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How To Maintain Your Chimney

a chimney cap
Add a chimney cap to keep animals, especially birds, from moving into your chimney; to keep rain out; and to increase the chimney’s draft, particularly in areas with frequent wind.
things to check in the chimney
 

CHIMNEY CHECK

If you're planning to hook a wood stove to your existing masonry chimney, have an experienced professional determine that it is sound and complies with any applicable codes, as well as recommendations by the stove's manufacturer. Chimneys can contain cracks, creosote, and old birds' nests that could be potential fire hazards.

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Though your chimney seems solid as a rock or as strong as steel, weather and use will take a toll, so it's important to watch for signs of wear and repair them quickly.

And no matter what kind of chimney you have — masonry or metal (also called a stovepipe chimney) — it must be cleaned regularly to work efficiently and remain safe.

Whether your chimney is brick, cement block, or stone, water is not kind to it. Masonry absorbs water that may, especially when it freezes and expands, cause deterioration.

This doesn't seem to be an issue with all masonry chimneys, but if you see evidence of damage, such as cracks, erosion, pockmarks, and moss, seal the chimney's exposed exterior with a one-way moisture barrier. The one-way protection allows the chimney to expel condensation.

You can also opt to seal the chimney in advance of damage. You'll almost certainly save money in masonry repair down the road.

Metal, or stovepipe, chimneys are less prone to water damage than are masonry chimneys, but they're not immune to it. Rust is an obvious warning sign, particularly if it presents as small spots or pits on an insulated metal chimney's exterior.

This could indicate that the insulation is saturated and no longer effective. It's a good idea to periodically check brackets, support systems, and caps to make certain that they are sound and tight.

With both masonry and metal chimneys, verifying the integrity of the liner — the interior of the chimney — is extremely important, and probably best done by a professional chimney sweep.

This is most conveniently done as part of routine chimney sweeping, but should be done immediately after a jarring event, such as a chimney fire or earthquake, either of which can damage any chimney.

Cleaning a chimney consists of removing creosote deposits from the interior of the chimney itself, and from the stovepipe.

Creosote, a by-product of incomplete combustion, is highly flammable and can burn at temperatures in excess of 3,000 degrees F.

You might be able to clean your own chimney, but I generally recommend hiring a pro, and not just because I am one. Experienced chimney sweeps can spot potential problems most people might miss.

How often will your chimney need cleaning? There is only one safe answer: Whenever it needs it. That is, when there is one-fourth of an inch of soot in any part of the system — less, if the soot is black and shiny like enamel.

Over time, you or your chimney sweep should be able to figure out how often your chimney will need service, but bear in mind that it's unsafe to assume that what was true last year will be true this year; different wood and different weather can lead to different results.

As a point of reference, not a rule, a woodstove chimney used regularly all winter will need at least one cleaning a year, and very possibly two or three.

Story by Dirk Thomas — a professional chimney sweep and author of the books The Harrowsmith Country Life Guide to Wood Heat and The Woodburner's Companion.

Illustrations by Tom Milner

SAFETY FIRST FROM UNITED STATES STOVE COMPANY

Get Grounded

Lightning protection should be provided for any type chimney, either masonry or factory-built metal chimneys.

Although masonry chimneys are built from the ground up, and some people assume that the chimney is grounded, it is in fact not, as the masonry construction is itself non-conducting.

Metal chimneys are very good electrical conductors and are capable of carrying the tremendous electrical current in a lightning strike without being damaged or without presenting a hazard to the surrounding structure.

They must, however, be grounded, at some point in the lightning path or the current will jump from the chimney or stove to the building structure.

Follow your local building code for lightning protection. For temporary protection, heavy copper (1/2-inch diameter solid, AWG 2-gauge stranded, or 1Ú3-inch diameter solid) or stranded aluminum should be wrapped at least twice around the metal chimney at a location one foot above the roof line and extended to ground of good integrity.

— Excerpted from United States Stoves' booklet, Before You Buy Hold It! Wait!