Do You Need to Hire a Chimney Sweep?

by Michael Franco
Man in overalls cleaning  on the roof of house cleaning dirty chimney

If you have a wood-burning fireplace in your home, you know that when cooler weather hits, there’s nothing better than gathering around a nice warm and cozy fire. That’s why you’ll want to do all you can to make sure your fireplace is in good working condition when those outside temps start dropping.

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To keep your fireplace running smoothly, having your chimney regularly swept should be at the top of your maintenance checklist. Not only is it essential for keeping your fireplace operating properly, but it will also ensure the safety of your house and those that call it home.

What Does It Mean to Have Your Chimney Swept?

Over time, the chimney of a wood-burning fireplace or a wood stove will accumulate, and eventually even become clogged with, soot, gunk and various other byproducts of burning wood, including a thick, toxic, tar-like substance called creosote.

A chimney sweep is a certified technician who uses various tools to clean and inspect your chimney and flue. One of the primary tools a chimney sweep uses is a large, heavy bristle brush — similar to a long bottle brush with its bristles located at the very end — in order to clean your chimney.

Chimney sweeps will either begin cleaning from the flue and work their way up, or they’ll begin from the roof’s chimney access and work downward. In any case, chimney sweeps will work to scrape and remove all of the accumulated dirt, debris and creosote. As they scrape, the material will fall into the fireplace and then be safely removed.

How Do You Know Your Chimney Needs Sweeping?

Although you won’t be able to assess the condition of your chimney just by looking at it, there are multiple signs that indicate that your chimney needs to be professionally cleaned. These signs include:

  • The smell of burned wood coming from your fireplace even when the fireplace isn’t lit.
  • A fire that doesn’t burn as well as it used to. It may also be more difficult to get a fire started. This is usually due to a clogged or restricted flue.
  • The room fills with smoke after lighting a fire. Again, this may indicate restricted airflow.
  • Evidence of nesting animals. If you ever hear or notice any signs of animals like birds or squirrels nesting in your chimney, you’ll want to make sure those are removed as soon as possible.

Still, you don’t have to wait until you notice any of these signs to schedule a chimney sweeping. The Chimney Safety Institute of America contends that a chimney should be cleaned when there is 1/8 inch of creosote buildup inside the chimney liner. However, this is often a difficult metric to gauge for the average homeowner. For that reason, the National Fire Protection Association suggests annual chimney cleaning, regardless of how often you use it. Having your chimney cleaned once a year will ensure it stays clean and clear of buildup.

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Can You Clean Your Chimney Yourself?

If you’re a DIY-inclined homeowner, you may be asking yourself whether it’s possible to be your own chimney sweep. After all, the more “sweat equity” we put in our homes, the better, right? That said, when it comes to chimney cleaning, the answer is not so straightforward. Can you technically clean your own chimney? Yes. Is it a good idea? Not especially.

To start with, cleaning the chimney can be dangerous. Not only are you working from sometimes high distances like a rooftop, but chimneys are typically pretty tight spaces — you don’t want to get stuck in one. Furthermore, during the chimney cleaning process, you’ll be exposed to hazardous materials like soot and creosote. These materials are dangerous to ingest, and they’re also incredibly messy. As you scrape and brush the inside of your chimney, this debris will fall into your home, resulting in a cloud of black dust that will certainly cover anything in the near vicinity.

It’s important to keep in mind that chimney cleaners are highly-trained, professional technicians. Not only will a professional chimney sweep have all the correct equipment to keep themselves safe, but they’ll also know exactly how to get the job done quickly, neatly, and correctly. For example, scraping too hard can lead to a crack in your masonry. Additionally, missing even one small spot of creosote buildup on your chimney can lead to a chimney fire.

Finally, professional chimney sweeps will also be able to watch out for any structural issues present in your chimney — and they can be tricky to spot. It could be a tiny, hairline fracture in a brick that can lead to big problems for your chimney. However, if caught early by a trained eye, the problem can be repaired easily and effectively.

For many homeowners, the fireplace is the heart of their home. To ensure the health of yours, make sure you hire a professional chimney sweep to give your chimney the attention it deserves each year.