Cleaning creosote from the pipes of your wood-burning stove or your fireplace chimney could mean the difference between life and death. Chimney fires happen every year from creosote buildup, learn how to clean your own chimneys with this easy step-by-step guide.
Living off-the-grid, we use wood fire to heat our house, our water, and we cook with our wood cookstove. As you can imagine, we burn a LOT of wood. When you maintain clean pipes on your wood stove, it will burn more efficiently and be safer in general. Did you know, according to the EPA, nearly 7% of all home fires in the U.S. can be contributed to the build-up of creosote in stovepipes or chimneys?
If you live in a cold climate as we do, then you’re running your wood stove every day, probably all day. This can make us complacent to the reality of needing to maintain a cleaning schedule. We put a mark on the calendar and use our phones to set reminders. Even though you’re using your stove every day, creosote is building up a little at a time in there.
What Is Creosote?
Creosote is the black flaky and sometimes sticky stuff you see lining your chimneys or stovepipes. Chemicals formed by the distillation of various tars and pyrolysis of plant-derived material, such as wood or fossil fuel. They are typically used as preservatives or antiseptics. Creosotes are the principal chemicals responsible for the stability, scent, and flavor characteristic of smoked meat.
While creosote has many helpful and has beneficial uses, buildup in your chimney is not one of them. Creosote buildup is highly flammable and sticks to the walls of your chimney and stovepipe like tar. The greater the buildup, the greater your chance for chimney fires.
Understanding Creosote Build Up
Just how quickly creosote can build up in your pipes or chimney depends on a few factors.
- The temperature outside
- The quality and efficiency of the stove and pipes
- The kind of wood you’re burning
To find the best wood to burn and other important firewood information, read our article The Best Tips For Firewood Storage
Of these factors, the type of wood you’re burning plays a major role in creosote build-up. Choosing wood for clean-burning is just as important as cleaning creosote from the pipes because one directly affects the difficulty of the other.
The Dangers of Chimney Sweeping Logs
Chimney Sweeping Logs are logs you burn in your fireplace to help remove creosote buildup. They are made with toxic chemicals and produce harmful fumes.
CSL are logs impregnated with a potent chemical mixture that can alter the adhesive composition of the creosote layer, turning it into a brittle or powdery texture. The smoke from creosote sweeping logs contains active minerals and additives that are carried up the flue and settle on the creosote deposit. Over the course of subsequent fires, the active chemicals in the vapors alter the glazed nature of the deposits, making it easy for the chimney sweep professional to break it down and clean the chimney.
In addition to the toxic and harmful chemicals, CSL’s can leave flammable creosote ash in bends stovepipe or chimney where it can later cause fires.
The Washington Public Fire Educators states “The use of these products alone is not an adequate substitute for mechanical chimney cleaning and inspection because it does not provide
for the same level of protection to the chimney system.” They also state that the use of these logs can increase the risk of chimney fires because of the creosote ash they leave behind.
Choosing The Best Wood To Burn
Obviously, some types of trees burn cleaner than others. They create less build up and make cleaning creosote out of the pipes easier. The area you live in determines your options for the kind of wood you use. It’s important to safety and efficiency to only use seasoned wood in your wood stove or fireplace.
Besides the fact that green wood doesn’t put off as much heat, it also causes more creosote buildup quickly. In our area, Tamarack is considered the top choice of wood because it has a long burn time and leaves little creosote in pipes. Because it burns so efficiently, it doesn’t leave much ash and the ash it does leave is fine and easy to cleanout.
Dense hardwoods like maple and oak are higher in energy content so they provide more heat. They also burn longer than softer woods such as birch, pine, and spruce. These softer woods burn faster but produce less energy because they’re less dense.
If you need help finding firewood near you, we have tips for you to read here in our article Firewood Near Me – And Where Can I Can Free Firewood?
In the deep south where I originate from, hardwoods such as oak are preferred. We would use softer woods in the spring and fall because it doesn’t get “cold” down there in those seasons which means we only need a little heat. Some wood stove installers have told me the combustion process in the newer stoves works so well you can use a wider variety of woods and receive good energy output.
This is our Redneck Fire Alarm- when the popcorn starts to poppin
Tips to Make Cleaning Creosote Easier
- Don’t burn a lot of “trash” in your wood stove. This is especially true of all that slick paper you get as junk mail and plastics. Not only do they release dangerous toxins, but they can also coat the stove pipe with chemicals.
- Never burn wood that is painted or chemically treated. I’m sure this is obvious to you, but the fumes these releases are deadly. At the least, they can cause serious sinus problems.
- Do a morning “burn out”. First thing in the morning, burning pieces of the driest wood you have that are 2″-4″ in diameter. Open the stove vents all the way. Doing this will not only warm the area quickly, but it warms the pipes loosening the creosote build-up from the past 24 hours. We found doing this every morning significantly cut down creosote build-up and helped the stove run more efficiently.
- During the morning burn out or when you use an eco-friendly chimney cleaning log, use the opportunity to check the stove and pipes for any areas where smoke may be leaking inside the house and to see if creosote drips down the pipe inside the house. Identifying these trouble spots will help you know where to focus when you are cleaning creosote from the pipes.
How To Clean Creosote Buildup From Your Stovepipe
We like to clean our chimneys in the middle of the day when the sun is shining so we can go without using our stove for a couple of hours and not freeze. In addition to cleaning during the wood-burning season, we also clean our chimney before the wood-burning season and at the end of the season.
Tools You’ll Need When Cleaning Creosote
You may not need all of these but I wanted to share a good list with you of the tools you could expect to need in order to do the job safely and right. Your setup and type of stove will determine which you’ll need.
- A drop cloth or newspapers to protect your floor
- A chimney sweep brush
- Small hand brush
- Ash shovel
- Ash container to collect the ashes in for disposal later. We use a metal one.
- Your choice of glass cleaner and old newspaper to clean the glass door if you have one
- Screwdriver to disconnect the stove pipe where needed
- Ladder to reach the top of stove pipe
*Remember: The stove and pipe should be cool before you start cleaning creosote from them.
Our Chimney Sweep Brush. We also have three 6ft handle extensions to reach the down the entire length of our stove pipe.
Only perform this task if you have someone with you, have proper safety gear, and are comfortable climbing roofs.
- The first step is to climb onto the roof and inspect the pipe, area around the pipe, and pipe cap for any signs of damage and make any repairs needed.
- Remove your chimney cap.
- Next, clean the pipe with your chimney sweep brush.
- Be sure to check the instructions which came with your brush and your stove to see if there’s anything special you need to do before, during or after you sweep the pipe.
- Of course, you clean the pipe from the top so gravity will carry the creosote down into the stove.
- When you’re done sweeping, remove the ash and creosote from the stove using your ash bucket.
- If you have any trouble spots along the pipe, disassemble that section and check for buildup. It’s usually in elbows where any problems occur.
- Be sure to sweep out the ash pan compartment and add it to the ash bucket. It’s important to empty or set the ash bucket in a safe area outside in case of cinders.
We use our wood ashes in the garden and compost. Your poultry will appreciate it if you add them to DE for their dust baths.
Check out our article, 10 Amazing Ways To Use Wood Ash.
I like a glass door on a wood stove. There’s just something entrancing about watching a fire burn. Being able to see the fire means keeping the glass door clean. Since the stove is cool and clean, now’s a good time to clean the glass.
Now, you’re finished cleaning creosote from your stove pipes or chimney. Do you feel like a pro?
Share your own special tips and experience on cleaning creosote with us in the comments below.