Angie’s List: Maintain Fireplace Safety and Efficiency

Is your fireplace ready for the coming winter months?

Like your furnace, your fireplace can be dangerous if it's not in proper working order.

While you may use your fireplace to stay warm, you may end up seeing your hard-earned heating dollars go up in smoke and out the chimney.

"A fireplace is typically a central gathering place in the home for most families. But most wood-burning fireplaces lose a lot of the heat out the chimney. Now is a great time to consider updating your fireplace, installing in a wood insert or even a wood-burning stove. The great thing is you may be eligible for a tax credit for up to 30 percent off of the cost, up to $1,500 if you act before the end of the year”, says consumer expert Angie Hicks, of Angie’s List.

Vent-free gas logs allow for the feeling of a real wood fire, yet save money. The logs are energy efficient, with 99 percent of the energy given off as heat and sent into the room.

If you really prefer a traditional wood burning fireplace, make sure it's ready for winter.

"Chimney cleaning is important because creosote builds up on chimneys, which is a flammable material and it can catch fire. Inspections and cleanings are needed to make sure that the system is up to code and standards and chances of a chimney fire are minimized,” says Joseph Sauter, the owner of a chimney cleaning company.

Finding a reputable chimney cleaning company can be a task as well.

"Many consumers are thinking about having their chimney cleaned and inspected this time of year. You want to research the company. If you find someone that sounds like they are selling something that sounds too good to be true, you want to do a little more research. A typical chimney sweep inspection and cleaning costs between $140 and $180. The chimney sweep should be part of the Chimney Safety Institute of America as well. Those are all signs that you are getting a reputable company,” says Angie Hicks.

Remember, a standard wood-burning fireplace loses most heat through the chimney.

Installing a wood-burning insert combats this by blowing heat into the room instead of out the chimney.

Meantime, electric fireplaces are relatively inexpensive and can be easier to install and most new electric models operate for just pennies an hour.

While not as realistic as gas or wood, they do crank out the heat.

Fireplace Options:
• Wood: a standard wood-burning fireplace loses most heat through the chimney. But, by installing a wood-burning insert in a fireplace, heat blows into the room instead.
• Gas: vent-free gas logs for a gas fireplace are efficient because 99 percent of its energy is heat and sent into the room.
• Electric: consider electric if gas is not an option. Electric fireplaces cost pennies per hour to run.

Shopping for a fireplace:
• Check with your local government center to ensure there are no restrictions or requirements before adding a fireplace to your home.
• There are a number of options for homeowners to choose from, including low-cost prefabricated wood-burning units, personally designed masonry fireplaces and high-efficiency gas fireplaces.
• The main thing you should think of first is what purpose the fireplace is going to serve.
• Ask about installation. Many manufacturers state that a fireplace needs to be installed by a professional.
• With wood-burning fireplaces, you have to build or install a flue pipe going up through the height of the house and out the roof. With gas, you have some fireplaces you can vent out the wall and even some that do not require venting.

Maintaining your chimney:
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 25,000 house fires each year start in chimneys or fireplaces of homes.

Creosote buildup, the byproduct of incomplete combustion, can lead to a chimney fire, which could easily spread to the rest of the house. Cleaning the chimney will remove those deposits.

Angie's List tips for maintaining your chimney:

• It's important to have your chimney inspected annually and cleaned at least every two years, especially if you burn two short fires a week in the winter. The average inspection and cleaning runs between $140 and $180.
• A professional chimney cleaning will remove deposits of creosote and an inspection will help catch other problems that would otherwise go unnoticed such as the structural integrity of a chimney and what to look for inside the firebox.
• Never let a fire burn for more than a few hours at a time. Burning only dry, well-seasoned hardwoods will help reduce creosote build-up in a wood-burning chimney system.
• Though they don't produce creosote, gas fireplaces should also be inspected regularly, to ensure they're functioning properly and not leaking gas. Homeowners should install a carbon monoxide detector to warn of harmful gases.
• Beware of companies that offer cleaning pricing that seems too good to be true. Fly-by-night contractors tend to come out this time of year. Before hiring, look for individual certification from the Chimney Safety Institute of America. The National Chimney Sweep Guild also offers a company credential in which the company agrees to abide by its code of ethics.
• Many home improvement stores sell inexpensive cleaning logs, but highly-rated chimney sweeps on Angie's List tell us their effectiveness is limited and they can't substitute for an inspection.

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