Most of us won’t have touched our fireplace – particularly if it is hidden behind the doors of a woodburner – since our last fire in late Spring. Autumn is the time to tackle that leftover ash, get rid of clinkers and call the chimney sweep. They aren’t cheap but they are a necessity.
Soot deposits and creosote from the wood or coal you burn needs removing regularly to prevent chimney fires and allow dangerous gases to escape quickly. Cleaning can even increase the efficiency of some appliances, removing birds’ nests, cobwebs and other debris in the process.
The Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps says how often you sweep your chimney depends on the type of fuel, its moisture content, and the appliance. It recommends:
Smokeless fuel: At least once a year
Wood: Quarterly when in use
Coal: Quarterly when in use
Oil: Once a year
Gas: Once a year
They recommend you use a Guild Registered Chimney Sweep because they’ve had extensive training – find one in your area by logging on to The Guild of Chimney Sweeps website.
To prevent birds nesting in your chimney, ask your sweep to fix a bird guard or cap over the chimney. If there is a big tree nearby, you may need an anti-downdraught excluder to prevent the branches whomping smoke back into your room in high winds, and this can double as a bird preventative.
For any fire to work well, the flue has to be in good condition. If your home was built before 1965, the flue may have been rendered with lime mortar that has deteriorated, so get it checked by your sweep. It may need a new liner.
Read our tips for choosing the right fireplace for your home
How to clean a fireplace
First, put on an old apron, and lay newspapers or a plastic tarp around the fireplace – soot and creosote is sticky and messy and doesn’t come off clothes or furnishings easily.
Then, using an old brush and dustpan, sweep out the fireplace, removing all debris. Reach up inside the chimney, too. A final going-over with a vacuum cleaner will get up the fine ash.
Apply your chosen cleaner with an abrasive sponge or small scrubbing brush. Oven cleaner works well but can be harsh; an all-purpose cleaner is fine, or keep it green with a paste made of half a cup of bicarb mixed with two tablespoons of washing up liquid.
Wet the fireplace and apply the cleaner or paste. Using your sponge or scrubbing brush, work it in. Clean hard-to-reach cracks with an old toothbrush. If the cleaner has a time limit, let it sit – around ten minutes should be enough but if your fireplace is filthy, leave for half an hour.
Using warm water and an old, clean cloth, wipe away the dirt repeatedly until the fireplace is clean.
Recondition and smarten iron fireplaces with Liberon Iron Paste, and touch up slate hearths with slate oil. You should find both in your local hardware shop or DIY store.
Read our tips for lighting a fire
Top tips for a cleaner fireplace
1. Buy seasoned wood, which means it has been allowed to dry out – it causes less smoke. If the moisture has gone it should be light in weight and make a crack when clapped together with another piece. A thud means the wood is wet.
2. Avoid pine, which spits resin and leaves creosote in the chimney; green wood, which will smoke; and large amounts of paper, which can blaze up and get out of control.
3. Store firewood outside, in a dry place, off the ground so it’s well-ventilated. Cover the top but leave the sides open.
4. Coal is a good energy source but it is a dirty fossil fuel and can give off toxic gases. In a smoke-free zone you must buy smoke-free coal. House coal produces more soot.
5. Never burn plastic, painted materials or rubbish in your grate – it may give off toxic fumes.
6. Create a small, hot fire first, to keep smoke to a minimum, then add bigger logs.
7. Keep it clean by vacuuming the fireplace every week, making sure the embers are cool first.