Fireplaces are aesthetically pleasing and they provide an economical way to heat your home during the winter. They also last a lifetime if cared for properly, but they need to be repaired from time to time. If you are noticing water in your fireplace, smoke not filtering through the chimney correctly, or any other oddity with your fireplace, do not continue to use it as it could be a fire hazard. Depending on the type of repair needed, your costs can vary greatly.
Sweeping your chimney is necessary to reduce the risk of a devastating fire. Fires can occur when a build-up called creosote gets too thick. Creosote resin is what gets left behind in your chimney as you burn wood. This resin is flammable and must be cleaned out regularly. Creosote is a wood preservative used to cure beech wood and other common burning woods. Burning a log releases creosote resin with the smoke which collects in your chimney This oily substance, creosote, can re-ignite from sparks rising in the chimney. Therefore, it's important to keep these walls free of creosote build-up.
If you have wood that is burning slowly or not burning at all, you may need to clean out the creosote in the chimney flue. Routine cleaning can keep the creosote from building up to dangerous levels. A way to test to see if you need to have your chimney swept is to shine a flashlight up the chimney and scratch at the build-up on the walls. If it’s an eighth of an inch or thicker, you need to have your chimney swept by a professional. If it’s a quarter of an inch thick, you need to have it cleaned immediately. Creosote can affect any kind of wood-burning appliance, so even a wood stove needs to be inspected and cleaned out at least every year.
While a proper sweeping of your chimney should be done by a professional, there are a couple of things you can do to help make cleanings easier:
Citrus or Potato Peels – Burning citrus or potato peels can help keep your chimney safer. Citrus peels are said to prevent creosote build-up while potato peels are said to form a chemical reaction that dries out the creosote and helps keep it from bursting into flame. While this is a safety measure, it doesn’t replace a professional cleaning. The creosote will still build up and clog your chimney, causing smoke and carbon monoxide to begin flowing into your house.
Cleaning Logs – Chimney cleaning logs release a chemical that loosens creosote and tar and causes it to fall away from your chimney walls. Of course, this means it is falling either into your fire or onto any ledges in your chimney. While it can keep your chimney safer, it doesn’t do the same kind of job a professional cleaning will do. Cleaning logs cost about $15.00 to $20.00.
DIY – The truly ambitious might decide to clean their own chimneys. Many products for this job are available and affordable, and cost around $20.00 for a 2-pound tub of cleaner. However, you would also need to buy a chimney brush (about $18.00), fireplace brick/stone cleaner (about $9.00 a bottle), and fireplace scrubbing pads (about $24.00 per two-pack). The process is labor-intensive and time-consuming, and doing it yourself doesn’t include a professional inspection to identify cracks or other damage.
When to Call – The best time to call for a chimney sweeping and inspection is during the off-season, between April and September. Prices are often lower and it will give you time to remedy any situations discovered during the inspection.
Masonry joints expand and contract with seasons and temperature fluctuation. This can lead to cracks forming and allowing smoke, carbon monoxide, and sometimes even stray embers to get between your walls our out of the chimney and onto your roof. Cracks will most often form at corners before they form anywhere else. However, cracks in the middle of the back of a fireplace aren’t uncommon. If found early enough, simple mortar repair can resolve the issue. If left untreated, they can lead to structural damage, increased risk of fire, and can cost upwards of around $3,000.00 to repair.
If all you have are some cracks to be repaired, you can expect to pay around $175.00. A complete rebuilding of your chimney from the crown to just below the roofline can cost $1,000 to $3,000.00. If the entire chimney all the way down to the fireplace needs to be replaced, it can cost around $10,000.
Water can get in through cracks (see above) and cause damage in the form of mold and wood rot. These cracks are usually at the roofline when flashing and sealers fail and allow rainwater to seep inside. Also, the water is acidic and when it combines with creosote, dampers can get rusted and fail. The water can destroy existing mortar and damage wood near the fireplace, such as ceilings and floors.
Repairing this part of your fireplace can be either DIY or a professional job. Depending on the height and slope of your roof, you may want to leave it to a contractor. However, if you have a head for heights, replacing the flashing and resealing the cracks can cost about $150.00, about $200.00 less than hiring a contractor.
The crown of your chimney does more than just keep rain from coming down the flue and into your home. It protects the brick and mortar of the chimney as well as keeping pests out of your home. Not only does it keep things out, it also keeps things in, preventing sparks from flying out of your chimney and landing on your roof. The crown is like a cap that should extend past the bricks of the chimney and over the chimney flashing. It should slope away from its center to ensure that water drains off of it, like an umbrella. The covered cage part that you often see atop chimneys is the spark arrestor. It keeps sparks and embers from going out of the chimney and landing on your roof, possibly starting a fire.
Cracks that form in the crown can be particularly costly if left unrepaired. Water can get into the cracks and cause significant damage to mortar, bricks, and even the wooden frame of your house. If it freezes, it will expand and cause the cracks to get larger and to create even more cracks. Eventually, these cracks will compromise the integrity of your whole chimney and fireplace, requiring it to be replaced or removed altogether. This can cost thousands of dollars.
The “place” in “fireplace” refers to what is known architecturally as the “fire box.” This is usually made of brick or stone due to the heat-retaining qualities of these materials. Sometimes a firebox will be metal, thanks to its resistance to cracking. But a fireplace isn’t limited to being a built-in firebox. Other forms that a fireplace can take include an outdoor fireplace (different from a fire-pit due to the presence of a chimney structure) or a fully operational wood stove.
Brick and stone fireplaces have a lot of the same common repairs needed, most frequently requiring mortar repair. Cracks are most prone to form at joints and corners and should be repaired as soon as possible to avoid costlier repairs later. However, excessive moisture can be absorbed by bricks and porous stone, causing these materials to break themselves. The acidic combination of water and creosote can also cause a breakdown of the materials if cracks are not seen to and chimneys are not properly maintained. Metal fireboxes don’t usually crack, but the creosote/water compound can cause it to rust and deteriorate.
Outdoor fireplaces are most prone to weather damage. The mortar can deteriorate and cause bricks or stones to become loose and fall out. Any glazing, such as for decorative tiles, must be maintained, and the firebox should be cleaned out regularly due to its exposure to wind-blown debris. Any metal parts, such as a grate or metal flue insert, will be prone to rust unless properly covered. If you live in an earthquake zone, they should be inspected after every such incident just like an indoor fireplace should be.
Wood stoves are cast iron stoves that are meant to be every bit as functional as they are decorative. The most common issue with wood stoves is failure of the door gasket. The gasket keeps smoke from billowing out into the room, and while these gaskets are made to withstand the heat of a fire, time can cause them to break down. They are replaceable, however, and are easily done by the homeowner. The cost will vary depending on the manufacturer and the size and type of the stove.
The most common repair needed for a chimney is cleaning the creosote buildup. This is best done by a professional chimney sweep as they will often inspect other elements of your system as well. Failure to clean creosote build-up from your chimney can lead to clogging, deterioration, or even a fire as creosote is flammable.
Damage to the mortar from weather exposure or from earthquakes can leave cracks. These cracks will allow smoke and moisture to get through. Smoke getting into other parts of your house can cause respiratory problems, and moisture can cause damage to the wood in your house. Also, water mixed with creosote is acidic and can cause metal fireboxes or chimney inserts to deteriorate. Rust can keep your damper from opening or closing properly, preventing you from being able to safely use your fireplace, or allowing valuable heat to escape up your chimney.
A chimney without a spark arrestor is an invitation for birds, insects, and other animals to build nests inside. This can clog your chimney and send smoke and other toxic fumes into your living space. The only remedy to this is to physically remove the blockage. Some people think they can “smoke out” a nesting animal, but the reality is that a) you won’t remove the nest, and b) if the animal dies of smoke inhalation, you still have a corpse and a nest to remove.
Some of the most common problem areas with wood stoves that homeowners might encounter include:
Smoky coatings on the glass doors. This is easily cleaned off by, believe it or not, ashes applied with a clean cloth. Do this when the doors are at room temperature and avoid harsh cleaning agents. Regular cleanings will keep the glass looking like new.
New stoves. They often emit a paint-like smell while the paint on the unit fully cures. This usually goes away after a week. If it doesn’t, it’s time to call a professional to find out what’s going on.
Smoking stoves. One of the most common sources is the burning of wet woods. This will create a lot of creosote which can lead to dangerous conditions in the chimney. Also, it can generate more smoke than the chimney can handle. It will follow the path of least resistance and make find its way out of any opening no matter how small, even small cracks in your door gasket.
Obstructions in your chimney. Creosote buildup and animal nests as well as leaves, twigs, and other wind-borne debris can clog up your chimney and lead to a dangerous fire hazard.
Stovepipes coming loose at the joints. This can also allow fumes and smoke into your house. All joints should be inspected periodically and after an event like an earthquake to make sure they are still tight and sealed.
Gaskets failing. This gasket can fail due to age or faulty gasket glue. If the gasket needs replacing, the surface must be thoroughly cleaned and all adhesive and old material removed before installing the new one. Many people hire a professional to do the job just to make sure it’s done correctly.
Wood stove inserts. If they are not installed by someone who knows what they are doing, you could wind up with what is known as a “slammer.” A slammer is a fireplace insert that is put into the firebox and vented into the chimney without a properly sized vent pipe. A properly installed wood stove insert will have the vent pipe installed all the way up the chimney and let the gasses safely vent outdoors.
Some fireplace repairs are minor. When you first detect cracks, a good mortar patch and sealer is easily applied. For a wood stove, a failing gasket is another job easily done by many people. However, there are certain situations where a professional is the best way to go.
Inspections – A professional has seen many different conditions in chimneys and fireplaces and will know what subtle cues to look for to see if any upcoming issues may be waiting to spring themselves on you.
Sweeping/Cleaning – This job is very labor intensive and is very messy. Professional chimney sweeps have a routine that they’ve used on many other jobs. After cleaning out creosote and other debris, you might find yourself out of energy at the end of the job. You also may not notice other conditions that are getting worse. An inspection is usually part of the chimney sweep’s services.
Large Cracks – While small or minor cracks may be easily patched and sealed, large cracks, such as ¼ inch or more, could be signs of deeper problems elsewhere. By the time a crack has gotten this large, moisture could have already gotten to interior wood and caused water damage or mold.
Leaning chimney – This is a dangerous situation. A leaning chimney has had a complete structural failure and is a falling hazard. Even if you brace it, you have only applied a temporary fix to the falling part of the problem. The mortar has still failed and water is getting through. This calls for a complete removal and replacement of the entire chimney, even down into the house. If the upper portion has started leaning, there’s a good chance that the interior part of the chimney is also weakened.
Installing an Insert – To ensure that the insert is properly installed, there is no substitute for having a professional do the job. A reputable installation expert will make sure that the exhaust is properly vented with the correct size pipe.
Converting to Gas or Electric – There is no question. Installing anything requiring gas lines or electrical conduits requires a professional. This is the safest, and sometimes the only legal, way to go. Failure to install them correctly and to code can cause fires, carbon monoxide poisoning, and can reduce the value of your house should you decide to sell.
If You Have Any Doubts – Not everybody is gifted with tools or is agile enough to spend time on rooftops. If you have any doubts or aren’t able to climb ladders, don’t take the risk. Call a professional and make sure the job is done right, or that you have legal recourse if it isn’t. It may cost a little more money, but it could save your life.
Fireplaces and woodstoves are attractive additions to your home. Modern models are more energy-efficient than older models, and the charm they add to a room is immeasurable. However, they do require maintenance which, if seen to regularly, won’t put much of a bite into your budget. If you have a fireplace, keeping it maintained lets you enjoy its warmth year after year.