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Can You Clean Your Own Chimney?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 14 Apr 2015 | comments*Discuss
Chimney Sweep Cleaning Chimney Fireplace

Is chimney sweeping a skill that’s easily learnt? Can you safely and effectively clean your own chimney or is this a job best left to the professionals?

Chimney sweeping…not an outdated concept!

With the modern technology and conveniences we have in our homes today – such as central heating – many people think that the traditional coal and wood fires have been completely replaced and are obsolete. But in fact, old-fashioned fireplaces are coming back in vogue, with many people valuing the great character they can add to a room, as well as the excellent source of heat they can provide if they are maintained properly. This means that sweeping chimneys – rather than being an anachronism – is still something that many homeowners need to acquaint themselves with.

Why bother cleaning chimneys?

As a fire is burning in a fireplace, it releases gases which rise up through the chimney, depositing soot on the inner chimney walls in the process. The soot gradually accumulates on the walls and can eventually obstruct or even block the chimney, preventing the rising gases from escaping. Not only does this obstruction lower the efficiency of the fireplace – because air can no longer be sucked through to supply the fire so the fire burns itself out – but it can also lead to safety risks. This is due to harmful gases not being able to escape up the chimney and also due to the build-up of highly flammable substances such as creosote within the soot, which have the potential to cause chimney fires.

In fact, the National Association of Chimney Sweeps states that keeping a chimney clean and swept aids in the “prevention of chimney fires and reduces the risk of dangerous fume emissions from blocked heating appliances, flueways and chimneys." Thus, cleaning your chimney regularly helps in maintaining a safer, more efficient fireplace.

Doing it yourself…modern ways

It is possible to clean your chimney yourself although you will have to be prepared to devote probably an entire day to the task, do some hard labour, have lots of patience and most of all, have the necessary equipment. Don’t forget also that chimney sweeping can be a very messy process so be prepared to get dirty, as well as take action to protect the rest of your room – such as covering carpets with plastic or a dust sheet before beginning the cleaning.

Before grabbing the traditional brushes, have a look at two modern developments which may help to make your task easier. First of all, there is now a vacuum cleaner specifically designed for cleaning chimneys and such machines can usually be rented from DIY hardware stores. Be aware, though, that such machines are only really suitable for chimneys kept in good condition. If your chimney has been neglected for a long time or it has a large build-up of impacted soot, then this vacuum cleaner will be ineffective.

Secondly, there are now chemicals which can be used when lighting a fire so that as they burn, they produce a gas which rises up through the chimney and breaks down many of the deposits on the walls. However, even with this method, there will be cleaning involved as the loosened soot will fall down the chimney back into your fireplace, possibly crashing down at the most unexpected times!

Doing it yourself…traditional

Of course, it is possible to just tackle the job with old-fashioned chimney brushes. However, be aware that this process will require a lot of patience and will be physically very tiring

The most important thing is getting hold of the right tools – the basics include tarpaulin, wire brush, a telescopic extender and a mirror. The most important tool is probably the wire brush, which is used to scrape soot off the inner walls of the chimney. The telescopic extender then helps you reach higher up into the chimney, whilst the mirror – attached to a flexible stick – enables you to see areas high up into the chimney.

Chimneys can be cleaned in two ways – from the inside or from the outside. Most people seem to prefer the indoor method, using their tools to reach through the entire chimney from the inside. However, you can also clean the chimney from the outside – from your roof. In this case, you will need a sturdy ladder to let you access the roof.

Time to call in the professionals?

While doing things yourself can undoubtedly save you money, there are times when it may be a better idea to relinquish the job to professionals. For example, if you cannot see far enough up your chimney to confirm if there is a blockage, then it would be best to leave things to a professional chimney sweep, as the risks of overlooking an obstruction can turn into a serious safety hazard.

Don’t forget also that the DIY route means that not only will have to clean the chimney yourself but also do all the routine maintenance, which is vital in keeping the chimney effective and safe. For example, you will need to examine fire backs regularly to see if they have been damaged by the fire and cracks have begun to appear. This is something that will always occur with time. The cracks will need to be patched up if they’re still small enough – otherwise the entire fire back may need to be replaced. Again, this is a job which can be done yourself, especially with the aid of a good DIY manual, but in many cases, it may be best left to a professional.

Don’t forget that the traditional image of a chimney sweep being a soot-covered child is definitely no longer true. Modern chimney sweeps are skilled professionals with the necessary training and experience to notice and prevent problems that can lead to chimney fires or inefficient fireplaces.

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I paid for a sweep for two years running to maintain our chimney. I watched him do the work and use a smoke tablet to check the draw - always a tricky thing to prove in high summer. Since then I have swept the chimney with my own set of brushes. Primarily, it is not a combustion problem, it is removing jackdaw nests. I find the job easy and not especially dirty. I don't bother with a smoke test. Lighting a small fire in the Autumn seems enough. As I only use kindling and coal and no appliance on occasional basis it all seems a lot safer than the gas log fire that preceded it. That was installed without the benefit of a liner or approved terminal.
Synec - 14-Apr-15 @ 5:26 PM
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