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Tips on Chimney Safety & Care

Chimney fires and clogged flues can take their toll in lives and property damage, but the Montgomery County Division of Consumer Affairs (DCA) advises consumers that these tragedies can be prevented by regular chimney inspections and cleanings.

Here are a few simple steps to take to ensure the safe and efficient operation of a home’s fireplace:

* Contact a Professional for an Inspection. Contact a licensed/certified chimney sweep to have the chimney inspected. Signs of a dangerous chimney include cracks in masonry, poor updraft, broken flue sections and creosote accumulation. Cracks can lead to chimney fires and further chimney damage. Clogged flues and poor updraft can increase the threat of carbon monoxide buildup in the home. Annual inspections are recommended, particularly for older chimneys.

* Use a Licensed Chimney Sweep. Check to see if the chimney sweep is licensed. In Maryland, chimney sweeps who perform repairs are required to be licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission (MHIC). Sweeps are not required in Maryland to have a home improvement license if they only perform cleaning services, but it makes sense to use a licensed professional for cleaning, as well as for repairs. Ask neighbors for referrals to chimney sweeping services. Check the company’s complaint record. Check DCA’s complaint records on their Web site hca.emontgomery.org/consumer or by calling 240-777-3636. Check the Better Business Bureau’s records on their Web site www.dc.bbb.org or by calling 202-393-8000. Call the MHIC at 1-410-230-6309 or go online to www.dllr.state.md.us/ to check for licensing information. Also, ask the company for references, and find out how long it has been in business as well as how many years of experience the technician has.

* Regular Chimney Maintenance. Have the chimney cleaned on a regular schedule. This will vary from several times a year to once every several years, depending on how often the fireplace is used and what kind of wood is burned. Fireplaces used three times a week during the heating season will probably need to be cleaned at least once a year. Schedule an annual inspection, and the chimney sweep can advise on whether the chimney needs to be cleaned.

* You Get What You Pay For. Don’t make choices based on price alone. Some companies may offer a low price but will only perform a cursory sweep of the chimney and no inspection, leaving homeowners to clean up the dirt and with possible dangerous cracks that have not been discovered. Ask for specific details of the cleaning and inspection. Find out if the company is going to seal off the fireplace so that dirt and soot stay out of the home; if the technician will also inspect the furnace flue; and if the technician is going to vacuum the smoke shelf, the damper and the firebox. Make sure the company provides a written report, stating what was done and detailing any repairs needed.

* Proper Wood. Burn only dry, seasoned hardwood in the fireplace. This will cut down on creosote buildup so that less frequent chimney cleaning is required.

* Chimney Caps. Consider installing a chimney cap. Caps can help prevent water damage and will keep animals out of the flue. Caps also reduce the danger of flying sparks.

* Don't Forget the Draft. Check the draft before lighting a fire, and make sure the damper is open. Don’t start a fire while an exhaust fan is running, as this can create a downdraft.

* Watch Those Fires. Never leave a fire unattended. Always remove ashes to a metal container and put them outside.

* Chimney Fires. If you have a chimney fire, don’t close the damper. If you close it, the house may fill with smoke. Call the fire department and get everyone out of the house.

For more fire safety tips check with the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service at 240-777-2448 or visit www.mcfrs.org.