There’s nothing like a roaring fire to set the mood. The dancing and crackling flames, the radiating warmth, the colorful glow, the earthy smell – no other heat source satisfies the senses or draws people to it like a fireplace or wood stove. Nothing else requires as much maintenance, either.
Regular inspection and cleaning is critical to keep your stove or fireplace in safe operating condition. You can’t simply build fire after fire with little more than randomly scraping out the ashes. Faulty equipment and careless operation may force smoke from active fires into the room or flood your house with harmful soot and gasses. Worst yet, creosote buildup inside the chimney may catch fire and spread to the remainder of the house, putting your family and possessions at risk.
Cleaning the stove or fireplace is a fairly simple process. The chimney is a little more complicated and will definitely get the cleaner dirty. Is chimney cleaning something you can do yourself? In most cases, yes, according to Michigan State University Extension. As long as you are up to the job, it’s something you can do yourself and save on the cost of hiring a professional.
Considerations Before Cleaning Your Chimney
When it’s time to clean your chimney, you could hire a professional. If you’re uncertain about what you’re doing, it may not be a bad idea to hire someone at least once, then watch and ask lots of questions. In some cases, such as when the creosote looks shiny and glass-like, it has glazed the chimney and will not come out with a normal chimney cleaning. In that case, you really need a professional who has the special tools and knowledge to solve the problem. Otherwise, as long as you are physically healthy, don’t mind a little dirt, and aren’t scared of heights (if you choose to do it from the roof), it’s a DIY-friendly task.
Even a professional will first ensure the roof is safe and solid. While most chimneys are close to the roof edge and thus, a ladder, working from the roof provides greater stability and working area. The chimney itself must also be solid, able to take the weight of someone leaning on it. If either the roof or chimney is in poor structural repair, before you can get the chimney clean – or even build a fire, of course – you will first need to address the structural problem. Consult a professional for further information.
Some do-it-yourselfers choose to clean their chimney from the inside of the house. While feasible, it’s a little messier and somewhat awkward, given the small area and the scrubbing motion required. Still, it’s an alternative for those afraid of heights or without the means to access the roof.
Chimney Cleaning Tools
Cleaning the good old fashioned way is impossible without the proper tools. Professional chimney sweeps use chimney-sweeping brushes and extendable rods. DIYers can use the same brushes and rods, or substitute the rods with ropes and, in some cases, a milk jug or similar container. Plastic sheeting and drop clothes are essential for protecting your home interior, even during a professional cleaning. The last thing you want is for the mess to simply migrate to the inside of your house. A professional will bring his own ladder in order to get up on the roof.
Additionally, you can’t use simply any brush. A chimney cleaning brush must be the proper size for the chimney. Too wide and the brush may get caught and fail to clean properly. Too narrow, on the other hand, and the brush will still fail to clean the walls as it will lack the proper friction. The correct chimney brush will fit the inside diameter perfectly.
A mistake do-it-yourselfers may make is failing to wear necessary protective gear. A face mask and eye protection are a smart idea. Professional chimney cleaners find them – along with long pants, long shirtsleeves and heavy gloves – essential.
Chimney Cleaning Options and Procedures
- Regardless of whether you do it yourself or hire a pro, be sure to cover the front of your fireplace with plastic and tape it in place or close your wood stove doors. Additional plastic, drop clothes, old sheets or even newspaper will protect the floor around your hearth and surrounding furniture. Lay more material, from the front door of the house to the wood-burning appliance, to protect your floors as workers walk in and out.
- Removing the spark catcher or flue cap allows complete, unrestricted access to the chimney from the roof level. From inside the house, fireplace or stove doors may also be removed to safeguard the glass and allow more work space in some cases.
- The most common chimney cleaning method involves extending a brush, at the end of a rod, down the chimney flue with a swirling motion. Once the brush reaches the bottom, it is reversed, swirling again to the top of the chimney. Each cycle of the brush will knock more creosote loose. When fresh soot and creosote fails to appear on the removed brush, the chimney is again visually inspected to ensure completion.
- A homeowner lacking the professional rods will tie a milk jug, filled with water or another weighty material, to one end of the chimney brush with rope. Another rope, long enough to reach from the top of the chimney to the ground below, is tied to the opposite brush end. When dropped slowly, over and over, through the length of the chimney and again raised, the brush slowly scrubs the flue. Lacking the swirling motion, however, it doesn’t do the job as easily or quickly.
- To clean from the bottom of the chimney, rods must be used. The same circular movement of the chimney brush, pushed to the top of the chimney, will clean the clinging creosote residue. As mentioned, not only is this method more awkward, it also makes it harder to avoid making a mess around the wood stove or fireplace.
- The two-person chimney-cleaning method uses a brush tied on both ends. One person grasps the rope from the roof while the other grabs it from inside the stove or fireplace. By alternately pulling their ropes, the brush works back and forth and scrubs the flue.
- Want a quick fix without all the hassle? Burn the soot and creosote away safely. Special chimney cleaning logs release chemicals when they burn. The chemicals stick to the creosote and help loosen and dissolve it, causing it to fall to the bottom where you can simply scoop it away. Fairly inexpensive, the logs actually work. However, they are not a substitute for a complete cleaning and should not be relied on every time.
- Allow the creosote and soot time to settle before cleaning the fireplace or wood stove.
Cleaning the Fireplace or Wood Stove
Regular cleaning to remove wood ashes helps to keep your wood stove or fireplace operating properly. About once a week, simply scoop up the ash and gently deposit it in a bucket or other waste disposal container. Work gently to prevent the ash from floating around your house.
Leave about a 1-inch-deep bed of ashes in your stove or fireplace to provide an insulating layer that protects the appliance, encourages coal production and radiates heat. Stir the ashes and test that they are cool before cleaning. Never remove coals when they are hot – they can stay hot for days under the proper conditions – and never use water to extinguish them. Water and ashes creates a nasty mess.
After chimney cleaning, remove all of the ashes to ensure complete creosote removal. Use a small brush to wipe down the interior of the stove or fireplace, especially in hard to reach places like the smoke shelf above the damper or along bends at the beginning of the flue. An industrial vacuum or Shop-Vac will make quick work of the last of the dust. After that, all that remains is to remove the ashes – disposing of them properly – and removing all the plastic sheeting or protective coverings from the floor and furniture. A quick vacuum will complete the cleanup.
To keep your fireplace or wood stove looking good, clean stains and remove dirt immediately. Due to the wide variety of appliance materials possible, there’s no single cleaning solution for all. Follow the manufacturer’s cleaning directions for best results or consult cleaning guides for the material involved. Use a window cleaning solution to clean glass, and choose appropriate polishes for brass and other metals.
With diligent inspections, proper wood burning practices, and periodic chimney cleaning, your wood stove or fireplace will last nearly forever. Not only will you keep it looking good and burning efficiently, but the fire will stay exactly where it’s supposed to be – inside the fireplace or stove, keeping you warm.