Martha’s Vineyard experts give advice in chimney care

The Fire Safety Institute recommends that chimneys should be cleaned once a year and wood stoves should be cleaned for every two cords of wood burned. — File photo by Tim Johnson

‘Tis the season for gathering around the fireplace and hunkering down for the chilly months. But before you get the chestnuts roasting, don’t forget that chimney maintenance is crucial for optimum efficiency and, more importantly, for safety.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration’s website, “Heating fires are the second leading cause of all residential building fires (behind cooking fires)” and “Over one quarter of residential building heating fires result from improper maintenance of heating equipment, specifically the failure to clean the equipment.”

Chimney fires can burn explosively. They can be extremely loud and dramatic with flames or dense smoke shooting up from the top of the chimney. However, many chimney fires remain contained and burn noiselessly and invisibly. These can still reach temperatures that will not only damage the structure of the chimney but can ignite nearby combustibles causing a potentially lethal house fire.

Jack Hill, owner of Clean Sweep Chimney of Hull, has been servicing chimneys (including homes on the Vineyard) for more than 28 years. “The Fire Safety Institute recommends that chimneys should be cleaned once a year,” he says. “Wood stoves should be cleaned for every two cords of wood burned.”

He explains the cause of chimney fires as, “A build-up of creosote, which will eventually end up in an afterburn of burning wood.” He provides not only a thorough sweeping but a 21-point inspection. “You want to look for defects,” he says. Mr. Hill, who also specializes in historical restoration and masonry, notes, “You need to be aware of the structural integrity of the chimney if you’re living in a house from 1940 or earlier.

“The number one spot for a house fire is the smoke chamber, between the damper and the flue tiles,” he continues. “It goes up about three feet above your mantle.”

Mr. Hill recommends that you have the furnace flue cleaned at the same time as the chimney.

Tim Merriman of Merriman Chimney Services, an Island business, concurs, “The furnace is on all year. People don’t realize that,” he says. He, too, provides a 21-point inspection as well as a dryer vent cleaning and recommends annual cleanings.

“Soot is fuel,” he says, “If you provide a lot of fuel you’ll have a much larger fire. That’s why we clean the chimney. If you’re burning damp wood and unseasoned wood it will produce more soot.”

Mr. Merriman recommends that a homeowner always use a certified chimney sweeper. Certification needs to be renewed every few years. “I think that’s very important,” he says. “A lot of handyman do this but they leave two buckets of soot in the smoke chamber. In a fireplace it’s very important that you remove the damper and clean the smoke chamber.”

Paul “Zeke” Wilkins of Chilmark also sweeps and inspects chimneys. “I make sure that it’s free of soot and bird nests. Anything that may obstruct,” he says. “I ensure that the liners are intact and that nothing has fallen down from the mechanics of the chimney,”

Fires aren’t the only concern. “A lot of chimneys in Vineyard homes aren’t clay lined, particularly the old farm houses,” says Mr. Wilkins. “They leak carbon monoxide.”

Mr. Hill, who also does masonry and specializes in historic restorations, often installs a concrete liner in chimneys in older homes. He also recommends replacing the liner that comes with a new oil burner with a stainless steel one. “The high efficiency of these burners creates condensation within the chimney that causes disintegration from the inside out.” Stainless steel liners come with a lifetime warrantee as opposed to a three-year warrantee with the factory installed liner.

What can one do in case of a chimney fire? “It takes heat, oxygen, and fuel for a fire to burn,” says Mr. Merriman. “If you do have a fire, you should remove one of those things. Shut off all the air. That will limit the amount of oxygen.”

Mr. Wilkins suggests a chimney flare: “It operates like a road flare. It consumes the oxygen in the chimney.”

Mr. Hill recommends an extinguisher next to every fireplace and wood-burning or pellet stove. “Chimney fires are very devastating,” he says. “If you do have one let’s pray you’re able to get out of the house.”

All three men stress the importance of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.