Owning a home with a wood-burning fireplace can create a warm and inviting atmosphere, but it also takes occasional maintenance to make sure everything is working the way it should.
Making sure an indoor fireplace adds only warmth and ambience to the home requires it be cleaned. When wood is burned, it is never completely combusted. In the smoke, particles of partially burnt gasses, tar-like substances, and vapors condense and stick to the sides of a chimney. This is called creosote. Over time, creosote deposits blocks off the passage of smoke out the chimney, and it returns back into the house. This toxic smoke leaves an awful lingering smell and inhaling it is potentially life threatening.
Several factors affect how fast creosote builds up, such as the type of wood burned and the chemicals it releases as a result, how dry the wood is upon burning, flue location, material and shape of fireplace, and frequency of its usage. Therefore, it is difficult to give an accurate estimate of how often a fireplace should be cleaned. It is recommended that chimneys be cleaned immediately following the first use. Even though it is probably not necessary to clean at this point, inspecting the amount of creosote buildup caused by a single burning should give some indication of how many uses a particular fireplace will take before it is time to clean. An inspector can give a good ballpark figure of how efficient your particular fireplace is and how frequently it should be cleaned.
Having a professional periodically inspect your chimney is important. An inspection is typically short, as inspectors have tools to accurately measure creosote buildup without having to burn a fire. Since blowback of smoke is also sometimes caused by improper airflow, basements, pressure imbalance, and HVAC systems, an inspector may require access to other rooms of the house to check for any such contributing factors. Inspections are thorough, professionally done, and typically require minimal involvement from the homeowner. Inspectors are usually prompt in identifying problems and can suggest appropriate remedies to make the fireplace fully functional.