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Three white birds sit on top of the chimney of a wood burning fireplace.

Everything You Need to Know about Chimney Cleaning, Fireplace Inspections, and More

Chimneys need regular cleanings and inspections to ensure they are safe to use.

When burning logs in a wood burning fireplace or a wood stove, creosote and soot gradually accumulate on your chimney liner, smoke chamber, damper, and firebox.

This buildup is problematic for a number of reasons. It can cause a blockage that will reduce the draw of the fireplace and its heating and burning efficiency. Furthermore, since creosote is highly flammable, any buildup increases the risk of a chimney fire.

Some types of wood create more creosote than others when burned, like pine, which isn’t regularly used as a heating source due to its high creosote production.

To prevent chimney fires and to ensure your fireplace works efficiently all winter, follow these chimney cleaning tips.

How Often Should You Clean Your Chimney?

You should inspect and clean your chimney at least once a year, and whenever creosote glaze is present.

If you use your fireplace regularly year-round, you will need to clean it more often. Heavy use of a wood burning fireplace will cause soot and creosote to build up quickly.

When your fireplace is not in use, animals may nest in the chimney. Leftover debris from animals will affect the efficiency of your fireplace and will also pose a risk for a chimney fire.

Annual chimney cleanings ensure there are no fire hazards, such as dirt, debris, soot buildup, or creosote glaze.

When Is the Best Time to Clean Your Chimney?

Ideally, you should clean your chimney before the burning season starts. If you plan to use your fireplace regularly starting in the fall, you should aim to have your chimney cleaned in late summer.

But if you haven’t used your fireplace in a while and you want to use it soon, make sure there is no debris left in the chimney before building a fire.

How Do You Clean A Chimney?

Hiring a professional chimney sweep is the best and safest option for cleaning a chimney. Chimney sweeps have the equipment, experience, and knowledge to thoroughly inspect and clean your chimney.

But if you want to clean your chimney yourself, here’s what you need to do.

Inspect Your Chimney

Using a flashlight, look inside your chimney flute. With a pencil or a plastic knife, scrape off the creosote or soot buildup. If the layer is 1/8-inch thick or thicker, it’s time to clean your chimney.

Don’t forget to check for animals living in your chimney. If you find animals, call a local wildlife control company to safely remove the animals from your chimney.

Measure the Chimney Flue

You will need to use properly-sized chimney tools to clean your chimney. So measure the sides of your chimney at the bottom, through your fireplace.

Take note of the size and shape of the flue. It should be either round or square, and 6 inches or 8 inches.

If you can, measure the height of the chimney as well. If you can’t get an accurate measurement, overestimate the height.

Buy Chimney Cleaning Supplies

You can find the following chimney cleaning supplies at your local hardware store:

  • A chimney brush—based on your chimney’s measurements;
  • Brush extension pipes to reach the entire length of the chimney, or a weighted rope to use with a chimney brush or a rope pulley system;
  • A smaller stiff wire brush;
  • A drop cloth or plastic tarp to cover your floor by the fireplace;
  • A broom and dustpan, or a shop vacuum;
  • Safety goggles;
  • Dust masks; and
  • A ladder tall enough to reach your roof (if you’re cleaning your chimney from the top down).

Dress for the Job

Wear old clothes that you don’t mind getting covered in soot. Cover your hair with a bandanna, and put on work gloves, goggles, and a dust mask. You don’t want to breathe in soot or get it in your mouth, eyes, or hair.

Prepare Your Home

Use a tarp or drop cloth to cover the floor around your fireplace hearth and extending several feet into your living room. Roll back any rugs and cover furniture with tarps or sheets.

Remove the Damper

Before you can start cleaning the chimney, you need to remove the damper so it won’t obstruct the path of the chimney brush.

Find the damper handle inside of your chimney. Clean it with a small wire brush before detaching it from the chimney. Once removed, set it aside on a drop cloth.

Clean the Chimney from the Top Down

If your roof is safe to stand on, climb up the ladder to your roof carrying a bag with your cleaning tools over your shoulder.

Attach the chimney brush with one section of pipe. Insert the brush into the chimney and use up and down motions to scrub the flue until it is clean. Repeat this step with an additional pipe to reach further down the chimney until you have cleaned the entire length of the flue.

For the rope-and-weight method, attach the weighted rope to the brush. Lower the brush into the chimney while holding the end of the rope. Then lift it up and down so you scrub the entire length of the flue.

Once you have packed up and climbed down the ladder, clean any spots you missed at the bottom of the chimney with the small brush.

Clean the Chimney from the Bottom Up

If you don’t feel comfortable climbing up to your roof, use this alternative method to clean your chimney instead.

Attach the brush with one section of pipe and insert the brush into the chimney through the fireplace. Scrub up and down along the flue. Keep adding pipe and scrubbing until you have reached the entire length of the chimney.

Clean the Flue’s Entrance

Your flue’s entrance is a small door to an area under the flue. This door is located at the bottom of the chimney, usually in the basement. Use a small spade to shovel any soot and creosote from this area into a bucket. Then reattach the damper handle.

Clean the Fireplace

Use a shop vac or a brush and dustpan to clean debris from the fireplace. Be sure to clean any debris from the tarp or drop cloth by your fireplace hearth.

Dispose of soot and creosote according to local waste laws. Since creosote is flammable, it should not go in the garbage.

Do Chimney Cleaning Logs Work?

Chimney cleaning logs might help reduce creosote buildup slightly. But these should not be used in place of cleaning your chimney.

You can prevent creosote buildup in your chimney with regular inspections and cleaning. And also by only burning seasoned wood at high enough temperatures.

When to Schedule A Gas Fireplace Inspection

Whether you own a wood burning fireplace or a gas fireplace, you should schedule annual fireplace inspections. Inspections ensure your fireplace is safe to use and working at optimal efficiency. If there is any damage to your fireplace, the inspector will make recommendations for repairs.

Before using your fireplace, make sure it is clean, inspected, and safe to use. A clean, well-functioning fireplace in top condition will keep you and your home safe while keeping you warm this fall.

What to Do with Your Leftover Wood Ash

There are many benefits to owning a wood-burning fireplace. Beyond keeping your home safe, there are other lesser-known benefits to cleaning your fireplace as well.

Wood ash is mineral-rich dust that has many practical uses around the home. So instead of disposing of your wood ash, consider collecting it after cleaning your fireplace so you can make the most of it.

Handling Wood Ash

Always wear gloves and eye protection when handling wood ash. And if it’s extra fine, wear a dust mask as well.

Even when ashes are cool to the touch, buried embers can stay hot for days or even a week. So to be safe, store your wood ashes in a fireproof (e.g., metal) container, with the lid shut to choke out any potential embers.

Keep your ash container on a non-combustible surface, such as concrete, stone, or dirt, and a few feet away from flammable materials.

Using Wood Ash in the Garden

Fireplace ashes are good for the garden. Since wood ash is rich in potassium and lime, along with other elements, it is very useful to help plants thrive.

But only use wood ash sparingly, either lightly scattered or composted (mixed in with your existing compost). The lye and salt in wood ash can burn plants if used in large amounts. But composting wood ash first will leach away the lye and salt.

Along with being ideal woods to burn in wood-burning fireplaces, hardwoods, such as oak and maple, will create nutrient-rich wood ash. Whereas, wood ash from softwoods, like pine and firs, will have fewer nutrients.

Note: Avoid using wood ash on plants that prefer acidic soil, such as blueberries, azaleas, and gardenias.

Common Garden Uses

Here are some of the many ways you can use ashes in the garden:

  • Fertilize lawns and grass. Sprinkle a light dusting of wood ash on your lawn to help it grow. And water your lawn right after to prevent the ash from blowing away in the wind.
  • Feed calcium-loving plants. Sprinkle a bit of wood ash and work it into the soil around calcium-loving plants such as carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, celery, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
  • Nourish trees. Sprinkle wood ash around the base of your trees. Hardwood trees benefit from the nitrogen produced by the ash.
  • Repel slugs and other pests. Wood ash acts as a natural desiccant (drying agent), which is especially harmful to insects that use slime. To prevent slugs, snails, and other pests from eating your plants, evenly spread fireplace ashes in garden beds around plants, but not directly on plants. Repeat after it rains.
  • Enrich compost. Sprinkle a few ashes into your compost to enhance its nutrients before applying the compost to the soil. A general rule of thumb is to add ash to every six inches of compost to avoid increasing the pH level of the compost too much.

Since wood ash contains salt, it is not recommended for use on young plants, such as seedlings.

Why is Wood Ash Good Fertilizer?

Wood ash is created by the combustion of plant materials (burning wood). So it contains many of the elements required to support plant growth. It has long been used by farmers and gardeners due to its nutrient-rich properties.

Wood ash is rich in calcium, potassium, phosphorous, and magnesium. And it also contains small amounts of iron, sodium, copper, boron, manganese, zinc, and molybdenum.

Wood ash also works to neutralize acidic soil since it contains up to 70% calcium carbonate.

Note: Never use wood ash from chemically-treated wood in your garden or around your trees. You should never burn chemically-treated wood either.

Using Ash as Tree Fertilizer

Wood ash works as a good tree fertilizer since it is potassium-rich and helps increase the pH of the soil. But never use wood ash on plants and trees that prefer acidic soil, such as junipers and evergreen trees.

Before using wood ash in soil, test the soil using a soil test kit. If the soil pH is 7.0 or higher, do not use wood ash. But if the soil pH is lower, follow these steps:

  • At the start of spring, use a shovel or rake to loosen the top 2 to 3 inches of soil around your tree, but don’t disturb any roots.
  • Sprinkle the wood ash (at 10 pounds per 100 square feet) around the tree’s drip line.
  • Rake the ash into the loose soil, and only water according to your normal watering schedule.
  • Repeat these steps every two to three years.

Other Uses for Wood Ash

The following are other practical uses for wood ash around the home:

  • Clean glass and metal. Since ash is mildly abrasive, a damp sponge dipped in ash helps clean glass and metal fireplace doors. And a paste of ash and water works well to shine/polish metal.
  • Reduce/remove oil stains on asphalt, stone, and cement. As a natural desiccant, ash absorbs moisture which helps to remove stains from porous surfaces. Sprinkle wood ash on the stain, allow to sit for a few minutes, then sweep it up. It also works to absorb wet paint spatter on cement.
  • Control pond algae. Add one tablespoon of wood ash per 1,000 gallons of water to provide enough potassium to strengthen other aquatic plants that will compete with algae and slow its growth.

Cleaning your fireplace regularly has many benefits. It keeps your home safe, your fireplace burning well, and your wood ash supply topped up so you can take advantage of these many uses for wood ash around the home.

As your wood-burning fireplace keeps you warm in winter, it will also help your garden to blossom in spring.