Learning about chimney maintenance

Updated November 24, 2023

On a cold winter’s night, there’s nothing quite like relaxing in front of a warm, crackling fire.

A fireplace is an enjoyable feature to have in your home, but it’s also important to properly maintain your chimney. Read on to learn more about chimney maintenance and safety, and how your chimney impacts your home insurance.

Thumbnail showing a a rustic, smoking chimney amongst a setting of evergreen trees

Why you need to clean the chimney

Burning logs leave traces of soot and tar, which cause the formation of creosote. The smoke from your chimney fire cools as it rises and condenses with water and other chemicals in the interior of the chimney and flue. This resulting residue is called creosote, and it hardens over time.

The buildup of creosote not only reduces airflow in your chimney, but also presents a number of health risks. Creosote can cause skin irritation, such as rashes, eye irritation or sensitivity to light, and, when inhaled, respiratory issues. Creosote is also carcinogenic, so long-term exposure is a risk.

More importantly, creosote is a fire hazard.

The National Fire Code of Canada states that a buildup of more than 3 millimetres of creosote or soot particles on the walls of a chimney represents a potential fire hazard. Chimney fires are dangerous because the masonry and flue linings of your chimney are not designed to withstand their intense heat. In addition to damaging the chimney lining, a chimney fire can reach wood beams and other flammable structures in your house.

When and how often to clean the chimney

Your chimney should be swept at least once a year. The best time to do so is in the spring when the creosote deposits have not yet hardened and are easier to remove. However, the majority of homeowners wait until the fall to have their chimney swept.

While you can do the job yourself, it’s usually better to hire a professional to ensure thoroughness of the undertaking. In Quebec, the many components of the venting system require inspection and cleaning by a contractor holding a licence issued by the Régie du bâtiment du Québec.

A professional chimney sweep provides the following services:

  • Thorough brushing of the chimney and removal of any obstructions (like bird or squirrel nests)
  • Inspection of the entire heating system
  • Cleaning and adjustment of each of the components
  • Inspection of the clearance around the unit
  • Reporting of breakage or damages (like cracks, perforations, or water infiltration)

12 tips for proper fireplace usage

To enjoy your fireplace safely and efficiently, follow the tips below:

  1. Make sure that the room where the fireplace is located is well ventilated.
  2. Open the key or flap to the maximum to adjust the fresh air supply.
  3. Never use a liquid or gel fire starter to fuel the fire.
  4. Bring in only a few loads of wood at a time and place them away from the fireplace and chimney.
  5. Store cords of wood outside, away from the house.
  6. Use quality dry wood, as green or resinous wood increases creosote formation.
  7. Use small logs, as they will burn cleaner and form less creosote.
  8. When starting the fire, place the kindling with two to three dry logs.
  9. Ignite the fire with a lighter, ideally a long BBQ lighter, to reduce the risk of burns.
  10. Add logs as the fire diminishes.
  11. Allow enough air to enter the firebox so that the flames are bright, producing complete combustion and less smoke.
  12. Do not store flammable materials such as paper, chemicals, paint, etc. close to the fireplace.

Home insurance considerations

If you have a fireplace, you will likely pay a higher premium because of the increased risk of a fire-related loss. Factors affecting the premium include the insurer, the type of fireplace, the condition of the chimney, and whether the fireplace is the main source of heat for the home. In some cases, the insurer may decide to not issue insurance if the home presents a high risk of fire.

It is important you declare you have a fireplace in your home if you’re asked during the application process. Failure to do so would result in a void policy and the denial of any claims related to chimney damage.

Generally, homeowners insurance will cover chimney repairs if the damage was caused by an insured peril. However, chimney damage that occurs over time as the result of neglect or the lack of maintenance would not be covered by your policy. For example, if you did not regularly have your chimney swept and a fire was caused by the accumulation of creosote, the resulting damages to your home would generally not be covered.

Commonly asked questions

Instead of hiring a chimney sweep, can’t I just use chimney cleaning logs?

Chimney sweep logs or similar products are not a viable alternative to a thorough cleaning. Unlike a qualified contractor, these products do not detect structural issues, corrosion, or the presence of creosote. While they may remove some creosote, they’ll never remove it all.

How do I dispose of the ashes from the fireplace?

Hot ashes can cause fires and lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, so proper disposal is crucial:

  • Empty the ashes from the fireplace regularly using a metal shovel. Never use a vacuum cleaner.
  • Place the ashes in a metal container with a raised bottom and a metal lid.
  • Place the container outside on a non-combustible surface at least a metre away from other objects.
  • After a week, transfer the ashes to another container, such as a garbage can. Stir the ashes to make sure they are cool. You can also leave the ashes outside during the winter and dispose of them in the spring.

What kind of wood is best for my chimney?

The best types of wood fuel for your chimney are hardwoods, such as ash, birch, cherry, maple, and oak. These woods ignite quickly, have a high heat output, and produce little smoke. Avoid using softwoods, such as cedar, eucalyptus, pine, poplar, and willow. These woods are difficult to ignite and produce a lot of smoke and creosote.

Want to learn more? Visit our Homeowner resource centre for more articles created specifically to help you navigate homeownership. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.


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