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Niche Publications

Senior Editor for Niche Publications of the Billings Gazette

Don’t be fooled—Santa needs more than his red suit, milk and cookies to keep him comfortable in your home.

What he needs are the warm tidings only a regularly-serviced chimney, fireplace or alternative heating source can afford.

Ensure his trip down the chimney is a successful one with a few tips from local chimney sweepers and fireplace retailers.

Funnel your efforts

Thanks to increased safety regulations from the EPA and American Gas Association, homes have less hazards relating to heat sources than ever before.

But that’s not a surefire way to avoid danger.

In fact, Mr. C’s Chimney and Air Duct Cleaning owner Lamonte Johnson has seen more chimney damage this year in Billings-area homes than what is typical.

“This year, in my busy season, I had three chimneys that were broken enough or damaged enough to tell (homeowners) not to use them,” he said. “Three in a busy season is a lot, that’s how rare it is.”

Trevor Craig, owner of The Fireplace Center in Billings, says with damage, it’s always an installation issue.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one really that was put in correctly that caused a fire,” Craig said.

According to, regular chimney maintenance removes flammable creosote, a tar-like byproduct of burning wood.

Johnson says the rule of thumb used to be that chimneys needed cleaning annually.

“Now that I’ve worked at eight different states—it’s not once a year,” he said. “Once you burn about a cord of wood, like a full pick-up load, then it’s time.”

The occasional user might get their chimney looked at every two to four years, Johnson said.

Outside of checking for creosote and soot build-up, chimney experts can determine whether a chimney remains structurally sound. Johnson says damage to the chimney structure is also hazardous; cracks can cause carbon monoxide leaks and water infiltration can cause corrosion.

New flames

Masonic chimneys are commonplace in older homes, but few are being built in new homes within city limits. Homeowners are looking for less maintenance and risk.

“As those older wood-burning appliances get obsolesced out of the market, the newer stuff is so much safer because there’s so much less creosote build-up,” said Craig. “It’s pretty rare to hear that somebody has a chimney fire with a new EPA-certified stove. You have to have a lot of variables going against you.”

High-efficiency wood stoves are one option. They have convection chambers or catalytic converters that act as an air filter, recycling smoke and burning off wood. Johnson says it’s been the prevailing wood stove in the last 10 years.

“Because of those types of stoves, most people only need me every other year or third year,” he said of maintenance requests.

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Craig says 65-percent of his business is in gas products, 28-percent wood and 7-percent pellet.

“It hasn’t happened here, but in some states they’ve outlawed wood burners,” said Johnson. “I rarely see a new wood stove going in.”

Have a gas

New homes are installing gas stoves and old homes are installing gas inserts where a wood-burning fireplace once stood.

Johnson admits, “As you get older, it’s easier to flip a switch than go hauling the wood.”

But gas stoves need maintenance too, just not as often. Five, eight and even 15 years can pass before cleaning is required.

“You still get really nice aesthetics (but) not the smell,” said Craig. “They’re pretty good-looking and hard to tell from a wood fire. But you have no chimney maintenance with those whatsoever. And you don’t have to worry about smoke coming back in the house.”

High-end gas stove models come standard with remote controls. More than an on/off switch, there are options to raise and lower flames and fan speed.

Craig says some products resemble electric fireplaces, where electric ember beds can show flames without emitting heat so that homeowners still have that aesthetic in the summertime.

While Santa may wish everyone had a clean and functional fireplace, appliances are changing just as much as children’s wish lists. So maybe he’ll bring homeowners a new stove this year, instead.

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