I hated chemistry in high school. But somehow I got into an industry that involves chemistry on a daily basis. The whole chimney industry is rooted in fire and we sweep away the result of fire, which is creosote.
Creosote is a dangerous byproduct that comes from burning wood and lingers in your chimney until you remove it. When you use your fireplace, your goal should be to move the fuel (oil, natural gases, wood, pellets, etc.) through all four stages of combustion as completely as possible.
Four Stages of Combustion:
- Moisture evaporation
- Vaporization of the hydrocarbon compounds
- Gas vapor ignition and combustion
- Char burning.
Complete combustion of wood produces water vapor, carbon dioxide, heat, and noncombustible ashes. The less complete the combustion is, the more carbon monoxide, combustible hydrocarbons, and other gasses are left behind.
Unfortunately, achieving complete combustion is rare because to do so your fire must meet three conditions:
- There must be sufficient heat to breakdown wood molecules into combustible hydrocarbons
- There must be enough oxygen mixing with the hydrocarbons
- There must be enough fuel
If those three conditions are not met, you get more creosote. Creosote originates as condensed wood smoke, tar, condensed vapors, and other compounds. It is a dark brown or black and sticks inside your flue. Once inside the chimney, creosote builds on itself and doesn’t just go away on its own.
It’s a very dangerous, naturally occuring, by-product that you can’t prevent. But this guide will tell you all that you need to know so that you can understand it.
Why is Creosote Dangerous?
Exposure to creosote can have a wide-range of effects on your health. Of course, several factors contribute to health effects, such as the level (amount) to which you are exposed, the length of time, and the number of times you’re exposed. And some people (like children, the elderly, and pregnant women) may be more sensitive to creosote.
While some symptoms of exposure are mild and irritating, some symptoms can be more severe. Here are some of the most common symptoms associated with exposure to creosote:
- Skin and Eye Irritation – exposure to even a small amount of creosote, whether direct skin contact or through vapors, can cause blistering, peeling, or reddening of the skin. It can also cause damage to your eyes and increase your eyes’ sensitivity to the light.
- Respiratory Issues – long exposure to creosote vapors can irritate your lungs.
- Cancer – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that creosote is a probable human carcinogen. They found that even low levels of creosote had led to skin cancer.
- Birth Defects – while the studies have been done on animals and not on humans, researchers have found that creosote exposure can cause birth defects, such as cleft palate, among babies born to mothers exposed to creosote during pregnancy.
The health risks are serious. But the most concerning issue of creosote is chimney fires. Creosote is flammable and when the deposits catch on fire it creates a scorching hot fire. The leading cause of chimney fires is due to the build up of creosote deposits inside the flue.
The masonry and flue lining are only designed to handle certain levels of heat. And creosote-caused chimney fires typically far exceed that level. In fact, during chimney fires, temperatures can often exceed 2,000℉. The first chimney fire may not show any visible damage, but it will limit your home’s ability to handle another one.
Here are nine signs that a professional sweep looks for to see if you’ve had a chimney fire during an inspection:
- “Puffy” or “honey combed” creosote
- Warped metal on the damper, metal smoke chamber connector pipe, or on metal chimney of a factory-built chimney
- Cracked or collapsed flue tiles
- Discolored and/or distorted cap
- Heat-damaged TV antenna attached to the chimney
- Creosote flakes and pieces on your roof or ground
- Roofing material is damaged from the hot creosote
- Cracks in your exterior masonry (this could lead to chimney leaks)
- Evidence of smoke escaping through mortar joints of masonry or tile liners
How to Recognize Creosote
Creosote deposits appear in many different ways, depending on the moisture content. It’s not uncommon to find more than one type of creosote in a chimney. Here are the four main types:
- Sooty, ash-like deposits – found in flues because of their unlimited access to combustion air. These may be less combustible but should still be removed and taken seriously to prevent blockages, moisture retention, and chimney deterioration.
- Dry, flaky, black tar deposits – these are the result of deposits that have been heated and pyrolyzed. This type is easy to catch fire, even though much of the flame-producing gases have been driven off.
- Dense, hard, shiny black deposits – this is a tar glaze that has stuck to the chimney walls and driven off the moisture. Because the moisture is gone, but the flame-producing hydrocarbons are still present, these deposits retain a high energy content. Ignition of this type of creosote deposit burns at extremely high temperatures.
- Sticky, tacky, or runny deposits – this form of creosote has a consistency similar to chewing gum. Creosote in this form can be liquid in nature when the tar fog condenses with a high concentration of water vapor.
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