Many of us who live in the Pacific Northwest are the proud owners of a home with a fireplace and a chimney. Often times, the fireplace is a nice spot for the entire family to get together and share quality time. Therefore, it is a good idea to keep your chimney tidy and well-maintained so you are prepared for those cold nights that will inevitably arrive.
Sometimes we think of chimney maintenance as a trivial, cumbersome and low-priority task. However, using our chimneys on a regular basis creates residues that need to be regularly cleaned for optimal functioning of our fireplaces but also for the health of our families. There are two different types of residues that are formed from the regular use of our fireplaces: creosote and soot.
What Is Creosote?
Creosote is a tarry remnant that sticks to surfaces as they get cooler. It condenses from coal or wood particles, hydrocarbons and other debris in the air. As the substances cool, they form flammable deposits. Creosote can appear shiny and gooey and yet, is a hard substance in some cases. Other times, it will appear in dry, flaky layers. Creosote coalesces when the gases within the chimney cool.
On the other hand, when the air in the chimney is hot and flowing properly, most of the particles will be carried out of the home, reducing the amount of creosote that is formed. This is where regular maintenance can really help. It allows the particles to escape instead of settling due to restricted air flow.
What Causes Chimney Soot?
Chimney soot is another staining culprit that is slightly different. When we think of soot, we think of a softer, powdery residue showing a dark color. Soot is created by carbon particles from wood or coal that did not burn completely, usually in a small area. When the wood or charcoal is consumed by the fire, there are particle byproducts in the column of the chimney that stick to the surfaces. Chimney soot is also sometimes referred to as carbon black or lamp black. It forms when the temperature is 284 degrees or lower.
If your chimney is regularly maintained, soot becomes much less of a problem and can be brushed off easily. However, if it builds up in layers it could potentially block 30 percent of the airflow of your chimney. This is important because the blockage will cause excess smoke to come back into your home and that can affect the health of everyone living there.
So, it turns out that there are more important reasons than general tidiness to keep our chimneys looking good. Soot, due to its dark color and ability to adhere to surfaces around the house, tends to stain or darken these surfaces. It also stains ceilings, ventilations, walls and floors.
Creosote, on the other hand, is more likely to affect pipes and the flue of the chimney by clinging as a sticky residue. Because it blocks airflow it can create unnecessary problems such as:
- Respiratory issues. Prolonged inhalation of creosote particles is not good for the lungs.
- Eyes. The particles can irritate the eyes and cause a burning sensation.
- Skin. Rashes can form if the particles build up on your skin.
- Abdominal problems. Creosote can even get inside your body and irritate the liver and the kidneys.
- Cancer. Long-term exposure to creosote may have the potential to cause skin cancer.
Similarly, chimney soot has the potential to cause lung and respiratory problems, particularly when it builds up. In addition to health concerns here are some other reasons to keep our chimneys clean and unblocked:
- Stains on the carpets and floors. These can accumulate because of soot that comes into the house instead of through the chimney due to decreased airflow. This is extra cleaning work that could be easily avoided.
- Extra smoke coming into the house. This is a common byproduct of a partially blocked chimney.
- Chimney fires may be caused by creosote buildup in the chimney. Remember those flaky layers of buildup that we talked about? They are flammable! Regular inspections can greatly reduce the risk of chimney fires.
- Health concerns from carbon byproducts. You don’t want to inhale an unnecessary amount of soot and creosote particles! Keep your lungs free from these potentially harmful particles by avoiding unnecessary buildup in the chimney. Disease and infections are possible if the particle count in your home is too high. This is just one more great reason to have regular chimney cleanings and inspections.
There is also another common chimney problem that you may have forgotten about, and it’s alive!
Birds, called chimney swifts, sometimes decide to use our cozy residences to make a home for themselves. When they settle into our chimneys, they leave droppings that sometimes cause histoplasmosis, which is a respiratory problem caused by a fungus. This can cause flu-like symptoms that may be described by the following:
- Chest pain. This is a symptom that could be caused by numerous factors but it worth noting, here.
- Fever or chills. These may be caused by a significant accumulation of histplasma capsulatum in the chimney.
- Unhealthy weight loss.
- Chronic Cough. As you can see, respiratory issues are a common problem from three different chimney problems that have been mentioned. Help ensure the health of your lungs with regular chimney maintenance.
There are many reasons to get your chimney cleaned and inspected regularly. For many of us here in the Pacific Northwest, the fireplace feels like the heart of the home. We want our chimneys to function properly and have excellent airflow to keep potentially harmful particles out of the home. This will help protect the health of our entire family and will also make spending time in front of the fireplace more enjoyable and smoke-free.
It is easier to maintain the excellent functioning of our chimneys than to try to fix problems that arise all at once after years of neglect. It is easy to prevent the buildup of creosote and soot with sustained and regular attention to our homes.
Featured photo source, labeled for reuse.