A chimney fire may result if too much soot and creosote build up inside it. You don't want that.

If you live in Sarasota and have a fireplace, odds are you don't use it all that much. My 1955-built home, for example, has an old-school masonry fireplace that sees action at most five or six times a year. But even though you may not be lighting a fire all that often, experts say it's still a good idea to have your fireplace and chimney inspected and cleaned on a regular basis, and there's no better time than the fall, before winter comes.

Jeff Curry of Curry's Chimney Sweeping Inc. Chimney sweeps historically wore a top hat and tails, and owning them is still a chimney sweep tradition.

Why is cleaning important? To find out, I asked Jeff Curry of Curry's Chimney Sweeping Inc in Bradenton.

A former firefighter, Curry started his chimney sweeping business 27 years ago in his spare time, and when he retired from the fire department in 2004, he took to cleaning chimneys full-time. He's a certified chimney sweep with the Chimney Safety Institute of America, graduated from chimney sweep school, attends annual industry conventions and participates in online forums in which chimney sweeps from around the country share tips and ask for advice.

Here's what he had to say.

What's the worst that can happen if you don't clean your chimney?

When soot, or carbon, and creosote, a wood preservative, build up too heavily inside your chimney, they can catch fire.

"When you have a chimney fire," says Curry, "you can have cracks develop in the chimney, and you can get fire in the attic and you can have the house and the roof catch on fire."

Even if your house survives a chimney fire, you could lose your whole fireplace and chimney. Replacing a masonry chimney will cost you roughly $15,000, while a new prefabricated metal chimney will cost around $3,000.

So how often should you get your chimney looked at?

"The National Fire Protection Association recommends that an annual inspection is needed, but I have folks down here that just burn a fire once a year," says Curry. "It's good to have it looked at periodically."

Besides cleaning the chimney, what does a chimney sweep look for during an inspection?

Curry says problems can develop that you may not even notice. Birds can nest in chimneys and leave debris, rain can cause parts to deteriorate, and metal elements may begin to rust. Also, the soot from fireplaces that burn natural gas or propane can be very fine and less obvious to the naked eye, but still needs to be removed.

When inspecting a chimney, Curry examines it both from the roof and from inside the home.

If you use wood, what type should you use?

"You want to burn a hard wood like oak or hickory," says Curry. "Stay away from pine, which will create a lot of creosote buildup, because there's so much resin in pine."

Curry also recommends burning two to three logs at a time. The hotter the fire, the faster the hot air and smoke will move up your chimney and out of the house. However, Curry says, "if you're burning the prefabricated logs or the paper logs, you only want to burn one at a time."

Want to know more about fireplace and chimney maintenance? Curry recommends visiting the websites of the Chimney Safety Institute of America and the National Chimney Sweep Guild. To contact Curry, call (941) 755-0002 or (941) 486-1480 or visit his company's website.

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