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The Importance of Chimney Sweeps

The image of chimney sweeps was forever changed when Burt and Mary Poppins danced across the London rooftops, some 40 odd years ago. Unfortunately, most sweeps don't sing and tap dance across our roofs, but they do perform an important job that wood burning homeowners should be familiar with.

Having been through the trauma of a chimney fire, Sissel Chipman of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, knows all too well how imperative it is to have your chimney checked frequently. Originally from Norway, where the law demands that chimneys be checked yearly, she is surprised by how many people in North America don't. "If you use your wood stove, I think it would be crazy to not have it cleaned and checked regularly!" she says. "Especially because the houses in North America seem to have thinner and smaller chimneys than what is traditional in Scandinavia."

In Tip-top Shape
Bill Ryan Jr., the president of Ryan and Son Chimney Contractors Limited in Landing, N.J., says not keeping your chimney regularly inspected and cleaned can cause a buildup that makes it susceptible to chimney fires. "In wood burning fireplaces, woodstoves and other appliances, the by-product of the burn is soot and creosote," he says. "If a chimney goes un-serviced, this buildup may lead to a chimney fire, which can damage a chimney and a home. In heating appliances burning oil or gas fuel, a neglected chimney can become blocked with soot. Also, these flues, because of their warmth, are very attractive to birds, squirrels and other wildlife. Yearly inspections are important, because as systems get older, they are more and more prone to deterioration and damage."

Melissa Heeke, director of communications for the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a nonprofit, educational organization dedicated to chimney and venting system safety, agrees on the importance of regular inspections. "The two primary risks associated with ignoring chimney maintenance are chimney fires and carbon monoxide intrusion," she says. "An annual chimney inspection by a qualified chimney sweep allows you to keep tabs on the state of your chimney. During level one inspection, a certified chimney sweep will look for the basic soundness of the chimney, inside and out, as well as your heating appliance installation and connections. The sweep will also verify that the chimney is free of obstruction and combustible deposits like creosote."

How Often Should Your Chimney Be Cleaned?
The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends an annual chimney inspection and sweeping when necessary. "A good rule of thumb for when a sweeping is necessary is when there is a 1/4 inch of buildup," Heeke says. "Consider an annual inspection to be your chimney's annual physical exam. Spotting potential chimney problems early can prevent costly repairs and will keep your chimney healthy.

Annual chimney inspections are too often put off, often costing homeowners a great deal of money in repairs, or worse, a chimney fire incident. "When the weather gets cooler, chimney fires and carbon monoxide poisonings make the news, which prompts homeowners to call a chimney sweep," Heeke says. "Many sweeps are extremely busy between Labor Day and New Year's Day. The trick is to call a chimney sweep in the spring or summer months to get a good appointment time."

Chemical Cleaners
There are a lot of chemical products available that claim to clean your fireplace. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, while these products may be valuable to the chimney cleaning process, they should be used with a regular inspection and cleaning by a qualified sweep, not in the place of one. Their Web site states the following:

"The CSIA believes that the use of these products alone is not an adequate substitute for mechanical chimney cleaning and inspection because it does not provide the same level of protection to the chimney system. Current promotional claims for some of the products may be creating a false sense of security among consumers."

How Do You Find a Chimney Sweep?
Few states and jurisdictions require licenses for chimney sweeps, so it's important to find a qualified technician. According to Heeke, the Chimney Safety Institute of America Certified Chimney Sweep credential is considered the standard in the industry and is quickly becoming popular with code enforcement officials. "The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends that you hire a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep," she says. "It's important to remember that only individuals can earn the Certified Chimney Sweep credential. When you're shopping for a chimney sweep, don't just price shop!"

Even if they don't sing and dance across your roof, hiring a chimney sweep just might save your roof and your home from a chimney fire.

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