With fall here it's a good time to get a jump on maintaining a feature of your home you're sure to put to use this winter -- your fireplace.

You may think your chimney only needs to be cleaned and inspected if you use your fireplace. However, almost all home heating appliances rely on the chimney to safely carry toxic gases produced by the heating system out of the house.

More than 5,500 home fires per year originate in the fireplace, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. And the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that carbon monoxide poisoning claims more than 1,500 lives a year and causes about 10,000 injuries.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas associated with home heating systems. When the furnace doesn't get enough oxygen, carbon monoxide is produced.

The side effects from low-level exposure to carbon monoxide can include permanent organ and brain damage. Because the symptoms of low-level exposure are so easily mistaken for those of the common cold, flu or exhaustion, diagnosis is often delayed.

Because newer homes are more air-tight (due to energy conserving measures), there is less air coming in and not as many pathways for it to leave. When carbon monoxide is produced, it tends to stay trapped in the home.

As if that's not enough, damaged or deteriorating flue liners, soot build-up, debris clogging the passageway, and animal or bird nests all obstruct chimney flues, which can lead to carbon monoxide production.

While the federal government doesn't yet have regulations mandating regularly scheduled chimney inspections and cleaning, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Fire Protection Association and the American Lung Association all recommend regular maintenance of home heating systems and chimneys.

Therefore, a good chimney sweep should be a regular member of your home safety team.

The role of a chimney sweep is to install, clean and maintain your systems, evaluate performance, offer suggestions to improve performance, and educate you about safe and efficient operation. Oh yes, and sweep the chimney.

If you don't yet have one, here's what to look for:

1. Make sure the sweep is certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America Certified Chimney Sweep Program where he or she must demonstrate knowledge about the evaluation and maintenance of chimney and venting systems.

CSIA certified sweeps stay on top of current developments and new technologies in their trade. They adhere to National Fire Protection Association standards as well as the specifics of state and local codes covering your geographic area.

In addition, they're tested every three years, display a dated, photo-ID badge and sign a code of ethics.

2. Make sure the company or individual carries a valid business liability insurance policy to protect your home and furnishings against accidents.

3. Get at least a Level I inspection. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are three levels of inspection.

A Level I Inspection includes only readily accessible areas (can be reached without the use of tools or a ladder) of the chimney structure, with additional requirements to insure the flue is clear.

A Level II Inspection includes accessible areas (areas that can be reached without destruction to the building or finish) of the chimney structure and appliance installation.

A Level III Inspection includes Level I and a Level II, as well as an examination of non-accessible areas of the chimney structure that are reasonably suspected of containing hazards.

In addition to an annual inspection, basic fireplace safety tips include:

  • Use seasoned wood only (make sure it's dry).
  • Build smaller, hotter fires that bum more completely.
  • Never burn cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, trash or Christmas trees.
  • Clear the area around the hearth of flammable materials.
  • Always use a metal mesh screen with fireplaces and leave glass doors open while burning a fire.
  • Never use flammable liquids to start a fire.
  • When building a fire, place logs at the rear of the fireplace on an adequate supporting grate.
  • Never leave a fire in the fireplace unattended ¾ extinguish the fire before going to bed or leaving the house.
  • Cover the chimney with a mesh screen spark arrester.
  • Remove branches hanging above the chimney, flues or vents.
  • Install smoke alarms in your home and be sure to test them monthly and change the batteries at least once a year.
  • Get at least two carbon monoxide detectors and place one near the furnace and one near the sleeping area of the home.

    Practicing fire safety in general is important, but the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning makes it crucial to get your fireplace inspected every year. Do it now and your fireplace will be ready for you and your family to enjoy this winter.

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