11 Chimney Basics Every Homeowner Needs to Know
Whether you just moved in, you’re moving in, or you’ve lived in your house for decades, your chimney can often be intimidating.
It’s not something we think about, except for when family comes over and we’re all sitting around the fire watching the Detroit Lions lose on Thanksgiving day.
But ignoring your fireplace can have drastic effects. Water, fire, dirt, animals, leaves, and more things than you can believe can make your chimney unsafe to use.
You don’t need to know a whole bunch (that’s why chimney guys like me keep their jobs), but there are a few things you should know. Luckily, I’m here to help you with that. Here’s my list of 11 chimney basics every homeowner needs to know.
Learn Your Chimney Type
I know we’re in the age of participation trophies. Nothing wrong with saying “good job” for being there.
But with chimneys, not all are alike. In fact, knowing which kind you have is essential to providing proper home maintenance.
You may be surprised how many people don’t know the type of chimney they have. I know I was.
There are three main types:
Single-walled metal: this looks like a thin metal pipe sticking up from the roof with a circular top.
We find these a lot in older homes since newer building codes have favored masonry.
Masonry: These are your standard brick chimneys. I like these because they are classy and classic.
But they are also the safest.
Masonry chimneys usually have a tile flue liner. But we install metal flue liners all the time to replace cracked and chipped tile flue liners.
Pre-Fabricated Metal: if you have siding on the side of your chimney, I’m willing to bet that you have a factory-built chimney.
Read More: 6 Different Types of Chimneys
Keep an Eye on Your Bricks
Bricks are weird. They’re supposed to be a strong material that will keep your house standing, no matter how hard the big bad wolf blows.
Bricks are strong.
Think about when tornadoes rip through communities – one of the only things left standing are chimneys.
Or when a house burns down, clearly the only thing left is the brick chimney.
Also, at the Vance Memorial (in my hometown of Weaverville, NC), historians were able to tell that the Vance family was wealthy because of the chimney. Which was the only thing left on the property. They’ve since built up replicas of the buildings.
But despite the longevity of the structure, that doesn’t mean they are safe when it comes to using it as a fireplace.
Bricks are porous. So they let water in pretty easily.
What happens is, when it’s cold outside, the water will freeze and expand. That will cause the brick to crack.
Once it cracks, your chimney will allow even more water to enter, freeze, and crack some more.
Eventually, this deterioration could cause leaks and structural damage within your home.
Check Your Flue
Your flue is your chimney’s venting system. This is where all of the smoke, gas, and fumes from burning your fire exhaust.
It’s a pipe found on the interior of your chimney.
If your chimney flue has obstructions, like creosote, it will affect the draft of the chimney. Making it very difficult for the dangerous fumes to exhaust up and safely out of your home.
Make sure your chimney flue is clean and clear. Also, make sure you open your damper before lighting a fire.
Clean Your Fireplace Ashes
If you have a wood-burning fireplace, you will have ash built up that you’ll need to clean out.
Most people just scoop it up and throw it away.
That’s good, but there’s actually a method. Here’s how you do it:
Tools Needed To Remove The Ashes
You don’t need anything special, just a few tools that you may already have at your house:
- Ash Bucket – any container made of non-flammable material. We use a metal bucket.
- Ash Shovel – You can use a metal trowel.
- Fire-resistant gloves – You should treat all ashes as hot ash. This is an extra precaution
- Face Mask – You don’t want to inhale any of the ashes.
Overview Of What To Do
I recommend waiting 24 hours after your last fire just to keep it safe. This will give your fireplace, wood, and ashes plenty of time to cool down.
If you can’t wait 24 hours in between, such as during the winter when you use the fire constantly, just be extra careful.
- Open the screen or fireplace door.
- Place the ash bucket in front of the opening
- Reach into the fireplace with the shovel and start scooping the ashes into the bucket. Be sure to not remove all of the ashes. A thin layer on the fireplace floor is beneficial for starting fires and can protect the floor from scratches.
- Place the ash bucket away from the fireplace, such as outside.
It’s safest if you wait 24 hours, but either way, you can follow these precautions when handling the ashes:
- Do not add live embers or anything combustible to the bucket
- Place a lid over to the ash bucket to reduce the possibility of oxygen reaching a live ember and sparking a new fire
- Store the ash bucket with the ashes in a well-vented area since the ashes may contain live coals
- Don’t place the ash bucket with ashes near anything combustible
- Allow your ash bucket to sit for at least three days before disposing of the ashes
Read More: 25 Things to Do With Your Chimney Ashes
Consider Installing a Chimney Liner
A lot of older homes that we work on don’t have a liner. Just a brick chimney with an opening in the middle.
Chimney liners are great because they help your chimney work as efficiently as possible.
Liners protect your home from the heat and any flammable materials produced by your fire. With a large opening in flue-less chimneys, you risk having your fire rising too quickly.
There are 3 types of liners to choose from:
- Clay Tile Liners – usually built-in with newer homes. It’s inexpensive to install the first time. But they are a lot of work to repair and replace. So it’s a lot of money to fix.
- Cast in place – these are very customizable and are cement units designed to fit your fireplace’s shape. Basically, it’s cement poured down, creating a cast for your flue.
- Metal Liners – usually used when we need to repair or replace another type of liner. It’s an expensive material, but it’s way easier to install and they have lifetime warranties.
Invest in a Chimney Cap
You need a chimney cap.
It may seem a little extra. But I’m telling you – it’s 100% worth it.
A chimney cap is like the umbrella of your chimney. Remember when I said that bricks are porous?
A cap will help.
Remember when I said that leaves, dirt, animals, and other obstructions can affect the draft of your chimney? Which can cause carbon monoxide and smoke to push back into your home?
A cap will help.
Without a cap, you just have an opening at the top of your chimney. That’s an open invitation for pests to come in.
Learn More: Chimney Cap Buying Guide
Learn to Build a Fire
I wasn’t in the Boy’s Scouts. So I can’t say that I have every perfected the art of building a fire.
But I’ve gotten pretty good.
How hard can it be? It’s just some wood and fire, right?
All you need to do is push the button on your gas fireplace!
Unless you have a wood burning stove. Then you need dry wood. You need oxygen. And you need fire. You’ll also want to build a fire with smaller pieces of wood (i.e. kindling or tinder) before moving to larger, thicker logs.
Watch this video and you’ll learn exactly how to do it:
Get an Annual Chimney Inspection
Unlike many other kinds of home inspections, where you only need to consider if you are selling your home, you need to have a chimney inspection every year.
Chimney problems operate under the same principle as the snowball.
Problems start off pretty small. Maybe you haven’t waterproofed your bricks. So water goes in and that starts the freeze/thaw cycle I mentioned before.
But you don’t get an inspection.
More water goes in, freezes, and cracks the brick even more.
You still don’t get an inspection.
Before you know your tile liner is cracked. And there’s mold growing in your attic where the water has been leaking for the last couple of years.
With the cracked tile liner, you risk embers travelling into the foundation and catching your home on fire.
It seems unlikely, but it happens all the time!
The easiest way to prevent catastrophic problems is to simply have an annual inspection, where a certified chimney sweep (more down below) can inspect the condition of your chimney.
Hire a Qualified Chimney Sweep
When you’re hiring a chimney company, you should always ask the following questions before allowing them to come into your home:
- Can the company provide references?
- Does the company carry a valid business liability insurance policy?
- Does the company ensure that a certified chimney technician will be on the job?
- If they guarantee all three of those, then you are in a good spot. The technicians don’t necessarily need to be certified by the CSIA, but I do recommend putting in a bit more due diligence before accepting a certification that’s not by the CSIA.
This is because certifications are a tricky thing, especially in an unlicensed industry like ours. Any company can craft a list of job-related questions and sell them as an exam and certify those who pass.
I recommend you take a few extra minutes in your research before making your hiring decision to learn more about the certification the company has. Here are a few tips to make sure the certification is reputable:
- Is the word “certified” just part of the business name or is it an earned designation?
- Is the certifying body a for-profit business or non-profit?
- Does the certification need to be maintained and renewed through continuing education as the industry evolves, or is it well enough to be certified through a one-time exam?
- Is the certifying body well-established or are they relatively new to the scene? New doesn’t mean “bad” but you should make sure the requirements for certification are more or at least equally stringent as those of more established certifications
- Is the mission statement of the certifying body focused on educating and protecting homeowners or is it more focused on making it easier to earn a certification?
- Does holding the certification require following a code of ethics?
If you can answer all of these questions, then I think it will be safe to allow the company in your home to work on your chimney.
It doesn’t matter if you are in Roanoke, Lynchburg, Blacksburg, or some other city anywhere in the USA — if you have any questions about the safety of hiring a chimney company, please don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 540-225-2626. I’m happy to help!
Keep Your Hearth Clear
For many people, fireplaces are the focal point of the living room.
I already mentioned that’s where we watch the Lions lose on Thanksgiving!
So it makes sense that the fireplace is one of the most popular places to put decorations. Unfortunately, placing the decorations too close to the fireplace, can have disastrous effects.
Most of the year this shouldn’t be a problem.
Unless, during spring, you decorate your mantel with plants that drape over and you decide to light a fire.
The big problem comes during Christmas time when families are decorating their fireplaces and hanging the stockings right from the mantel.
Your wood mantel, by code, needs to be at least 6 inches above the opening. So if it is 6 inches above, and you have a row of cotton Christmas stockings, you are putting your home at risk.
Picture this: an ember or a flame sparks out and sets the stocking on fire.
This leads to the mantle catching fire.
Not long after, your tree, which is situated closely to the right, gets hit by an ember too. I’m sure that you can imagine now the devastating results that stem from one of the most beloved traditions.
The National Fire Code says that any combustible material must be at least six inches from the firebox opening. Otherwise, you’re facing a serious fire hazard.
Measure your stockings this year!
Buy Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detector [and make sure they work]
By now, you should have at least one smoke detector in your home.
If you have a fire, a working fire alarm will sense the smoke in the air and make an alarm to tell you about it.
Carbon monoxide detectors are absolutely essential too. Unlike smoke, you can’t smell, see, or taste carbon monoxide.
But it is extremely deadly if you allow it to build up long enough.
If you’re in the market for a new smoke detector, I recommend buying one that will automatically call the fire department for you.
I should also ask that you make sure your detectors are actually working. What’s the point if they don’t work?
You should test and replace the batteries in your detectors at least once every six months.