You may find it odd to hire someone so that your fireplace doesn't produce fire, but if your flue is blocked or your brickwork isn't solid, your house could be in danger. If your masonry is cracked in a wood-burning fireplace, sparks could escape between the fissures and set fire to your house. If your flue is blocked in gas-stove, the carbon monoxide emissions could seep back into the home causing illness, injury, or even death. So depending on how much you use your fireplace, it is always a good idea to get it inspected by a chimney service company at least once a year, preferably during the off-season (spring and summer) so you'll be fully prepared for the fall and winter.
During the industrial revolution, chimney sweeps were often young boys who were small enough to fit into the smokestack. It was dirty and dangerous work, and many of these children were exploited by their bosses, sustained injury from serious falls, and developed deadly diseases from the dust and carcinogens found in the soot. Of course, times have changed and now with the invention of the vacuum pump, this cleaning process is virtually dirt-free for worker and homeowner alike. However, the need for the process has not changed at all.
Vermin still get in through tops of chimneys. Birds still build nests within the flue. Leaves, sticks, and other forms of debris still drop into the fireplace, creating floating fire hazards and blockage. And soot will always eventually build up along the inside of the flue in excess, possibly creating smoke and ventilation problems. Therefore, whether you use wood, pellets, or gas, chimney sweeps are still more than necessary in order for your fireplace to function properly, efficiently, and safely.
Other Chimney Services
Beyond annual cleanings that remove obstructions from your fireplace, you may want to make sure that your fireplace professional is also qualified to take care of other matters. Though cleaning the unit is sometimes enough, if you hire a contractor that is properly certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America (one of the only companies that regulate the chimney service industry) they will be able to inspect for other problems you may have.
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Besides blockage, there may be cracks in the masonry, faulty drafting, damaged dampers, broken doors, or worn-out crowns. Chimney service professionals can not only diagnose these problems with thorough inspections, they can also give advice about the next steps one should take. The most common task these professionals carry out is the installation of caps on top of the smokestack to prevent any further intrusions from pests, debris, and precipitation. Other frequent repairs involve waterproofing the masonry or occasionally re-lining your fireplace's interior if necessary.
Many chimney sweeps should be able to fix these problems themselves, but if you don't ask for the inspection it may not be included with just the cleaning. If that is the case, make sure you hire someone else who can conduct a thorough inspection upon cleaning. Some contractors may even have high-tech equipment, such as camera systems, to get in every nook and cranny of the unit. Or they may perform a smoke test (closing off the openings and filling the flue with smoke in order to find any leakage) to make sure you're not breathing in any unnecessary emissions. Either way, if you often use your fireplace, make sure you routinely hire a professional to not only clean your equipment but to also thoroughly examine and fix any problem with the unit in order to avoid other hazards or damage in the future.