and longevity of your chimney.

The fireplace may be out of commission for the season, but experts say that now is the time to have an annual inspection and cleaning done to prepare for winter. A certified chimney sweep can tell if a chimney is healthy enough to safely take on another winter of wood-burning fires. An annual inspection and cleaning are recommended to ensure the stability and longevity of your chimney.

Photo by Julie Snyder

METRO DETROIT — The sun and warm days are finally upon us. But that doesn’t mean it’s not time to think about winter.

According to local chimney care experts and firefighting professionals, now is the time to get your chimney inspected and thoroughly swept in order to be ready to reignite those logs once the temperatures drop again.

Clarence Clerk, known around metro Detroit as the Chimney Guy — also the name of his Macomb County-based business — said that thoughts of chimney care too often get swept under the rug.

“You want to get it inspected and cleaned in the spring or the summer, because you’ve been burning wood in your fireplace throughout the winter,” said Clark, a certified chimney sweep through the Chimney Safety Institute of America, or CSIA. “It’s one of those home maintenance projects that gets neglected.”

Clark has worked as a certified chimney sweep for 12 years and has been in business for five years, serving Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, as well as parts of Washtenaw, Livingston, Genesee, Lapeer and St. Clair counties.

When on a job, the first thing Clark will do is an inspection of the chimney flue. He said the flue is one of many parts of the chimney that can’t be easily seen or inspected by the untrained eye.

The flue is what keeps the air flowing up from the fireplace through the chimney. Poor flow in a chimney can be the result of excessive creosote deposits, closed or plugged dampers, improper construction, structural damage or even a dirty chimney cap.

Clark also checks for cracked flue liners, broken panels, and crumbling brick or masonry.

The CSIA defines a flue lining in a masonry chimney as “a clay, ceramic or metal conduit installed inside of a chimney, intended to contain the combustion products, direct them to the outside atmosphere, and protect the chimney walls from heat and corrosion.”

Clark said the flashing and chimney crown are both important parts of the chimney; when they become faulty or begin to deteriorate, water can leak into the home, causing damage from the top of the attic down to the bottom of the basement.

Next is a thorough cleaning and complete removal of creosote buildup. Creosote, which is highly combustible, leads to inefficient fires and can create a hazardous situation inside the flue. Most importantly, excessive amounts of creosote can cause fires.

“There’s a myriad of issues that could take place without the chimney getting serviced regularly,” Clark said.

He said it’s not uncommon to even find a squirrel, a raccoon, or a bird obstructing a chimney during an inspection.

A common inspection and cleaning typically takes about 2 1/2 hours to complete, Clark said, and rarely are they done during the winter due to the hazards of snow and ice.

A report from the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, states that heating equipment is a leading cause of fires in U.S. homes. Fire departments responded to an estimated average of 52,050 fires involving heating equipment each year from 2012 to 2016.

These fires resulted in annual losses of 490 civilian deaths, 1,400 civilian injuries and $1 billion in direct property damage. The homes included one- and two-family homes, including manufactured homes; and apartments, including townhouses and other multi-family dwellings.

Space heaters are the type of heating equipment most often involved in home heating fires, according to the NFPA report. Heating equipment fires accounted for 15 percent of all reported home fires from 2012 to 2016 and 19 percent of home fire deaths. The NFPA states that the leading factor contributing to home heating fires, with 27 percent, was failure to clean, principally from solid-fueled heating equipment, and primarily chimneys.

Fire Capt. Greg Hoppe, with the Mount Clemens Fire Department, said a chimney fire that has broken through the bricks or mortar is a structure fire, which means his department will go on such a run with the Harrison Township Fire Department, and vice versa.

“Chimney fires are very common,” Hoppe said. “We get probably between five and 10 calls each year.”

In his experience, Hoppe said, it’s dirty or wet wood or pine and other heavy woods that creates the heavy black ash that quickly coats the liner with creosote. It then hardens and is recoated during every subsequent fire. That thick layering of creosote can quickly be ignited by the next hot fire in the fireplace, igniting a chimney fire.

“There are different kinds of chimney fires,” said Hoppe, a full-time firefighter for 25 years. “If it’s still confined to the chimney, we go inside and close the flue and seal it up. Then we go to the (roof) and remove the stack and drop a chimney bomb, which puts it out, and you let it cool.”

If the fire gets to the structure members of the home, the result is devastating.

“It could be a very costly endeavor because we end up ripping everything off. We’re very conscientious about property conservation, but you’re also getting the smoke and soot in your home,” Hoppe said. “It’s so much easier to take the time to hire a professional chimney sweep and have it inspected and cleaned.”

The CSIA states that an annual chimney inspection performed by a qualified professional can help prevent carbon monoxide intrusion as well.

“The best thing you can do if you buy a house with a fireplace and it’s your first wood-burning fireplace, or if you already have one, is to have a technician come out and go over the do’s and don’ts of fireplace operation,” Clark said. “I receive emergency calls from people about smoke in their house from their fireplace. It’s usually due to a failure to open the damper. I tell them to call the fire department, and usually when I get there, the fire department is already there or they’re leaving. I will still do an emergency inspection and inform the homeowners of proper fireplace usage.”

For more information about chimney care and safe fireplace usage, visit csia.org or nfpa.org.