Learning how to clean a chimney is one of those skills every homesteader should know. It’s not the most glamorous thing to do, but it’s exceptionally important. Even if you’d rather pay someone else to clean your chimney, it’s still good to be an educated consumer.
Creosote is the number one reason why you should know how to clean a chimney. Incomplete combustion produces a black tar-like fluid and a crunchy black coal-like product. These products, called creosote, coat the inside of your chimney.
As the creosote builds increasingly thicker layers, it chokes out the chimney and kills your draft. This loss of draft causes even more creosote to build up. Additionally, creosote is highly flammable. A chimney full of creosote is a ticking time bomb waiting to light off, which is why we need to know how to clean creosote out of our chimney.
People who know how to clean a chimney, or at least use a chimney sweep service regularly, usually avoid having chimney fires. When cleaned properly, creosote is removed before it can ignite, but sometimes it builds up between cleanings, and the creosote catches fire.
Most people who experience a chimney fire report a rushing wind noise or a crunchy crackling sound in the chimney. Visually, you may see bricks smoking and sparks or flame shooting from the top of your chimney.
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If you have a chimney fire, call 911 immediately. Once you’ve called 911, you can try to put out the fire in your hearth or stove if it’s safe to do so. If there’s imminent danger, just get out!
If you have an extinguisher, put a few shots of dry-chem up the flue from the fireplace or stove if the draft is strong. The extinguisher should suppress the fire, but it’s not likely to put it out completely.
There are also products on the market called chimney flares, which are meant to starve the fire. Use one if you have one, and follow manufacturer’s directions.
Next, you want to stop the airflow to starve the fire. If you have a fireplace with an internal damper, close the damper. If you have a wood stove, shut down the air intake. At this point, get out and let the professionals take it from here.
Avoid Chimney Fires
Avoiding chimney fires is pretty easy if you how to clean a chimney. Be sure to clean your chimney two to three times a season to keep ahead of creosote buildup. Many people will clean at the start of the season and again half-way through, which works for most homes. If you consume lots of firewood, use a wood-burning cook stove, or have a wood stove hot water heater, consider sweeping your chimney three times a season.
If you have a stove, put a wood stove temperature gauge on the pipe going from your stove to the chimney. This gauge will tell you how hot your flue gases are, which should be between 300 to 500 degrees. Any lower and creosote builds up quickly, and any higher may cause damage.
Be sure to burn dry, well-seasoned firewood. When you split and stack your wood, it should be left to dry and season for six to 12 months before you burn it. Green or wet wood will produce much more creosote than properly seasoned wood, so be sure it’s dry (under 20 percent moisture content) before burning it.
Do a quick check when the chimney is cold. Most chimneys have a steel plate door at the bottom. Open this door and stick a mirror inside. If you don’t have a clean out, you can look through the thimble (where the stove pipe hooks into the chimney) or up the flue of your fireplace.
You should be able to see out the top of your chimney and identify any creosote deposits that may exist. If you find significant deposits, don’t burn until it’s clean!
Using a chimney brush is the best way to clean your chimney, but not all brushes are the same. You will need to measure your chimney and identify if it’s a square, rectangle or round flue. Once you know the shape and size, purchase the correct brush for your chimney.
There are two methods of brushing a chimney — a weighted brush suspended from a rope or a brush attached to flexible rods. We use a weighted brush on a rope at home because it’s faster than linking rods together, but that means we need to get to the top of the chimney.
Flexible rod brush systems are a handy method of cleaning a chimney, mostly because you now have the option of cleaning your chimney from the top down, or from the ground up. Many chimneys can be cleaned from the ground by inserting the brush into the thimble, chimney clean-out, or directly up the flue from your fireplace.
How to Clean a Chimney
For your basic chimney, hook up your preferred brush system and run it up and down the flue. With flex rods, brush back and forth with every section. Once you reach the end of the current section, add another rod until you reach the end of the chimney.
For a weighted brush on a rope, make sure you pull up and drop down to get the desired scrubbing effect. Whichever system you use, check and re-check the flue visually to verify that the chimney is, in fact, clear of creosote. Be sure to clean your stove pipe as well! You may need an additional brush to do that.
Once you’ve brushed your chimney, shovel out your clean-out door or vacuum up the creosote bits that have fallen free of the chimney.
Making it Easier
Masonry chimneys can be a challenge. Installing a chimney liner eliminates pockets, shelves, and crevasses where creosote likes to build up, making cleanup much easier. A chimney liner also keeps your flue gases hotter, gives you a stronger draft and reduces creosote buildup. A liner kit should only cost about $600 if you do it yourself.
Cleaning a chimney is a messy job, so cover your floor with tarps. You can also use long skinny tarps called runners to avoid tracking soot through the house as you work.
Cleaning your own chimney is easier than you think, especially if you have the right tools. If you’re not comfortable getting on your roof, try sweeping your chimney from the ground, or have a competent professional do it for you. In either case, make sure it’s done before it’s too late. Be safe and keep the stove warm this winter!
Do you already clean your chimney yourself? If so, what method do you use? Let us know in the comments below!