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First a spot of terminology for anyone who may be a bit hazy about the jargon. A chimney is the (usually masonry) upright structure, often referred as the stack, that contains one or more flues – a flue being the term for the inner channel that vents the smoke from a specific fireplace or wood burning stove to the outside.
People often use the terms interchangeably, not least because many chimneys do in fact house just one flue and are thus, for all effective purposes, one and the same thing. But if you do need to know the difference then that, in a nutshell, is it.
If you have a chimney related problem then, as a general rule, doing nothing about it is never an option. The purpose of a chimney/flue is to vent very hot and poisonous exhaust fumes from your fireplace (or log burner) safely to the outside.
If it it not doing this properly it can pose a very real hazard to your house and its occupants (that would be you and your loved ones). So here’s a quick rundown of some of the most common chimney issues you might encounter. Note though that many of the symptoms and underlying causes overlap, so it’s not always a simple matter of symptom A must be attributable to problem B.
Debris in the Chimney
Chimney debris usually manifests itself either though evidence of material falling down the flue or difficulty drawing smoke up and venting it to the outside.
Debris can build up inside a chimney for a number of reasons, most commonly birds and various small critters nesting, crumbling mortar/masonry and sooty deposits. Assuming no serious underlying issues that might be responsible for the debris, the cause and solution are both straightforward: your chimney needs cleaning, call a chimney sweep.
It is astonishing how many people don’t seem to realize that in order to function effectively and safely, a chimney needs to be kept clear of debris. If you use your fireplace or wood burning stove regularly then the flue should be swept twice annually, and at the bare minimum at least once every year. And yes, this does apply to lined flues/chimneys also.
In the UK you can use this handy link to find professional chimney sweeps near you. Members of APICS (Association of Professional and Independent Chimney Sweeps) for example not only carry Public Liability Insurance (which means you can claim against them if needs be) but will provide you a certificate (so you can prove you maintained your chimney properly) plus a written report of any issues they found.
Cleaning your chimney (or flue liner) is typically a good first step and can address many chimney problems and prevent others (build up of tar and chimney fires, for example) arising, though it is obviously not a panacea for everything.
If your “debris” problem seems to be predominantly related to corrosion of the mortar and/or brickwork (i.e. composed mainly of brick dust and sand) then simply sweeping it won’t really help and may even exacerbate the situation. The solutions are either to repair the damage or install a steel liner. Neither option is especially cheap and you are strongly advised to request a HETAS certified chimney engineer (follow the chimney sweep link above) who will be able to carry out a full survey and recommend a suitable course of action. Next up, obstructions and smoke leaks…
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