Inspecting Your Fireplace Flue

Why Should I Inspect my Fireplace Flue?

Blocked chimney flues are a huge fire risk for obvious reasons. Fireplace flues can get blocked by a common chimney-blocking culprit: birds’ nests, as well by creosote build-up (the black stuff that comes off of wood when you burn it), and leaves and other natural debris. Inspecting your flue is also a good time to make sure that your damper is functioning properly and hasn’t gotten lodged out of place or covered in creosote.

Photo Credit: Dave Lundy Dec 18, 2013

What Happens If I Don’t Clean My Chimney?

If you don’t inspect your chimney flue and you start a fire with a blocked flue, you can immediately cause a smoke fire inside your chimney which can spread to your entire house. Chimney fires happen to thousands of Americans every year, resulting in millions of dollars in damages… and even death. Even if you don’t use your fireplace, you still need to occasionally check your chimney for unwanted critters or debris build up because this can cause damage to your flue and be costly– and potentially pretty disgusting– to repair.

Panic level: 10

DIFFICULTY LEVEL: This task is easy if you have good eyesight and the right tools.

PROFESSIONAL HELP RECOMMENDED: Inspecting the flue yourself is fine. But if you inspect it and spot anything amiss, professional help is recommended.

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Step-By-Step

  • 1. Remove any obstructions.
    • Remove any fireplace doors, andirons, and anything else that is obstructing the firebox. Use a fireplace brush or a broom and dustbin to sweep up any soot on the floor of the firebox.

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  • 2. Lay a towel or tarp down in the firebox.
    • This is to keep your clothes clean and to collect any creosote or debris that falls during the inspection.

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  • 3. Lay down in the firebox or crawl in as far as you can go.
  • 4. Shine a flashlight up the flue.
    • Check for excessive creosote, cracks in the stone, and anything foreign that blocks the chimney hole like a bird’s nest or fallen branch. If the top of the chimney looks blocked, you can either choose to perform a roof inspection yourself, or call a professional chimney sweep.

      When you’re inspecting your flue, you have to be really careful that nothing falls into your eyes. It’s recommended that you wear protective glasses, but nothing that will obstruct your vision, because you need to be able to see clearly to catch any cracks or build-up, and it’s already pretty hard to see inside the flue even without goggles on.

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  • 5. Clear away any easy-to-remove creosote.
    • Large Appliances

      You can use a chimney brush to scrape off any creosote that is in reach. Just keep in mind that this is a messy task and you’ll probably need some back-up towels and rags to clean up if you choose to do this. (Also, make sure any furniture, rugs, or other precious items are far from the fireplace before scraping any creosote.)

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  • 6. Make sure the damper is working.
    • Your damper should be open while you’re burning a fire and closed the rest of the time. Most dampers are at the bottom of the chimney, so you can check if it opens and closes properly just by looking at it. Have someone open and close it while you’re in the chimney and check to make sure it closes tightly and isn’t caked in creosote. Make sure you wear goggles for this one, because opening and closing the damper will definitely send some soot flying.

      If your damper is at the top of your chimney, it’s best to have it checked out by a professional, especially if you are noticing smoke coming back out of the chimney, or if you’re noticing warm/cool air from your house escaping through the chimney when it’s supposed to be closed.

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  • 7. (Optional) Inspect from the roof.
    • If you choose to perform a roof inspection, use a ladder to (carefully!) climb up to your roof and over to the chimney. Make sure you are wearing non-slip shoes. Remove the chimney cover if you have one. Then, use your flashlight to look down the flue and see if the obstruction is something you can easily recognize and remove. If so, go ahead and get rid of it. If not, climb back down and call a pro.

      Note: if you’re going to test your damper during this inspection (which you should), you will need two people.

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