Professional home inspector Alan Beal has examined hundreds of fireplaces, unearthing chimneys choked with sticky black creosote buildup...

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Professional home inspector Alan Beal has examined hundreds of fireplaces, unearthing chimneys choked with sticky black creosote buildup or stuffed with acorns stashed by squirrels.

Like many of us, one of his favorite things about winter is spending evenings around a glowing fireplace. But as a former remodeler of homes and now president of Mid-Atlantic Inspection Services in Bethesda, Md., he knows safety must be the first consideration on those cozy evenings.

Part of that involves regular maintenance of the fireplace and chimney, part involves careful stewardship of every fire. (Beal’s wife, Susan Gray, is especially vigilant about safety; she insists that any embers be doused with a water bottle before the Beals retire for the night.)

Here are other tips from Beal on the care and feeding of your fireplace:

• Regular chimney inspections are absolutely necessary. An inspection — which runs $60-$80 — is a top-down/bottom-up examination, checking for loose bricks, cracked mortar, creosote buildup and working dampers. An inspection shows whether cleaning or repairs are needed for the chimney, firebox or flue. If only a brush cleaning is called for, a chimney sweep or a chimney restoration company usually charges $50 to $200 and up, depending on what they find.

• How often you should have a chimney checkup depends on the age of the house and how often you have fires. For houses more than 50 years old, Beal says chimneys should be inspected every two years or so; older masonry is more likely to have cracks around the cap and crown, allowing water to seep in and freeze — causing even more damage. Regular inspections monitor the buildup of creosote, which should be professionally cleaned off.

For newer houses, cleanings should be scheduled based on how often the fireplace is used. Beal says the rule of thumb would be to have a fireplace cleaned every two years if you have one or two fires a week; if you have one or two fires a month, every five years should suffice. The inspection can be done by a chimney sweep or a home inspector. If you think it’s time for a checkup and cleaning, call for an appointment soon; some companies already are booked through January.

• Whether or not you use your fireplace, the chimney should be topped with a metal cap with wire mesh to keep out squirrels, raccoons and birds. The screen also prevents sparks from escaping. (It costs about $200 to $300 to have one installed.)

• A wire mesh or glass fireplace screen to keep sparks from popping out should cover the entire opening.

• Do not put anything flammable within 20 inches of the fireplace opening. That means keeping that fringed Oriental rug as far from the hearth as you can. And be careful about where you place extra wood, kindling or stacks of newspapers.

• Think about fire extinguishers. Has yours been lying in the back of a closet for years? Some have expiration dates; others show whether the unit is still fully charged. Make sure you know how to operate it.

• Never put holiday gift wrap in the fireplace. Its intense burning can ignite your chimney or flash out into the room.