Design Notebook

Give that chimney a check

It’s not always easy to tell if your chimney has a dangerous buildup of creosote. That’s why it’s important to let a professional take a look.

Special to The TribuneOctober 31, 2012 

The Chimney Doctor of San Luis Obispo does in-home consultation on chimneys, fireplaces, wood stoves and gas stoves.



    CUT THE CREOSOTE Creosote in the chimney flue results from incomplete combustion. A buildup of the substance can result in a chimney fire. To minimize creosote, burn dry, well seasoned wood that is also easier to ignite, provides more heat and creates less smoke. Remember that smaller, hotter fires burn more completely and produce less smoke.

    WHICH WOODS? The best woods to burn include oak, almond, walnut and even eucalyptus. Avoid burning straight, soft woods such as pine, Douglas fir and redwood that can result in more creosote. Never burn cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, trash or Christmas trees that can spark a chimney fire.

    DON’T SMOKE To keep smoke from escaping into your home, keep the grate as far back in the fireplace as possible and avoid putting too much wood on the grates before the fire gets sufficiently hot.

Instead of top hats and tails, technicians for San Luis Obispo’s Chimney Doctor wear scrubs. Their message: “It’s not about the cleaning — that’s not that difficult,” said owner Scott Abrams. “It takes a high level of training to know what constitutes a deficiency in the system that has the potential for huge problems.”

More than mere chimney sweeps, Chimney Doctor technicians provide a range of services relating to fireplaces, wood stoves and gas stoves including inspection, repair sales, and installation. Although they do not service or sell pellet stoves, they do offer cleaning.

Just as you wouldn’t fill a prescription before getting an examination, inspection is the first step. Abrams abides by National Fire Protection Association standards that call for annual inspection of most fireplaces. Avid wood burners might need it more often. An inspection can reveal what your fireplace needs, be it a simple clean ing or possibly a repair.

The tricky thing about fireplaces is that often there is no sign of a problem — until it results in something catastrophic such as a house fire, or the re lease of carbon monoxide into the home.

“A fireplace can be in a horrific state of repair and draw absolutely fine,” Abrams said.

There are only a few telltale signs to look out for. A manufactured unit might show corrosion from a water leak, for instance. Another red flag might be the release of smoke into the house.

“That woodsy smell — that’s a carcinogen,” Abrams said. “With our tightly sealed houses, there’s sometimes more pollution inside than out.”

Less obvious issues with masonry fireplaces involve problems with the flue liner such as gaps, cracks or improper installation. Also common is improper clearance between the chimney and framing.

“There’s supposed to be a one-to-two inch clearance, and 99.99 percent of homes do not have that,” Abrams said.

Prefabricated fireplaces, commonly called zeroclearance units, are also frequently not installed properly, he said. There is also the misconception that the units last forever. According to the Chimney Doctor website, www.chim  , prefab fireplaces “are appliances just like your dishwasher or washing machine and have a typical lifespan of 25-30 years.”

One of the most worrisome situations relating to prefab fireplaces is when they are outfitted with a wood burning insert — a common practice, said Abrams, but not a safe one.

“A gas insert would be very appropriate, but a factory built fireplace is not designed to accommodate a wood burning insert,” he said.

Not all repairs are expensive, and many could be a huge cost savings in the long run. Abrams gives the example of a hidden water leak that can cause extensive damage over time.

“Ten cents worth of silicone can stop something that may later need a $10,000 repair,” he said.

The trick to maintaining the health and safety of your fireplace is finding a qualified technician. Abrams recommends making sure they are CSIA (Chimney Safety Institute of America) and F.I.R.E. (Fireplace Investigation Research and Education ) certified. Along with these qualifications, Abrams is also certified by the National Fireplace Institute and is a state licensed general contractor.

In addition to inspection, cleaning and repairs, Chimney Doctor handles sales and installation of new fireplaces, wood stoves and gas stoves. They can integrate all aspects of a new fireplace including masonry, tile work and even mantel fabrication.

“Normally we’ll do everything from soup to nuts,” said Abrams. “However if there’s a job I feel can be done for less money with greater expertise, I will sub that part out.”

Currently, Chimney Doctor does in-home consultations, but is in the process of opening up a showroom. The company may be contacted at 805-544-7668, 805-466-1442, 805-929-3302 or 805-772-4352.

Reach Rebecca Juretic at

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