The modern day chimney sweep looks nothing like Dick Van Dyke in a coal-stained gray jumpsuit, and neither does the modern day methodology behind chimney cleaning operations. Regular checkups in this department are easily overlooked, mainly because the signs of wear, tear and dangerous residue are not visible to provide an obvious reminder. For new owners of luxury custom built homes, years of fireplace use would not be a concern, and maintenance is easy to regulate. New homeowners of older homes, inheriting a murky history of fireplace use and damage, should consult an expert regarding care and maintenance to protect their investment. Neglect may pose several risks, including potential chimney fires and health problems for your family.

Types of materials used for building chimneys have varied over the last century, from plasters to bricks, and which species of wood used in the chimney has an effect on what kind of residue is left behind. Regular maintenance by previous owners is not a guarantee, nor are records kept on how often chimneys were used and what was burned in them. Additionally, the structural integrity of the chimney may have been compromised over time by weather, fire, remodeling or an earthquake (unlikely for Wisconsin homeowners). If a luxury lake home is used and loved the way it is designed to be, a cheerful fire will often be burning in the home’s main gathering spaces.

Conventional wisdom suggests scheduling a yearly chimney inspection to determine if a cleaning or repairs are necessary. All chimneys and flues are unique in their character, construction and way they are used, and there is no standard dictating cleaning should occur after 100 uses or one year. It is important to regularly check for the soot and creosote accumulation, as even a modest amount may be enough to fuel a chimney fire that could spread to the roof and house. Creosote is a dark brown tar that is deposited from wood smoke on the walls of the chimney and is highly flammable. Wood species and sap content determine the levels of creosote residue or deposits caused when burned; pine and green wood (which has not cured) have very high levels of sap, which creates more creosote when burned. Additionally, damp wood creates fires that are slower burning, also creating greater creosote build-up than a hotter, faster-burning fire.

Creosote buildup will occur in any type of chimney, masonry or metal, and when buildup of more than 1/8” occurs on the flue it is important to get it cleaned before this highly flammable substance accumulates further. Creosote is actually the carbon particles carried in the smoke or warm vapor of the burning wood (or coal or peat), and is the result of condensation against the cool surface temperature of the flue and chimney walls. Its various stages of appearance evolve from a fine, granular soot, to a hardened glaze. If a fireplace is rarely used, there is another reason to schedule a yearly inspection; when the chimney is dormant, many different creatures may take up residence, which could cause clogs in the flue and chimney chamber (and a different smell when a fire is lit). Wisconsin weather takes its toll on chimney health as well, with the winter freeze and moisture cycle causing fractures in masonry and chimney liners.

A yearly chimney inspection is an important standard for any concerned homeowner and an easy way to protect the investment of your luxury dream home, preventing any unfortunate disasters. Potential health risks may be avoided as well, as a blocked chimney or improperly functioning flue can cause a toxic buildup of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide poisoning is responsible for thousands of deaths every year, many of which are caused by blocked chimneys. Additionally, smoke damage occurs when soot buildup around the flue may cause improper functioning, making it difficult for the flue to draw the smoke upward, causing it to enter the room instead. Most chimney professionals will put the homeowner on an annual schedule following their first inspection. For homeowners that are not on a schedule, a good time to call is now, before the heavy wood-burning season begins.