Before using your fireplace this year there are a few things you should do in order to ensure it is safe to do so. We will start at the top and work our way through the fireplace system.
Step one. Check The Storm Cap and Spark Arrester. Warning, if you are afraid of heights or uncomfortable climbing a ladder this process should be performed by a professional. Check the storm cap and make sure it is not rusted or become loose. If it has become rusted or paint has peeled, now is the time to apply a fresh coat of paint. The screen material should be unobstructed and free of debris. Storm Caps And Spark Arrester's Are Recommended to Help Prevent Deterioration of the Flue Liner and Damper Door!
If you have a storm cap installed already remove it and make a visual inspection down the chimney flue only If it's safe to do so. If you're chimney rises too high above the roof line this process should be left to a professional. Assuming now that you have removed the storm cap and have a clear view down the chimney look for signs of cracks in the liner. While some small hairline cracks are considered normal. They should be monitored and evaluated yearly for signs of growth or connecting cracks that may lead to chunks of the liner falling down on to the smoke shelf or obstructing the damper door. Soot and creosote buildup inside the chimney are also maintenance items that need to be taken care of on a regular basis. Consult a professional chimney sweep if you're flue liner shows signs of buildup. The picture above is taken of a chimney flue on a home that is approximately 40 years old. This chimney flue was in good to excellent condition considering its age..
Evaluating the damper is the next step. The damper door should open and close freely with little effort. At times lubrication and exercising of the damper door is needed to ensure its functionality and to prolong its serviceable life. The damper door should not have any areas that have rusted through and should open fully. The damper door should be in the full open position when in use and fully closed when not in use. If the damper door does not open all the way, this may be an indicator of a blockage or obstruction behind the hinge point. Further evaluation by professional would be needed to determine the obstruction. The fireplace should not be used in this condition.
The firebox is the next to be evaluated. Although cracks in the firebox are common they can create a breach in the fire containment envelope and should be evaluated by a professional. The firebrick should be firmly mortared in place. Bricks should be solid and not crumbling or deteriorating. There should be no missing grout or mortar around bricks. Mortar should be set firmly in the corners as well as where it meets the floor. If you find damaged brick or missing mortar, the fireplace should not be put into use until repairs have been made.
The ash pit and ash pit door are the next to be evaluated. Some fireplaces are equipped with an ash pit, where expired charcoal and ash can be swept down into the ash pit and scooped out from an exterior location. If the ash pit door in the firebox is loose or deteriorated it should be replaced by professional. If the ash pit is not to be used it should be bricked up and not used at all. The ash pit should be cleaned based on use. The exterior clean-out door should be secured to the chimney structure. It should open and close freely. The door should not be obstructed by soil or vegetation. If the door has deteriorated or has become loose to the chimney structure consult a professional for repairs or replacement.
Inspecting the log lighter and log grate. The log lighter should be inspected annually. If there are any signs of rust, deterioration or degradation of the gas log lighter pipe it should be replaced. It's recommended that log lighter's be replaced every five years or as needed depending on use. Even with gas only fireplaces the damper door must be in the open position when in use. Log grates should not be deteriorated or distorted by heat. Log grates should be elevated a minimum of 2 to 3 inches above the firebox floor and 1 inch above log lighters. Log grates should be replaced as needed.
At David home inspection services. We understand that there is no substitute for hiring a professional inspector before putting your fireplace into service. This should not be used as a tutorial on how to inspect a fireplace or chimney. While there are many more components to a fireplace, we have provided you with a good starting point to evaluate your chimney and fireplace before putting into service this winter.
Certified Master Inspector.
David Home Inspection Services, California
David Salvato Father of Three, Blogger, Builder and Repairman of stuff my kids break! All round happy person.