For first-time homeowners or those who are purchasing a new home with a fireplace, Dennis Lamb and the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) recommend they have the home’s chimney and fireplace inspected.
“A lot of people — especially first-time homeowners, or somebody who’s not been in a spot where they’ve had a fireplace to use before — they really don’t know what to do,” when it comes to fireplace maintenance, said Lamb, owner of The Mad Hatter in Indianapolis.
Industry experts recommend an annual inspection and cleaning as needed, generally every year or two depending on how much use the fireplace gets. Ignoring your fireplace could lead to a chimney or house fire as a result of creosote buildup.
“Once it builds up, it is flammable and that’s not a good thing,” Lamb said. “It also creates (air) restrictions (in the chimney) if it builds up too much.”
An inspection can also reveal if there are structural problems with the chimney or operational issues with the fireplace.
Unfortunately, too many homeowners put chimney maintenance at the bottom of their to-do list, which could be why many of them fall victim to unscrupulous contractors who use scare tactics and bargain prices to get business. Those businesses rarely deliver and sometimes walk away with thousands of dollars.
“Unfortunately it’s like all industries; there are good contractors out there and bad contractors,” said Dave Clift, owner of Beck’s Chimney Sweep in Indianapolis. “What I would be concerned about is when someone shows up and they try to use scare tactics. They try and make you afraid to use something unless you get something done. That is usually where you should immediately throw up red flags.”
Twenty-five percent of Angie’s List members who have had their chimneys cleaned or inspected said they have had a bad experience with a chimney contractor, according to a recent nationwide member survey.
Before you hire, check the company’s references and that its employees are covered by workers compensation insurance. The company should follow the guidelines established by the NFPA and the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA). Most cleanings and inspections typically cost between $150-$200. A thorough job should take about an hour on average. Beware of companies that are in and out the door in as little as 15 minutes.
Gas fireplaces should also be inspected regularly, Clift said, to ensure there’s not a gas leak or other damage.
Adding a chimney cap can help protect the fireplace from water damage, as well as keep animals and birds from entering the home through the fireplace.
“Moisture unabated going into the house is not good,” Lamb said. “(And) a big raccoon in a fireplace can cause a lot of havoc. So can squirrels and Chimney Swifts, a migratory species that nests in some chimneys. They’re protected by the Migratory Species Act. Those birds have to be left alone (in the chimney) until they hatch their young and fly south.”
Lamb recommends homeowners use only dry and seasoned hardwood for burning to minimize creosote buildup. It’s also important to leave the damper slightly open, even when the fireplace is not in use, so smoke, fumes and natural gas have a place to vent if necessary.
Consumers who are purchasing a home should consider a video inspection of the chimney. Lamb said he recently discovered several thousand dollars worth of repairs on a video inspection of an older home for sale.
“If I was a home buyer, I would want to know that going in,” Lamb said. “That’s when cameras can be very helpful.”
Camera inspections typically cost more than a visual inspection and are not always necessary, though. And while reputable chimney sweeps don’t do this, a common tactic for disreputable sweeps is to show homeowners stock photos of a damaged chimney rather than a photo of the homeowner’s actual chimney. It’s always a good idea to get multiple estimates for any significant home repair.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on December 10, 2011.