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Make sure fireplace or stove chimney is safe for winter use

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Cooler temperatures, shorter days and falling leaves mean winter is not far away.

For homes that use an open fireplace or a wood-burning or pellet stove for heat, it’s time to get the chimney swept. Ideally, it’s best to have this done in the warmer months to avoid delays in the busy season.

“I tell everyone to call June in June,” said June Gonzales with CBS Chimney Sweepers, which has been providing chimney cleaning services in and around Albuquerque for nearly 30 years.

By mid-September CBS Chimney Sweepers was already booking appointments two or three weeks out, Gonzales said.

Jim Lyle, owner of Mountain West Sales Inc., has been selling wood-burning and pellet stoves for about 30 years. He said manufacturers recommend having the 6-inch to 8-inch chimney pipe of a wood-burning stove cleaned for every cord of wood burned.

When burning, wood produces gases that form creosote soot, a tar-like substance that can ignite. Using a stove for long slow burns will dirty a chimney more quickly and require more frequent cleaning.

“Chimney fires are very dangerous,” Lyle said.

Pellet stoves have 3-inch to 4-inch diameter chimney pipes that can get clogged with soot or ash residue that will make the stove burn less efficiently.

“If it’s really clogged it can prevent it from working – the stove won’t even light,” Lyle said.

Pellet stove manufacturers recommend a cleaning after every ton of pellets. Lyle said a chimney sweep should be able to check the pipe for damage or corrosion and ensure that the stove door gaskets are sealing properly.

Mike Gonzales of CBS Chimney Sweepers seals off the fireplace before going up on the roof of the house where he will insert wire brushes down the chimney to clean it of debris and soot. CBS Chimney Sweepers recommends open fireplaces should be cleaned after 60 to 80 fires. (Rosalie Rayburn/Albuquerque Journal)

Mike Gonzales of CBS Chimney Sweepers seals off the fireplace before going up on the roof of the house where he will insert wire brushes down the chimney to clean it of debris and soot. CBS Chimney Sweepers recommends open fireplaces should be cleaned after 60 to 80 fires. (Rosalie Rayburn/Albuquerque Journal)

CBS Chimney Sweepers has staff who can clean and service both types of stove and open fireplaces. Gonzales said her company charges about $120 to clean a stove or fireplace in a one-story home and $160 for pellet stoves that have motors and computers that require a technician to have special training.

Lyle said open fireplaces should be cleaned once a year if they are just used in the evenings, more often if being used for longer periods.

Gonzales advises homeowners to burn only dry seasoned wood, which burns cleaner than fresh-cut moist wood. Cracks at the end of logs indicate dryness. She said stored pellets should be protected from moisture, which will cause them to disintegrate. Supplies of firewood should be stacked away from house walls because they can harbor termites, carpenter ants and black widow spiders, she said.

When buying wood remember that hard woods like oak, aspen and elm burn longer and hotter than softer evergreen woods like pine, piñon and cedar, she said. It’s also important to have a device on top of the chimney to keep out birds, moisture and small animals.

“I can’t tell you how many raccoons and their babies we took out last season,” Gonzales said.

Other seasonal tasks include bringing vulnerable houseplants inside. Remember to remove hoses from outside faucets and drain them for winter storage. Cover outside faucets with ready-made Styrofoam covers or use newspapers, rags, plastic bags and duct tape to insulate them. Insulate water pipes that are in unheated areas such as basements.
Some helpful websites
Central New Mexico Housing Corp., programs to help low-income people weatherize their homes: centralnmhousing.org
PNM’s Home Energy Advisor tips: pnm.energysavvy.com

Shutting down

The approach of winter also means shutting down your cooling system. If you have a swamp cooler, winterizing it involves these steps:

  • Drain the cooler pan and remove any debris
  • Turn off the valve that supplies water to the unit and drain waterlines connected to the cooler
  • Unplug the motor and pump
  • Insert dampers on the air ducts outside and inside the home
  • Cover the unit securely

Homes with a combination swamp cooler and furnace system may require the services of a technician or plumber to switch from summer to winter mode.

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