A fireplace that doesn't function properly is a serious safety risk to our families. Ideally, we want the smoke going out and the heat coming in (and maybe Santa, too).
There are many types of fireplaces: traditional masonry wood-burning fireplaces, gas, electric, wood pellet, even those that run on alcohol. But no matter what type you have, it needs proper maintenance -- and so does its chimney.
Annual fireplace and chimney inspections should be part of your home's regular maintenance schedule. Among the problems you can run into if your chimney isn't maintained is a chimney fire, which can spread in a matter of minutes to your entire home.
Every working chimney's flue must be inspected and cleaned every year -- no exception. This will help make sure there isn't a block or a crack in the flue that can lead to toxic fumes -- such as carbon monoxide -- entering your home. Even a hairline crack, once heated, can open to as much as a full centimetre.
A cracked flue also lets heat and smoke travel to other areas in your home, which is dangerous. Creosote builds up a lot more quickly if there is a cracked flue in a wood-burning fireplace. Creosote, or soot for short, is extremely combustible. It's basically tiny unburned flammable particles that accumulate inside your chimney's walls. If creosote builds up, it just takes a tiny spark to start a chimney fire -- which chimneys aren't built to withstand.
A proper inspection of your fireplace can also reveal if the damper has a tight seal. Sometimes bits of mortar fall from inside the chimney. This can stop the damper from completely sealing. If it doesn't seal properly, you'll lose heat. That's a big waste of energy efficiency.
Your fireplace's ash pit also needs to be checked; once every other year is enough. But if the ashes seem soggy and hard to remove, you might have a leak. If that's the case, it's better to fix this sooner rather than later.
Chimneys are prime spots for water damage and leaks. The masonry and mortar can absorb moisture. If there's anything screwed to the chimney, such as an old television aerial, it just gives more points where water and moisture can come in.
A good inspector will check the bricks, mortar, chimney cap and flashing. If your chimney's mortar is deteriorating, the bricks will get loose -- a huge vulnerability that will allow more water to penetrate into your home's structure. To fix this, the mortar needs to be repointed, which means scraping out the old mortar and refilling it with new. It might sound like an easy job but you need to find someone with a bit of skill and practice. A bad job will be obvious -- it won't be pretty.
Proper sealing is crucial where the chimney's base meets the roofing material. There should be metal flashing here. If it's missing, poorly installed or needs repair, water can get under the shingles.
Most routine chimney repairs aren't expensive. But if you don't correct the problems quickly they can become a major safety hazard -- with a major price tag to go along with it.
(A gas fireplace should get checked out once a year by a gas technician. I know this sounds expensive, but it's not as expensive as a catastrophe -- I can tell you that much. If your gas fireplace isn't working the way its supposed to, it can lead to carbon-monoxide poisoning and even death.)
If your home has a wood-burning fireplace, you should find a WETT- (wood energy technology transfer) certified technician. The installation and maintenance of wood-burning systems isn't regulated in Canada. But a WETT technician has been trained to give a basic visual inspection the right way. Anyone who is WETT-certified has a photo ID card. If you're not sure the professional you're hiring is WETT-certified, ask to see their ID card. Check that it has a valid sticker with the current year.
Most homeowners are scared to ask to see any proof of certification -- be it an electrician, plumber, general contractor, home inspector, even a doctor. But every pro will be happy to show you. Any real professional is proud of their certifications and the amount of time they've invested in their craft. They might even give you a pat on the back for doing your homework. I know I would.
Before you light your fire this holiday season, make sure your fireplace can handle the heat. Because where there's smoke, there could be fire.
Catch Mike Holmes in his new series, Holmes Makes It Right Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV. For more information, visit hgtv.ca. For more information on home renovations, visit makeitright.ca.