We might be long past the days of chimney sweeps but fireplaces still need cleaning, whether they are a traditional wood burning fireplace or a more modern gas fireplace. Many people might shrink at the thought of having to clean out a fireplace themselves and might think that they would need to employ the skills of a specialist fireplace cleaning service but in fact, with a bit of knowledge and the right tools, fireplace cleaning is not as challenging or as time-consuming as you may think.
When and How Often?
The best time to clean fireplaces is during a period when you will not be expecting to use it for a while, such as during the warm summer months. Ideally, in fact, you should probably tackle the cleaning job as soon as you’ve stopped using the fireplace regularly – for example, with the arrival of warm spring weather – rather than leave several months’ worth of soot, ash and smoke build-up to sit and stain the fireplace over the summer and then rush to clean things just with the onset of cold weather in autumn. Sadly, many fireplaces are neglected for years, which can leave you and your family at great risk of chimney and flue fires. The general rule of thumb is that if you use your fireplace at least 4 times a year, then you should clean it at least once a year.
Before You Start
Make sure that the fireplace and any ashes in it have completely cooled. Always put on protective clothing, eyewear and a dust or respirator mask before you begin cleaning the fireplace. You may also want spread a large tarpaulin or some newspapers in front of the fireplaces, especially if you have rugs or carpeting near the fireplace.
Cleaning the Chimney
If you are planning to have the chimney cleaned as well – whether by a professional cleaning service or by yourself – you should do this before cleaning the rest of the fireplace, so that you do not spoil all your good work. If you decide to tackle the chimney yourself, there are chimney brushes and other tools which you can rent or buy – you will need to have the complete set of chimney rods and brushes, as well as a ladder, in order to clean a chimney properly. You will also need to climb onto the roof and remove the chimney cap, in order to brush the inside of the chimney using the appropriate brush and short, forceful, plunging motions. Make sure you have the damper open beforehand and all the soot, creosote and other debris will fall into the fireplace hearth, ready for you to clean up. However, because this is a slightly more complex and dangerous task, you may wish to leave it to the expertise of an experienced professional cleaning service.
Cleaning the Fireplace
First, use a short chimney brush to clean out the flue using short, strong strokes and then a stiff bristled brush to scrub the outside of the damper, to remove any soot and creosote build-up. (Creosote is a residue, usually brown or black, which sticks to the inner surfaces of the chimney flue. It is extremely combustible and should be treated with care.) Next, shovel, vacuum or sweep away any ashes and debris in the hearth and make sure that you dispose of them safely. Take out the fire grate or andirons and scrape the sort and grime off using a wire brush. It is probably best to do this outdoors if possible. You can then polish them with a special solution if you wish.
When it comes to the actual firebox, there is now a wide range of cleaning substances – from specialised commercial fireplace cleaning products to using simple washing soda or vinegar, with warm water. Whichever you choose, allow the cleaning solution to soak into the firebox and then use a stiff-bristled brush (not a wire brush) to clean the inside of the firebox. If you are simply using warm water and vinegar or washing sofa, you may need to scrub the solution into the firebox inner surfaces before leaving it to soak. You may also need to scrub again with further generous applications of the cleaning solutions.
Finally rinse everything with warm water and let the surfaces air dry. Vacuum or sweep thoroughly around the fireplace to remove all traces of soot and other flammable material. Once dry, don’t forget to close the damper otherwise the fireplace will “suck” air out of your home.
Gas and Electric Fireplaces
The great advantage of gas and electric fireplaces over traditional wood burning fireplaces is that they require much less cleaning and maintenance (as well as providing instant heat without the need to chop logs or build a fire). Electric fireplaces actually require no special cleaning at all since there is no residue from burning; gas fireplaces produce primarily water vapour, carbon dioxide and some carbon monoxide if the combustion is not efficient enough. However, these also leave minimal residue. It is a good idea, though, to have a professional service a gas fireplace ever few years.