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Clean Sweep | Fall 2011 Out Here Magazine

Chimney Inspector Gene Kaposy can insert a specially made camera into a chimney to get a better, more thorough look at its condition.

Chimney inspections protect your family from fires and carbon monoxide

By T.L. Dew
Photography by Brian Bruzewski

As the days grow shorter and the nights turn cooler, cozy fireplaces and heat stoves become appealing. But before lighting that first fire of the season, make sure your chimney is safely usable.

Regardless of whether you have an open fireplace or a heat stove, chimneys should be inspected and cleaned annually to reduce the danger of fires and carbon monoxide poisoning.

"Sooty, dirty chimneys won't draw properly," explains certified inspector Gene Kaposy, owner of Chim-Chimney, Inc. in Hermitage, Tenn.

An inspection will reveal obstructions, such as a buildup of creosote — a combustible deposit left by wood smoke — or cracked flue tiles.

In older homes, mortar might be missing on the chimney, exposing wood or other elements of your home to sparks and cinders flying up through the chimney. Even if your house is newly built, it's wise to have an inspection to ensure that your chimney and lining were properly installed, Kaposy says.

"Sometimes, we see improper construction," he says, "or maybe the house has settled and it's caused a crack in the lining systems."

An average of 25,100 chimney fires are responsible for 30 deaths and $126.1 million in property damage each year, according to the most recent statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. And two-thirds of those fires occurred because of "failure to clean," says the National Fire Protection Association.

New technology allows for more effective inspections and, therefore, safer chimneys. Telescopic mirrors traditionally have been used to look inside a chimney, but inspectors now can insert a camera up into the chimney from inside the house for a thorough look at what's in there. Kaposy encourages homeowners to watch the video with him so they can see exactly what he's seeing inside their chimney.

Sweeps also inspect the roof from atop the home's roof, where they examine the chimney's cap and exterior.

Technology may produce a more detailed inspection, but cleaning still requires a sturdy brush and elbow grease.

"We always use some type of brush to actually sweep the flue," Kaposy says. Depending upon the job, he may use a wire brush or a spin brush to clean the flue.

Most inspection and cleaning jobs take about an hour and 15 minutes, depending upon the chimney's condition.

Take precautions for safe fires, Kaposy says. "Keep an eye on what's going on. Check your chimney," he says. "Most people can see if they have creosote building up in the flue."

Burn seasoned wood, he advises. "Green wood is terrible to burn in a chimney," he says. That's because it has a high moisture content, which promotes creosote buildup.

Get your chimney inspected and cleaned by someone who, like him, is certified. Expect to pay at least $150 for a certified sweep; that amount may increase, depending on the amount and type of work involved.

And if someone offers to clean your chimney for much less, Kaposy says, it would be wise to check their credentials.

T.L. Dew is a Tennessee writer.