Wood-burning fireplaces produce soot and creosote that build up on the walls of the chimney. This is a serious fire hazard and should be cleaned regularly.
Before cleaning, make sure the grate and irons are removed from the fireplace and placed on a large tarp outdoors. Also, cover any furniture or carpet with a trash bag to prevent spills.
1. Remove the Grates
A fire in your fireplace is a cozy experience, but a clean and functional fireplace requires some maintenance. Ash and soot buildup can block the chimney, creating a fire safety hazard. Similarly, failing to remove the grates from your fireplace can cause them to become coated with a layer of creosote and impede air flow over the fire.
Fortunately, you can improve your fireplace and prevent these problems by periodically removing and cleaning your fireplace grates. This process is relatively simple, but it does require some preparation and time. Before starting the project, you should turn off your furnace and clear the room of any flaming logs or debris. It is also a good idea to lay down a drop cloth or plastic sheeting in case you spill any paint stripper, which can be toxic if it gets on your skin.
Conventional fireplace grates are usually heavy cast iron devices elevated by upright legs several inches above the hearth floor. These can obstruct access to the hearth floor, and they often collect and spread ash and dust as they are moved. Some grate designs, however, are designed to allow for selective movement between a standard horizontal operative position and an elevated inoperative position clear of the hearth floor.
You can usually use a regular broom and sweep to remove most of the accumulated ash from a conventional grate. You can also use a vacuum cleaner to get rid of any remaining ash and dust, but be sure not to use water. It is a bad idea to clean cast-iron fireplace elements with water; this will encourage rust. If your grate is coated in soot, you can scrub it with a wire brush and a solution of equal parts liquid dish detergent and water.
If your grate is painted, you can try to remove the coating with a commercial chemical paint stripper. Read the product instructions carefully before starting to ensure you understand how to use it properly. Be sure to protect yourself from toxic fumes by putting on a face mask and goggles. If the grate is old and hasn’t been used much recently, it may be covered in layers of flaking paint. You can attempt to remove the paint with a commercial chemical stripper, but it will likely take some work and patience.
A good chimney vacuum, which is a powerful shop or commercial vacuum with an additional ash nozzle for cleaning chips and wood shavings as well as ashes, is an essential tool for keeping a fireplace clean. It’s important to shovel out most of the ash and residue before vacuuming so hot embers, which may be hidden under piles of ash can’t be sucked into the vacuum system and damaged. The ash vacuum should have a metal hand tube rather than the traditional flexible hose so it can easily reach inside the flue and around the damper and smoke shelf. If you’re using a commercial vacuum, choose one with an easy-to-open canister for fast emptying of the ash and residue. It’s best to wear protective clothing and gloves during this messy job.
3. Remove Creosote
Creosote is a thick, oily liquid that results from incomplete wood burning. It is toxic if ingested and it can damage a chimney and impede airflow, causing dangerous smoke back-ups. Keeping creosote in check is critical, especially in older homes with open chimneys. Thankfully, there are several easy ways to remove creosote from your fireplace and chimney.
Creosote accumulates on brick edges, glass surfaces and other areas in proximity to open fires. The greasy substance can be washed away with ammonia, which is available at most grocery stores and household cleaners. It is best to use this on small patches of the substance, rather than large areas. A mixture of one part baking soda to nine parts water can also be used to clean creosote.
It is impossible to completely eliminate creosote buildup from a chimney, but regular cleaning and maintenance can slow the process down significantly. Brushing and the use of chimney sweeping logs can remove stage 1 creosote before it progresses to stages 2 and 3. Creosote removing products, like those that contain trisodium phosphate, can be squirted into a chimney to reduce the amount of residue over time.
Another way to dissolve creosote is to add several pails of hot water to the flue while a fire burns. The heat and moisture will help break down the thickened substance. Using non-flammable liquids, such as vinegar or non-toxic soap, will also help to disperse creosote deposits.
There are a number of other methods that can be used to dissolve creosote, including commercial cleaners and brushes. However, these procedures should only be undertaken by professionals who understand the dangers involved. Creosote is flammable and can easily ignite, so a professional will know how to approach the problem without making the situation worse.
Besides regular chimney cleaning, the best way to prevent creosote buildup is to burn only seasoned dry wood in the fireplace. This will make it easier to light and maintain a fire, reducing the risk of creosote accumulation. Additionally, leaving a layer of ash about an inch deep at the end of a heating season can aid in preventing creosote deposits from building up on chimney liners.
4. Clean the Firebox
If you use your fireplace regularly, it’s important to clean your firebox. The firebox is where combustion takes place, and it’s where soot tends to build up over time. Before you get started cleaning, clear a work area and cover carpets or upholstered furniture with protective drop cloths or sheets. This will keep dirt and debris from transferring to other areas of your home during the scrubbing process.
Then, remove any metal grates or andirons from the firebox. Then vacuum the hearth and fireplace surround with a shop vac, making sure to get into all of the cracks and crevices. If you have a gas-powered fireplace, turn off the supply line and turn off the pilot light before starting to prevent any unexpected surprises.
After you’ve cleaned up any ash or debris in the fireplace, put on rubber gloves and a mask to protect yourself from smoke and soot dust. Next, you’ll want to scrub the walls and floor of the fireplace with a broom or brush. Make sure you’re getting into all of the crevices and cracks, especially where soot has built up over time. You can also use a steel-bristled scouring pad if your fireplace has particularly stubborn or caked-on residue.
Another effective cleaning method involves a solution of trisodium phosphate (TSP), bleach, and water. Wearing rubber gloves, mix 6 Tbsp. of TSP, 1 cup of bleach, and a gallon of warm water in a bucket. Pour some of this mixture into a spray bottle and saturate the walls of the fireplace and stained areas of the hearth or surround. Let sit for five minutes. Dip a stiff-bristled brush into the remaining mixture and scrub until clean. Rinse and let dry.
If your fireplace is made from natural stone, test any cleaners on a small section first to see how they react. Avoid using acid-based cleaners on stone or marble surfaces, which can damage the material. If you have a very old or valuable stone surround, it’s a good idea to consult a professional for tips and tricks on cleaning and preserving it.