Now that we've turned back the clocks and have officially settled into winter, homeowners are using their fireplaces more often. If you own or rent a home with a fireplace, its presence is probably one of the reasons you chose the home you did. There's nothing like a crackling fire to calm the nerves at the end of a stressful day, or welcome guests on a cold winter's evening. But fireplaces are appealing for reasons beyond just aesthetics. They heat they emit into your home can save you substantial amounts of money on your monthly heating bills. But sometimes, our fireplaces prove to be less than reliable. Your fires seem to fizzle quickly, your fireplace doesn't seem to be creating much heat, or both. So what's the problem?

Is it just your firewood, or is it a problem with the fireplace itself? The truth is that only a certified chimney sweeping professional could answer that question definitively. However, there are a number of "tests" you can run yourself to help determine the problem - and possibly solve it, as well, without having to hire a professional to take a closer look at your chimney. If none of these measures prove to be successful, and you're still unsure about the source of your ongoing chimney problem, you'll need to consult a certified chimney sweep (and make sure the company is, indeed, certified before you confirm an appointment).

Among the relatively easy "checks" you can run yourself to determine the source of the problem are:

  • Your firewood: Is it wet? Has it been lying outside in the rain and/or snow? Is the wood green and mossy? Damp firewood creates smoke, not heat; and so even if you've loaded your fireplace with logs, if they're green or wet, you're not going to produce much heat in your home.
  • Have you checked the damper to ensure that it's open? Don't laugh. Many of us forget to do just that. After all, we keep it closed during the seasons in which we don't use our fireplaces. It's very easy to forget to re-open it once the colder months arrive. Another point to remember is that if you haven't had your chimney professionally cleaned in a long time, your chimney will experience a buildup of soot which could prevent the damper from fully opening, unbeknownst to you. Water damage also can interfere with your damper's ability to open completely.
  • While we're on the subject of soot, it's important to emphasize the damage that may result from excessive soot accumulation. Buildups of soot may not only prevent you from being able to fully open the damper. Accumulating in layers, soot will actually block the free flow of air that used to travel through the flue, preventing your chimney from adequately venting. It doesn't take much soot to cause problems, either. Just ½ inch or less can produce a noticeable effect upon your chimney's ability to vent. Having your fireplace professionally cleaned at least once a year is your best defense against excessive soot buildup.
  • Is your flue large enough? How can you tell? If you've noticed an abundance of smoke creeping back into your home while your fireplace is lit, your problem could be explained by a flue that is too small for the fireplace in which it's located. Call a professional chimney company to discuss options for the partial closure of your chimney opening, possibly through a retrofit firebox.
  • Have birds or other small creatures decided to take up residence in your chimney? Homeowners will often assume that unless they hear birds chirping in their chimney that they don't need to be concerned, but birds will often leave their nests behind when they move out of your chimney. Your chimney, therefore, is clogged with leaves and twigs, and you only notice it when you either take a close look or call a professional to clean your chimney.
  • How tall is your chimney? It may not be tall enough. The Chimney Safety Institute of America states that a chimney should be a minimum of 10 to 12 feet in height to be considered adequate. A chimney that isn't tall enough will smoke.

    Although it's not all-inclusive, this list can help you determine the reason for your chimney woes. Every home is different, and individual factors such as architecture, insulation that doesn't leave room for air exiting the chimney to re-enter the home (which causes smoking and slow-burning fireplaces), or a home that's too drafty can create problems for your chimney and your home's ability to absorb heat.

    Adhering to an annual schedule with your professional chimney sweeper will help you lessen the effects that many of these anomalies (such as a short or crooked chimney) can have on your chimney. Your chimney sweeper will help you determine if the problems you're experiencing are ones than be counteracted with proper cleaning procedures - or if they're more serious problems that must be rectified immediately. And remember that regardless of whether you're experiencing problems with your chimney, it's of utmost importance that you purchase a carbon monoxide detector.

    Your chimney can pose serious carbon monoxide inhalation risks. And if you are having a problem with your fireplace, until you pinpoint the source of your problem, it's of especially great importance that you monitor carbon monoxide levels in your home.

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