A thorough inspection of your fireplace and chimney should be performed by a professional at the beginning of each heating season to ensure it’s safe operation. However, that doesn’t guarantee that each time you light your fireplace it will operate safely, especially if used often.

Whether you have a wood burning, gas fired or electric fireplace, it is important to start your fire or ignite your unit properly, to make sure the flame burns clean, and to never leave your fireplace unattended while lit. If you had a new fireplace installed, be sure to read any instructions that came with the unit and follow the directions.

If your wood burning fireplace is heavily used, you will need to check it more than once a year. When fires burn inefficiently, or improperly, creosote will build up more rapidly. A dusty coating in your fireplace reflects 1st degree creosote build up, which occurs during normal use. When creosote buildup looks like hair or fur, it is considered 2nd degree, which should be brushed out to avoid further buildup. An appearance similar to black ice is considered 3rd degree creosote, and needs immediate removal to avoid a chimney fire.

Many house fires start in the chimney because of the build up of creosote. This sticky black material builds up in your chimney when fires burn low, when wood is not properly seasoned and dried prior to lighting, and when improper materials are burned in your fireplace. It is a good idea to gather firewood a year in advance to give it enough time to cure. This will result in a cleaner flame and less build up of flammable material in the chimney.

Although your chimney may have been clear at the beginning of the season, an erratic or smokey flame is a sign that your flue may need cleaning or your flue damper may be closed or not functioning. An ounce of safety is worth a pound of cure, so when in doubt call a professional.

It is also a good idea to routinely check the top of your chimney to make sure the cap is still in place, as heavy wind gusts can easily blow a loose cap off its base. During heavy snow storms, make sure to check that your cap is not covered by snow prior to lighting a fire,as the lack of proper airflow through your flue will create the same danger as a blocked chimney.

While you are outside, make sure there are no tree limbs above or near the chimney. Also check that the roof flashing at the base of your chimney is secure to avoid leaks into your home, or freezing between the roofing material and the sheathing.

As your chimney keeps birds and rodents warm when temperatures plunge, it is an ideal place for them to build nests. If you find that your fire is smoking, or it is not burning upward, you may have some unwanted visitors nestled in your chimney. They must be removed prior to lighting your next fire.

Before turning on a gas burning fireplace make sure the glass is secure and free of cracks. When turning on the fireplace, make sure all the burner holes ignite, as debris can accumulate over time, signaling the need for service. A qualified and knowledgeable service company can provide a simple cleaning and inspection to restore safe operation.

A properly operating gas fireplace will ignite within 10 seconds, have a clean blueish color flame and will vent properly out through a termination cap that is clear from debris or obstruction. If any of these conditions are compromised, your home and family’s safety are in jeopardy, and your fireplace is in need of service.

As with wood burning fireplaces, your gas fireplace has a chimney cap that should be safely secured to the flue piping. The bird screen inside the cap should be intact to ensure that small animals do not make a home inside your vent termination. The absence of the screen can leave you vulnerable to unwanted pests that can block or damage your flue pipe, and render your fireplace unusable until it is repaired.

Even if you had your fireplace inspected in the beginning of the year, conditions can change at any time. Being proactive is not only the smartest and safest choice for your home and family, it is the most cost-effective as well. The lack of proper maintenance of your fireplace can cause many hazardous conditions including fire, carbon monoxide poisoning and toxic fumes.

Daniel Ragusa, President – Firebird Sweep Inc.

(718) 356-1747 – www.firebirdsweep.com