by: Vern Uyetake, Walter Smith from American Chimney and Masonry Inc. shows Lake Oswego homeowner Greg White flammable creosote from the interior of his chimney.

As the weather cools homeowners get cozy in front of home fireplaces. But don't let your investment go up in smoke. Before lighting the first fire it is important to make sure the fireplace is in working order.

'I used to live out in the country and we had a chimney fire and ever since then I will not have my first fire of the year without having my chimney swept,' said Lake Oswego homeowner Greg White.

For the past six years, White - along with his wife Peggy - has turned to the professionals at American Chimney and Masonry Inc. And Walter Smith - also a Lake Oswego resident - has been doing the inspection each year.

With 18 years experience in the industry, certifications from the Chimney Safety Institute of America and the Oregon Chimney Sweep Association, Smith said he knows what problem areas to look for in chimneys.

'We have fun with our work,' said Smith, 'but it's a very serious matter.'

Located in Portland, American Chimney uses a variety of techniques to make sure fireplaces are in ship-shape before the sparks ignite. Throughout the service, employees speak with homeowners about preventative measures at home so they can enjoy their fireplaces for years to come.

'When I go into a customer's home I try to answer all the obvious questions,' said Smith, a certified chimney technician. 'And then there's the unobvious. … It's kind of like doing an autopsy on the chimney in some cases.'

While at White's house, Smith did a roof inspection, cleaned the interior of the chimney as well as searched for cracks and crevices that need caulking.

Creosote - a flammable byproduct of combustion - can build up within the chimney and ignite, causing a chimney fire. Birds and squirrels may have built homes within the fireplace during the summer months. Inspecting and cleaning the fireplace eliminates some of the dangers of using fireplaces at home.

Sometimes video equipment is used during the inspection to search for missing grout between bricks and other deterioration.

'There are a lot of homes around here with unlined chimneys and if you've got an old house those bricks expand really quick,' said Smith. 'If you also have deteriorated mortar between the joints, (the fire) can get into the beams of the house and catch the house on fire. That's why we really promote liners.'

Fireplaces can become damaged from several life events - settling, hurricanes, earthquakes, chimney fire, lightning - but can be fixed.

Lining the chimney is a preventative measure to eliminate smoke, creosote or condensation from seeping through the chimney walls. A variety of products and methods are used to line fireplaces - including stainless steel, cast in place, aluminum and flue tiles - depending on the size and composition of the fireplace.

Restoring old fireplaces is important, said Smith, who rebuilt White's fireplace a few years back. Replacing mortar at the crown of the fireplace sheds water away from the flue - where smoke is vented - and also keeps water from entering the chimney case. Dampers and tight-fitting glass doors could be beneficial to prevent heat from inside the home to escape through the chimney when not in use, according to the American Chimney Web site.

American Chimney uses three inspection methods to cover some of the following procedures: annual evaluations, appliance connection, chimney cleaning, replacements, flue evaluation and proper construction and clearance of combustibles.

And the company recommends fireplace inspections prior to purchasing a home with a chimney, whenever changes are made to the vent system, before system repairs and after unusual events - such as earthquakes and lightning. After a professional has examined the fireplace for safety there are preventative measures that homeowners can take to ensure that fires in the fireplace remain in the fireplace without spreading. Ace Hardware in Lake Oswego carries the following maintenance items.

n Chimney Brush: This wire brush is used to loosen soot from inside the chimney. Adjustable handles are sold separately to elongate the brush for hard to reach places.

'This is your toothbrush for the chimney. It loosens up everything (inside the fireplace) like a good ol' teeth cleaning,' said Gary Chek, community relations at Ace Hardware in Lake Oswego. 'But you need to know the measurement of your chimney because you never want to get the chimney brush stuck.'

Chek says average flues are six inches, while bigger fireplaces are 8 inches around. It is recommended that the brush be used to loosen soot before using a creosote sweeping log.

n Creosote Sweeping Log: This log - when burned in a home fireplace - treats and reduces more than 50 percent of the existing creosote in the chimney. Approved by the Chimney Safety Institute of America, the log finishes the dirty work that the chimney brush couldn't tackle.

'You put the whole thing and burn the entire log. Use it every 2 to 3 weeks in fire season,' said Chek.

For smaller fireplaces - such as those in condominiums or townhomes - similar preventative measures can also be taken, such as Kwik-Shot.

n Kwik-Shot: Looking like a road flair, the Kwik-Shot stick works similar to the Creosote Sweeping Log but at a much smaller scale. It is recommended to use two Kwik-Shots weekly for one month to clean a fireplace. Place the entire item into the fire and allow it to burn completely.

'There's a material in this that's going to loosen up all the gunk. It's going to release a material as it's burning really hot,' Chek said.

n Soot Sweep: Also used in smaller homes and fireplaces, is Soot Sweep - looking like a small gravel/sand mixture. This produce can be used as a powdered catalyst to reduce creosote build-up in chimneys.

'Sprinkle it loose in the fireplace kind of like you're peppering a steak,' Chek said.

While the fireplace seems to be safe for usage, make sure all items near the fireplace are sealed. Chek recommends using a black silicone sealer in a manner similar to caulking. Certain sealers are designed to hold up to high temperatures.

As fire season continues homeowners may notice the glass in front of the fireplace becoming discolored and difficult to clean.

'You have a natural grime that comes from smoke and fire and people always wonder why their fireplace can stay clean but the glass looks dirty, foggy and streaky,' Chek said. 'Use fireplace glass cleaner on both sides of the glass to remove grime from creosote.'

Now that the fireplace is in working order, curl up and relax in front of a warm fire and welcome Oregon autumn - much safer.

Ace Hardware is located at 55 S. State Street in Lake Oswego. For more information about American Chimney and Masonry Inc., visit the Web site at or call 503-287-2464.

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