Tahlequah Daily Press

January 7, 2013

Experts recommend having fireplaces cleaned for safety

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — As winter begins delivering its bone-chilling temperatures, many Cherokee County residents are seeking warmth and comfort from a fireplace, wood stove or other heating sources.

The natural instinct is to draw close to a flame source and return the body’s core temperature to its natural balance. But what folks often overlook when preparing to start a fire is the condition of the fireplace, wood or pellet stove.

Repeated usage creates creosote, a colorless to yellowish greasy liquid with a smoky odor that collects inside chimney flues. When this liquid hardens as it gets cold, it presents a gummy, corrosive and combustible substance that will coat everything with which it comes into contact.

Before using a wood-burning heat source, the homeowner needs to make sure it is free of creosote and clear obstructions, said Tahlequah Fire Department Chief Ray Hammons.

“You can do that yourself by purchasing the equipment at a local hardware store or lumber yard. Those items would include rods and a chimney sweep or brush. You want to make sure all the creosote is cleaned out,” Hammons said. “You also want to make sure there’s nothing blocking the chimney. Sometimes there may be a bird nest or a squirrel nest. Little critters tend to want make nests in tight areas like that.”

Hammons also recommends burning seasoned wood.

“Most people in this region tend to burn hardwoods. Hardwoods put out less creosote and burn slower,” he said. “Soft wood like pine put out a lot of creosote. It creates a lot of residue that will sap off and put out black smoke.”

Hammons said a fireplace should be cleaned and inspected by a “person of qualified means.”

Online sources on chimney inspection and cleaning they should be done every year before use, and should be performed by people or companies with liability insurance and certification through The Chimney Safety Institute of America, or CSIA certification.

Hearth & Pool Services employs CSIA-certified service and CSIA-certified chimney sweeps. Hearth & Pool co-owner Corey Kinsey said the business can perform inspections and do repair work other businesses can’t.

“We also do new fireplace systems, wood stoves. We are the inspectors. We go around and clean chimneys and fireplaces. That’s part of the CSIA certification,” Kinsey said. “They actually train what to look for, and also methods for repairing [problems]. That’s the main thing with fireplaces. We do a lot of repairs that other guys don’t do around here.”

Co-owner Mark Sweeney said Hearth & Pool Services offers a full-service option.

“A good chimney sweep will inspect the whole fireplace. The whole installation of the fireplace, wood stove or flue or whatever they have, and make sure that it has proper clearance and safety,” he said. “They clean the chimney with professional equipment like brushes and rods, and if they see problems, they’ll put those out to the customer and hopefully will have the solution.”

Thomas Fouts, also a CSIA-certified chimney sweep for Hearth & Pool Services, said the certification process is detailed and demanding.

“You’ve got to know pretty much every safety aspect of the chimney,” he said. “As far as clearances and different hazards, [there can be] cracked chimney tiles or clearance issues between the chimney and the house itself. It’s pretty rigorous work.”

Fouts said use of creosote logs, which can be purchased at stores like Tahlequah Lumber or Atwoods, should be used on a regular basis, especially if the wood-burning heat source is being used daily.

“You’ve got to use them a lot. It’s a really slow process. We use this stuff called ACS, and we recommend you use it every time you start a fire,” he said. “Or once a day would be best. It’s just for prevention. It’s not going to clear it up. You’re still going to have to get the chimney cleaned. [The creosote log] dries it out so that whenever you do clean it, it will just flake right off.”

To help prevent a fire, clear the area around the hearth of debris, decorations and other materials that could be flammable, according the U.S. Fire Administration’s website.

When using a fireplace or wood stove, leave the doors open to ensure the fire gets enough air and keeps creosote from building up in the chimney. Always use the metal-mesh screen with fireplaces to help contain embers that may escape from the fireplace area.

Keep the air inlets on wood stoves open, and never restrict air supply to the fireplace, as it may cause creosote buildup that could lead to a chimney fire. The website states 36 percent of residential home fires in rural areas are the result of a heating fire, which is often due to creosote buildup in the chimney or stovepipe.

The USFA declares all home heating systems require regular maintenance to function safely and efficiently. Never use flammable liquids to start the fire, and use only seasoned hardwood. Build small fires that burn completely and produce less smoke, and never burn cardboard boxes, trash or debris in the wood-burning heat source.

Experts also recommend placing logs at the rear of the fireplace on adequate support when building a fire, and never leave the fire unattended. Allow the ashes to cool before disposing of the burned debris, which should transported in a metal container and kept at least 10 feet away from the home or other nearby structures.

If a fire erupts, call 911 to alert the fire department; throw large amounts of baking soda or sand on the fire; and use a fire extinguisher, if the dry ingredients do not stop the flames.