Chimney Health Check: Identifying and Preventing Creosote

Creosote in Your Chimney

As days grow shorter and winter’s chill penetrates the air, many homeowners look forward to cozy evenings curled up beside the fireplace. Wood heat can make your home feel warmer during winter and significantly decrease your winter heating bills. Yet, if not properly maintained, your chimney can represent danger for you and your family.

Chimney fires are the cause of more than 20,000 house fires each year. While homeowners typically take steps to prepare their fireplace to hold a fire safely, the chimney is often an afterthought. If your chimney isn’t properly maintained, it most likely harbors dangerous creosote buildup that can lead to a devastating house fire. Learning to identify and prevent creosote can substantially reduce the likelihood of a chimney fire.

What is Creosote?

Creosote is a residue that builds up in your fireplace and chimney from the incomplete burning of the natural oils in the wood. The residue begins as a loose, flaky deposit that turns into a tar-like, highly flammable substance. Creosote is a natural byproduct of burning wood in an enclosed space. Buildup increases due to burning unseasoned wood, reduced airflow to your fire, and when chimney temperatures are cooler than usual. 

Definition and Formation

Your flue and chimney are designed to carry excess heat and smoke from your home safely. However, since the smoke is directed through such a small channel, airflow is constrained, which can lead to incomplete combustion. 

As the smoke from your fire rises, it cools and condenses. This condensation, along with the particles and gases in smoke, forms a tar-like residue that can be difficult to remove. 

Furthermore, as creosote hardens over time, it further reduces airflow to your fire, leading to more airflow restriction and additional buildup.

Creosote in Your Chimney

Types of Creosote

Due to temperature changes, burning conditions, and residue buildup, creosote changes over time. There are three main creosote types, each representing a different level of danger and difficulty to remove. 

First Degree Creosote

When the fire’s heat warms the flue, first-degree creosote has a high soot content and may be called normal creosote buildup. It’s a flaky material that can be easily removed with a quality chimney brush. 

Second Degree Creosote

Second-degree creosote is typically caused by reduced airflow, which contains hardened tar and looks like shiny black flakes. Unlike the ashy deposits of first-degree creosote, this substance is more difficult to remove and must be scraped away.

Third Degree Creosote

When residue buildup is significant, third-degree creosote is the most dangerous and challenging to remove. It looks more like tar coating the inside of the chimney. When third-degree creosote partially burns, it forms a spongy material that can block your chimney’s airflow.

Why Is Creosote Dangerous?

Creosote is a highly flammable material composed of gases and partially burned particles. Since it’s not visible inside the chimney, it often goes unnoticed. However, it carries substantial dangers.

Fire Hazard

All stages of creosote have the potential to be flammable. When your chimney is cool, second and third-degree creosote is like hardened tar lining your chimney. As the chimney heats up, the substance partially melts. Embers, sparks, and even high temperatures have the potential to ignite the residue buildup and deposits in the chimney. 

While your chimney is made of bricks and designed to carry heat, it’s not designed to hold fire. A chimney fire fueled by creosote can get hot enough to crack masonry and flue linings. This enables the flames to reach the wooden structural elements of your home and start a house fire. 

Health Risks

When creosote builds up in your chimney, it blocks smoke from efficiently exiting your home. As a result, more smoke lingers in the air inside your house. Creosote also contains toxic chemicals, including carcinogens. The chemicals from creosote get into the air you breathe and can cause skin and eye irritation and even damage the respiratory system. 

How To Identify Creosote

If you use a fireplace, it’s essential to know if your chimney contains creosote. While you should schedule a chimney inspection annually in Louisiana, you may need to conduct additional inspections if you suspect buildup. 

Visual Inspection

You can conduct an inspection on your own to look for creosote and determine whether building a fire is safe. Choose a time when the chimney are completely cold, and wear a face mask and goggles during your inspection. Begin by putting your hand deep inside your fireplace to ensure the air goes up and not down. Open a window or door to change your home’s pressure if there’s a downdraft. 

Using a flashlight, inspect the interior of your fireplace for oily-looking spots. Use a fire poker to scratch the smoke chamber above your damper to inspect for buildup. Even a thin layer of buildup is a sure sign that you should call an experienced chimney sweep as soon as possible. 

Professional Inspection

If you cannot check your chimney on your own or feel unsure about what you’ve seen, it’s essential to get a professional inspection. Creosote can form in any part of your chimney and may be difficult to locate. A professional chimney sweep can thoroughly inspect your chimney and can clean away creosote with professional tools if necessary. 

Creosote in Your Chimney

Prevention is Better than Cure

Creosote hardens over time and becomes increasingly difficult to remove. By avoiding creosote buildup, you can maintain a safer home and eliminate the dangers related to creosote. Along with burning dry, seasoned wood and ensuring airflow to your fire is unobstructed, you can take these steps to avoid creosote buildup.

Regular Cleaning

It’s recommended that you have your chimney cleaned once a year by a professional chimney sweep. You should also schedule a cleaning if you notice warning signs that include:

  • Black oily spots inside of the fireplace
  • Fires that are harder to start
  • More odor or smoke than usual coming from the fireplace
  • Flaky particles dropping down from your chimney
  • Animal activity in the chimney

Use of Creosote Removers

Creosote removers can be found in logs, liquids, or powders to be burned in your fireplace. They contain chemicals that dry up creosote in your chimney as they burn. The resulting ash then falls into the fireplace. When using creosote removers, following the manufacturer’s instructions is essential. This will not only ensure the best possible results, but will also prevent any potential dangers during use. 

While creosote removers can help you avoid creosote buildup, they’re not a substitute for professional cleaning. Creosote removers can keep your fire burning efficiently throughout the year, make cleaning more accessible, and reduce the dangers of creosote buildup. 

When to Seek Professional Help

Whenever you have concerns regarding creosote buildup, you should seek professional help from an experienced Baton Rouge chimney sweep. A professional chimney cleaning will include thoroughly inspecting your chimney and cleaning away from creosote and debris. When you need professional chimney cleaning in Baton Rouge, you can count on the professionals at SootServ to identify potential issues and leave the surface of your chimney completely clean. Get in touch to learn more about the dangers of creosote, get a free estimate, or schedule chimney sweep services.