If you haven't had your chimney cleaned in a while, it might be best to get it done before the next burning season comes along, according to Tony Sanchez, of United Chimney Inc., a third-generation, family-owned and operated chimney-cleaning business in Menlo Park.
Cleaning and maintaining the fireplace and chimney is one of the necessary hassles that come with being able to enjoy a crackling, cozy wood fire on chilly winter days.
"A well-maintained masonry fireplace can last for 75 years," Sanchez said, adding that one can still see some of these fireplaces in old Victorian homes in San Francisco.
While almost all fireplaces and chimneys are safely designed to expel the byproducts of wood combustion, chimney fires still remain accidents waiting to happen.
"The most common cause of chimney fires is the buildup of creosote, which is highly combustible and causes thermal shocks and structural damage to the system," Sanchez explained.
Creosote is the crusty, blackish-brown, tar-like residue from burning wood that builds up over time along the inner walls of the chimney. A 2010 National Fire Protection Association's report on "Home Fires Involving Heating Equipment" estimated that 14,830 creosote fires are reported every year.
Cleaning chimneys periodically might therefore be the most obvious and simplest solution to avoid chimney fires and damage.
David Nagle, owner and operator of "Inspector Flue-seau" Chimney Services in San Mateo, points out that smoke coming out of the fireplace or a lingering bad odor in the air days after the fire has been put out are sure signs that the chimney needs to be cleaned.
Nagle, whose quirky business name reflects his love for both the Pink Panther series and his profession, has been cleaning and inspecting chimneys, installing chimney caps and doing masonry work in the Bay Area for the past 23 years.
"Softwoods such as pine leave a lot of buildup and it might be a good idea to clean those fireplaces each week," he advised. "For hardwoods such as almond or oak in a regular brick fireplace, I would recommend that people get it cleaned after one cord of wood is burnt. In general, they should get their chimneys cleaned once a year."
Sanchez recommended the same, adding that if the wood is too green or has more pitch — the dark, gummy residue left behind after the distillation of wood tar — it will generate more smoke and creosote buildup.
Apart from regular visits for periodic inspection and cleaning, contractors and Realtors also avail chimney-cleaning services during a home sale to make sure the chimney and fireplace are up to code.
Often, simple oversight or laxity such as forgetting to open up the dampers or letting cobwebs form inside smoke chambers can damage the chimney.
"Sometimes, people just leave fires unattended," Sanchez said, adding that in such cases, a screen in front of the fireplace would at least ensure that embers don't fall onto the carpet. Another way to prevent fire hazards would be to trim trees around the house to remain 10 feet away from the chimney.
With wintertime air pollution increasing every year, homeowners might also want to consider environment-friendly initiatives, such as following "spare the air" alerts issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and substituting Duraflame logs, which cause less pollution, for regular hardwood.
The Palo Alto Municipal Code for roofing also mandates that homeowners must install spark arrestors and a rain guard in their chimneys. Spark arrestors not only prevent burning embers from escaping into the air but also keep small animals and birds out of the chimney.
"We've had all sorts of animals, from raccoons to squirrels to rats fall into chimneys," Sanchez said.
A typical chimney-cleaning service including cleaning the hearth, chimney, smoke chamber, dampers and firebox with a final 21-point inspection, takes between 30 minutes and an hour and can cost between $120 and $150 for a single-story home across different chimney services in the Bay Area.
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