Prepare Your Wood-Burning Fireplace for Winter

Before you light up those logs this winter, make sure you properly prepare your wood-burning fireplace.

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There’s nothing like a toasty fire on a cold winter’s night. But before you light up your wood-burning fireplace this season, make sure your fireplace is properly prepped. Otherwise, you could risk severe damage to your chimney and home.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), failure to properly clean chimneys was one of the leading factors contributing to house fires caused by home heating equipment. Chimney fires are mainly caused by creosote, a highly flammable residue that builds up in the flue that lines the chimney. If the internal flue temperature gets hot enough or sparks reach the creosote, it can ignite a chimney fire. This is why the NFPA recommends homeowners sweep chimneys at least once a year, at the beginning of winter, to remove creosote and other debris.

Here’s what to do to prepare your wood-burning fireplace for winter.

Clean Out the Hearth

If mounds of ash and residue remain in the hearth or fireplace floor, it’s time to clean them out.

Before you vacuum the ash, use a shovel to scoop out any residual wood chips or logs. Keeping your wood-burning fireplace free of ash will improve airflow for a good burn and helps reduce allergens and odors from the burnt wood fibers.

It may be tempting to reach for your household vacuum. However, you should only use an ash vacuum when cleaning your wood-burning fireplace. Anything else will send those tiny ash particles into the air. Although there’s no fire risk when vacuuming ash left from last winter, there is a risk if you attempt to vacuum hot ash.

Inspect the Chimney

Besides cleaning, take a good look at the chimney’s structure. A certified chimney sweep looks for creosote buildup, cracked or missing flue tiles, cracks in exterior masonry, missing bricks and damage to the chimney cap or the roof. It’s also important to inspect the damper that controls airflow in and out of the chimney to ensure it opens and closes smoothly.

And make sure there are no holes in the mesh screen or fireplace doors. If any of these issues are not properly addressed, you risk serious damage to your chimney and home.

Sweep Down the Walls

If you burn a lot in the winter, learning how to sweep your own chimney can save you time. That way you don’t have to always wait for an appointment from a pro. And, of course, you’ll save money.

You’re going to work from the top down, so you must be able to safely get on your roof. With the fireplace door closed and damper open, start by removing the cap and connect the chimney cleaning brush to the end of one extension rod. Insert the brush into the flue, pushing it down and scrubbing up and down as you go. Continue to add extension rods, scrubbing the sides until you reach the bottom.

Use a bright flashlight to inspect the inside of the chimney. If you still see creosote (the black/brown residue that can be crusty and flaky, tar-like or even shiny and hardened), then repeat the process until all the creosote is gone.

Inspect or Install a Chimney Cap and Screen

Chimney caps are protective coverings that go over the top of your chimney, usually made of steel or copper mesh. On top of the mesh ring is a cap that helps protect your chimney from rain and downdrafts.

Common problems include moisture and animals getting into the chimney, missing guards and rust. If you already have a cap, make sure it’s not damaged. If you need a new one, get the right measurements for your chimney so you can buy a replacement cap that fits properly.

Tools and Tips

Only use an ash vacuum: The Plow & Hearth Heavy-Duty, Heat-Resistant Fireplace Warm Ash Vacuum is made from stainless steal, has metal lined hose and can handle ash up to 140 degrees F.

Buy the right brush: Examine your chimney and decide which brush is right for you. Use a metal-bristle brush for a clay flue liner and a brush with plastic bristles for a metal liner. Make sure the brush has enough cleaning rods to go the entire length of the flue.

Tarps, sheets and duct tape: To stop ash from blowing into the house if you are sweeping the chimney, duct tape poly sheeting over the wood-burning fireplace and insert the ash vacuum hose. Seal around the fireplace with duct tape.

Dress the part: Wear old clothes, as they’re going to get dirty. Wear a mask to ensure you don’t breathe in any ash or soot and don’t forget goggles and gloves. Use a headlight flashlight to light your way.

Measure creosote build up: Take a metal poker and scratch the surface of the flue. If the scratch is 1/8-in. deep or less, you can DIY the chimney sweep. If it’s deeper or has a shiny, tar-like appearance, you have heavy creosote buildup.

Time to Call the Professionals

If creosote buildup is thicker than 1/8 inch, if you can’t reach all areas of the flue, if you can’t gain access to the cap because of the pitch and height of your roof, if damage to the bricks and mortar are severe or if you’ve never had the chimney properly inspected, call in the professionals. A certified chimney sweep can recognize chimney deterioration and venting problems, assess your chimney’s condition and fix everything before you light your first fire of the season.

Unsure how to use a wood-burning fireplace? Check out these tips on fireplace maintenance.