The basic fireplace chimney has evolved over the years from crude wood and mud and plaster smoke hoods to today's modern structure built of brick or stone around a tile, cement or metal flue liner.

A damper controls the flow of smoke and keeps cold air from coming down the chimney into the house when the fireplace is not in use. The chimney is usually topped with some form of spark arrestor that prevents hot embers from spewing out of the chimney and starting fires in nearby trees or bushes.

Today, home fireplaces are more ornamental then functional. Energy-efficient heating systems using natural gas, fuel oil, coal, electricity and hot water replaced the need for fireplace heat long ago. What they didn't replace was the human desire for comfort and the warm feeling of sitting by a flickering open fire on a cold winter's night.

Areas like Denver that have distinct winter seasons of snow and below-freezing temperatures are prime fireplace localities. Most houses have at least one chimney protruding above the roof line that services a fireplace located in a living room or den. Many new, larger homes feature two or more chimneys rising against the skyline.

Regardless of the size or number of chimneys a home night have, they have one thing in common: they need regular inspecting and cleaning.

There are a number of chimney cleaning companies located in the Denver area. Some employee workers dressed in the traditional chimney sweep costume often associated with the Dick Van Dyke character made famous in the movie "Mary Poppins" with the catchy chimney sweep song "Chim Chim Cher-ee." Most companies, however, will dispatch sweeps dressed in work uniforms driving vans sporting an assortment of long ladders.

The question asked most often by home owners regarding their fireplace is, "How often should I have my chimney cleaned?"

The answer, according to the National Fire Protection Association, depends on how often the fireplace is actually used. In the Denver area, the NFPA recommends a yearly inspection of the fireplace, chimney and vents by a licensed chimney sweep contractor.

Signs Your Chimney Needs Cleaning

If you detect the following problems, you need to inspect your chimney.

  • Burned-wood odor emitting from the fireplace when it's not being used.
  • Fires seem to burn poorly and smoke backs up into the room.
  • A damper is black with soot and is caked with creosote.

There are many more signs a professional chimney sweep would recognize. For this reason, it's best to rely on the professionals.

What kind of equipment would a chimney sweep use and what might they do during inspection or cleaning?

Proper tools – Good, strong ladders, a high-beam flashlight and work gloves for starters. If your roof has a steep pitch or is otherwise risky to walk on, a safety harness of some sort is always a must.

  • Drop cloth or old sheets to cover the fireplace opening and any nearby furniture
  • Duct tape to attache the covering over the fireplace opening.
  • A vacuum cleaner with crevice cleaning attachment.
  • Chimney rod and brushes.
  • A stiff-bristled cleaning brush with a long handle.
  • A broom for sweeping up ash and other debris.
  • Safety equipment like eye protection, gloves, and a dust mask or respirator mask to keep from inhaling creosote dust or soot.

Visual Inspection – They may open the damper inside the fireplace, climb onto the roof and remove the cap or spark arrestor, giving them the ability to shine the flashlight beam down inside the chimney. They should be able to see all the way down the chimney to the open hearth. Look for a smooth, clean surface of the liner plus the mortar between the joints of the liner sections. If they see any black creosote build-up or obstructions like old bird nests or even dead varmints like squirrels, they will need to remove the nests or other obstructions. Some chimney sweep companies are also qualified wild life removal companies, if not, you may need to hire a different company to handle the pest removal.

The cleaning procedure. Cleaning the inside of the flue, brushing all sides of the flue downward starting and repeating the brushing until the flues sides are clean and free of soot. Once the final brushing has settled, removing the covering from the fireplace and vacuuming the displaced soot.

Professional help - Most people hire professional chimney sweeps because it's dangerous and dirty work. Because of the danger of soot fires, it's a job that's not okay to do half-way. A certified, professional sweep will do a much better and give any potential DIY homeowner peace of mind. In the long run, paying for a professional chimney sweep to periodically inspect your chimney and clean it when needed is the more prudent way for a home owner to go than trying to do it themselves.

Remember, always make sure the chimney sweep company you hire is credentialed by the National Chimney Sweep Guild or the Chimney Safety Institute of America.