By REBECCA SLOAN
As Jack Frost dismisses the dog days of summer and sends in the frigid weather of fall and winter, many of us retreat to our living rooms to hunker down in front a roaring fireplace.
After all, there's nothing quite as cozy as a crackling fire and a cup of hot cocoa when the mercury dips below freezing.
But before you bundle up in front of a glowing fire with a good book and hot beverage, consider the last time your home's chimney was cleaned.
According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, each year poorly maintained chimneys cause thousands of house fires and hundreds of deaths across the country.
In several European countries, such as Norway, Finland, Germany and Sweden, strict regulations make fireplace and chimney inspections mandatory, but in America, this isn't the case.
As a result, many homeowners do not realize the importance of proper chimney upkeep.
If you can't remember the last time your home's chimney was inspected, now is the time to call a professional.
Chimneys should be checked by a professional chimney sweep at least once a year, regardless of whether they are attached to a gas-burning, factory-made metal firebox, or an old-fashioned, wood-burning fireplace made of brick.
Chimney sweeps inspect and repair not only chimneys related to wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, but also chimneys that are used with gas, oil and coal heating systems.
Very important: Although chimneys related to all types of heating systems need periodic inspection, wood-burning heating systems call for the most care.
A wood-burning chimney should always be cleaned if more than 1/4 an inch of creosote has accumulated on its interior. Creosote is a clear or yellowish, highly flammable, oily substance that builds up on the inside of a chimney as the result of moisture that is released while logs are burning.
The type of wood you burn in your fireplace plays a key role in the amount of creosote released. For example, green, or fresh-cut firewood, can be as much as 45 percent water, but aged firewood is only about 20 percent water. Since more water equals more creosote, experts recommend burning only aged firewood.
Firewood should age for about six months before it is burned. Splitting the wood helps dry it out faster by exposing more surface area to the sun and wind.
Well-seasoned wood is lightweight, displays darkened ends with cracks and splits and makes a clear "clunk" when two pieces are knocked together.
Well-seasoned wood can last for three or four years if stored properly. A woodshed with open sides and a sturdy roof is the best choice for storage since wood needs air circulation but shouldn't be exposed to constant rain or snow as it will just reabsorb water and eventually rot.
Hardwoods, such as oak or hickory, age the best, but soft woods, like pine, do not age well at all.
What to burn: It is best not to burn large quantities of soft, resinous wood in your fireplace. In addition, do not burn construction scraps of treated or painted wood since chemicals on the wood can be released during burning and cause dangerous fumes.
If you are burning artificial logs, burn only one log at a time and only in an open fireplace. Don't poke them or move them around once they are burning or the fire may get out of control.
Although what you burn in your fireplace is important, chimney care and upkeep doesn't stop here. Keeping a chimney as weatherproof as possible is equally important since alternate periods of freeze and thaw can crack mortar and cause interior damage.
Having a chimney professionally waterproofed is a good way to prevent long-term corrosion and masonry damage.
Installing a chimney cap or cover is also a good idea since a chimney without a cover is defenseless against torrential downpours and heavy snowfalls, not to mention falling debris and curious animals.
Even a chimney that is seldom used should be inspected yearly since a chimney that is obstructed by a bird's nest or clogged with debris can be just as great a danger as one that is coated with creosote.
Here's a warning: Blocked chimneys can cause harmful fumes and deadly gases like carbon monoxide to enter your home, so if you have a fireplace, make sure you also have a carbon monoxide detector.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. The chimney's flashing, or the seal between the roof and the chimney, should also be annually inspected and maintained, and the chimney's crown, or the portion that covers and seals the top of the chimney from the flue liners and chimney edge, should also be inspected annually.
Although chimney inspections are best left to the professionals, choosing a chimney sweep to do the job can be tricky since the chimney service trade is not regulated, and in most states, chimney sweeps are not licensed. The CSIA is currently considering license requirements for chimney sweeps.
Checklist: Until then, ask these questions before hiring a chimney sweep:
U How long has he or she been in business?
U Does he or she have references?
U Does the company have unresolved complaints filed against it with the city, state or Better Business Bureau?
U Does the company carry valid business liability insurance to protect your home and furnishings against accidents?
U Is the company a member of the National Chimney Sweep Guild?
U Is he or she licensed with the CSIA as a certified chimney sweep?
The cost of having a chimney inspected and cleaned varies depending on the last time the chimney was serviced and what type of repairs or cleaning are required, so always ask for an estimate first.