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When Should a Fireplace (& Chimney) Be Cleaned?

We occasionally leave our ashes build up slightly on the bottom of our wood fireplace (I know, it’s bad). One day we were curious about when (and how often) a fireplace and chimney should be cleaned out, but we couldn’t find a good answer. So, we did more research. Here’s what we found.

Fireplaces ashes should be swept out after each use, while the fireplace itself should be cleaned once a year. The chimney and other vents should also be cleaned annually, or when there’s a 1/8 inch buildup of creosote. Before sweeping the ashes, make sure the coals are completely cool and use an ash-safe container.

While it’s not too realistic to clean out fireplace ashes each time, what’s the reasoning behind this, and what else should we know about when to clean fireplaces? Let’s take a closer look.

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cleaning ash from a wood fireplace with a shovel

When To Clean A Wood Fireplace

Ideally, a fireplace should be cleaned after each use. Even though it’s not too practical, it does help the fireplace have a cleaner burn and reduces the risk of ashes and coals falling out of the fireplace.

Also, make sure the coals have cooled completely before removing them. If the coals are still hot it increases the risk of damage. Using a coal-safe container (such as a metal bucket shown below) is a good way to prevent any potential issues.

fireplace ash in a metal bucket

The flue and chimney must be cleaned on a regular schedule too, which we’ll cover later.

Pro-Tip: If you have a wood-burning stove, it’s a good practice to keep a 1-inch layer of ash on the bottom to insulate the fire from the metal.

Removing ashes after each use will allow for a cleaner burn and will reduce the likelihood of spreading ashes around your home which is never a fun chore to clean up.

Here are some other indicators that may suggest your fireplace is due for a cleaning: 

  1. Fire burns strangely: if there is a significant amount of ash and creosote in the fireplace, this will displace and disrupt the oxygen flow to the fire.
  2. Excessive smoke: if your fire is smoldering and puffing smoke back into your home, instead of up the chimney, it is due for a cleaning.
  3. Odor: if the inside of your house smells like a campfire, it means there are residual ashes that have been left behind over multiple uses. We all love that campfire smell in the great outdoors, but not so much inside our homes. 
  4. Oily marks on the inside of the fireplace: this is indicative of creosote build-up and also indicative that it is time to clean the fireplace and chimney. 
  5. Animals: Have a family of birds or squirrels made a home in your chimney? That means it’s time for a cleaning.

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When To Clean A Chimney

cleaning a chimney from the roof

While some factors such as animals nesting in the chimney cap merit a cleaning, the main contributor is creosote buildup.

There are two schools of thought on when to clean a chimney for creosote.

The Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) recommends cleaning your chimney if there is 1/8 inch of creosote built up on the inside of the chimney lining.

Alternatively, the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), recommends chimneys (along with fireplaces and vents) must be cleaned at least once a year.

I prefer the rule of cleaning once a year as it’s easy to remember, but I get that the 1/8 buildup is more accurate, especially for those who use their fireplaces more often.

Also, there are three stages of creosote build-up:

  1. Appears as crusty, black flakes. At this stage, it’s easy to remove with a quality chimney brush and a professional chimney sweeper.
  2. Somewhat flakey, but is attached to the lining of the chimney. There may also be some stickiness or tar-like features along with the flakiness. This is more difficult to remove and is typically done with a rotary brush. 
  3. Firmly attached to the lining and is a sticky, tar-like substance. This stage is the most difficult to remove and the most likely to catch fire as acts as fuel for a potential chimney fire.

Creosote builds at different rates and is highly dependent on the type of wood you burn, how long you burn, whether the wood is seasoned, and the quality of your chimney’s installation.

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Fireplace and Chimney Cleaning Tips

cleaning out a fireplace with a vacuum

Although it’s best to hire a professional chimney sweeper to do the main cleaning, there are some steps you can take to clean your fireplace in between your annual inspection and cleaning.

  • Use a vacuum specific for ash and coals. A regular vacuum will not work, and you’ll likely break a regular vacuum quickly after collecting ash. An ash vacuum that is specific for chimneys has special filters that can handle the fine ash particulates.
  • Wait 24 hours after using a fireplace, before cleaning the fireplace or chimney
  • Wear safety goggles and a mask as necessary.
  • Check for animal nests if you haven’t cleaned the chimney a while. Birds and squirrels love making homes inside chimney caps, and these blockages can fill your house with smoke or create a hazard.

A sign that a chimney fire is starting is if you hear a loud rushing sound, almost like a train, going through your chimney.

These types of fires can be highly difficult to put out because they’re fueled by creosote build-up. To ignite the creosote, there must be sufficient build-up and the fire must reach a certain temperature.

For example, according to the CSIA, creosote ignites as low as 451ºF, and chimney fires can get up to 2000ºF. 

Remember, the best time of year to clean your chimney is in the mid to late summer months. This allows you time to make any repairs if damage is discovered during an inspection. Avoid cleaning and making repairs close to winter, especially if you depend on your fireplace.

Do Gas and Electric Fireplaces Need To Be Cleaned?

a gas fireplace with a pilot light

In this section, I’m referring to gas-burning fireplaces (with fake logs and all) and not gas-starters.

It’s recommended to have gas and electric fireplaces inspected and cleaned at least once a year. According to the CSIA, even though no creosote is created, the substances that are left behind can creep into the mortar and other structural components.

Overall, while gas and electric fireplaces create much less of a mess than wood fireplaces, they still generate some waste. The exhaust for gas and electric fireplaces builds up residue in the lining that can damage the chimney or vents. This residue also can affect and surround components.

Blocked components can cause issues, most notably with proper ventilation. For this reason, make sure to have a carbon monoxide detector in your house so you can be alerted if there is a build-up of gas inside.

Gas and electric fireplaces are a bit more complex than your traditional wood-burning fireplace. With the additional components, circuitry, and complexity, it’s best to have a certified professional take a look and perform the inspection, maintenance, and cleaning.

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