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Winter Is Around the Corner - How do I Know if My Chimney is Bad?

Updated on November 16, 2016

Even in southern California, the crisp temperatures of winter make homeowners look forward to a crackling blaze in the fireplace to drive away the chill. Before you light a match, though, you must thoroughly check your chimney for damage, especially if your fireplace does not see regular use. Cracks and gaps in the masonry of your chimney don’t just allow heat to escape and impair the efficiency of your fireplace, they can also allow poisonous gases into your home and even result in a chimney fire.

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Most chimney damage is caused by moisture infiltrating the bricks or, on older chimneys, the tiles lining the flue. The first thing you will want to check is that your chimney has a chimney cap—typically a metal structure with a solid top to keep rain out and mesh sides to allow smoke to exit while keeping wildlife out—and that it is in good condition. If it is missing or damaged, you’ll want to replace it immediately.

Second, take a look for visible damage to the bricks of your chimney. Look to see that the mortar between the bricks is solid, not cracked or missing in spots. Take a look at the bricks themselves, too. If the face has popped off some of the bricks (damage known as spalling) or there is white staining on them, then you’ll know that moisture has gotten into them. The staining (called efflorescence) is what’s left behind when the water evaporates, drawing salts out from the interior of the bricks. You’ll also want to take a look at the crown of the chimney, if you’re comfortable going up on your roof. This concrete cap, which covers the porous tops of the chimney bricks, should not be cracked either.

Inside, you should also take a look inside your firebox. This is another spot to look for cracked or missing mortar and efflorescence. Rust in the damper or firebox is also a sign that water is entering your chimney. In addition, if you see bits of flue tiles that have fallen from inside the chimney, this is a sign that your flue tiles are damaged. This is primarily a concern for older homes, as more recently built homes likely have a stainless steel chimney liner rather than tiles.

Whether or not you see obvious signs of damage, it is a good idea to have your chimney cleaned and inspected annually, especially if you use your fireplace regularly. A chimney sweep can verify the condition of your chimney liner, make sure your flue is free of debris from birds’ nests or other critter invasions, and remove the buildup of flammable creosote that can cause a chimney fire. Professionals advise that you get your chimney cleaned before you want to build a fire to remove any potential danger before an accident happens.

Keeping your chimney in top condition is the best way to enjoy your fireplace safely. Your peace of mind is worth it.

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