Do you know what the #1 cause of chimney damage is, by far? Here’s a hint: it’s not creosote, it’s not age, and it’s not chimney fires. It’s water. All chimneys are in a state of deterioration everyday, all the time. Different from other structures, this pillar is sticking up out of your home and getting weathered on all sides, 24/7, 365. Nothing else in your home is exposed to weather from all sides, not even the exterior walls. So if you think about their endless exposure to the elements, it makes sense that chimneys can sometimes deteriorate so rapidly.
When water gets into the chimney structure, it acts fast. The sooner you address water damage, the better, but how can you tell if you have a water problem you should be concerned about?
How to identify water damage in your chimney:
- Listen. A lot of times, homeowners can hear a dripping or a tink, tink sound in their chimneys, but they can’t see the water. Typically, this is water dripping on the damper or the metal firebox.
- Look. There are visible signs of water damage to keep an eye out for like streaking on the back of the fireplace or a white film on the brick. From the outside of your home, look for white streaks on the chimney or rust and staining on the chimney. Other visible signs of water damage from the exterior of the home are chunks of mortar missing or pieces of brick laying on your patio, driveway, or roof. You’ll want to check for cracks periodically. Cracks require immediate action and only get worse if they aren’t filled or repaired, which can lead to structural and safety issues.
- Follow your nose. Sometimes you can’t hear or see water in your chimney, but you can smell it. If your chimney smells bad after a big rain, this means water is getting into the chimney and mixing with the creosote.
If your water damage is caused by the flashing – the sheet metal installed at the base of your chimney where it exits the roof. You may notice other visible signs of water damage including:
- water stains on your ceiling close to the chimney
- water dripping right along the front face of the fireplace – not near the back, but near the front brick
- buckled shingles that are no longer flat and tight up near the flashing
- flashing that has pulled away from the chimney
Who fixes flashing leaks?
One mistake that homeowners often make is calling a roofer when they have a chimney or flashing leak. However, you should always call a chimney company first. Most of them can take care of all kinds of chimney leaks including flashing-related leaks.
In general, roofers are not qualified to work on chimneys because that’s not their specialty. They typically don’t know the codes surrounding chimneys and don’t really know what needs to be done. More often than not, we find bad work done on chimneys by roofing companies. But this isn’t a dig at roofers – we wouldn’t recommend calling us for a new roof either! We each have different specialties, and we both are knowledgeable about different things.
Can water damage be prevented or slowed down?
While all chimneys are in a state of deterioration, there are some things you can do to prevent water damage:
- The #1 preventative thing you can do for the chimney is to have a big, outside mount chimney cap. These caps cover the chimney flue and crown like a big umbrella. Aside from that, the best thing you can do is waterproof the brickwork of the chimney with a siloxane based water-repellent.
- You’ll also want to schedule annual inspections and have the chimney regularly checked for cracks. Almost all chimney damage starts small, but once cracks get about 1/16th of an inch, then you can cut out the crack or do some repairs. Remember, cracks will only grow, and the bigger they get, the more problems they bring. Make sure to have all cracks filled or repaired ASAP.
Is chimney waterproofing or painting a DIY job?
While homeowners can apply siloxane-based sealants to the chimney themselves (as long as they follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions for how many gallons to apply per foot), we don’t recommend it. First of all, climbing onto the roof is dangerous, and it is a risk that we, the chimney professionals, don’t take lightly. We’re trained to do the job in a manner that’s safe and minimizes this risk. We never suggest getting up onto your roof and doing the work yourself because it’s simply not worth the risk of your safety.
As far as painting your chimney, we don’t recommend doing this either, as it can trap water behind the paint. When you have freeze/thaw cycles like we have here in TN, that trapped water freezes and expands, then cracks the bricks. This is called spalling, and it happens a lot with painted brick. While we understand that homeowners choose to paint the chimney to match the rest of the home, keep in mind that, you may be adding more maintenance to your life. It also may bring more cracks and issues to your chimney as a result, depending on the paint you use.
Real life stories: can chimney water damage really be that dangerous or devastating?
As a chimney professional with decades of experience, I’ve seen some pretty bad chimney leaks. Oftentimes, the damage gets so bad that the chimney needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt. I’ve seen the wooden chimney chases of prefab fireplaces rot all the way through and become a haven for termites. In these scenarios, we have to pull everything out, and redo everything from the bottom up.
I’ve seen brick chimneys that are spalling so badly that repairs aren’t even possible, and we have to start over from the ground up. While you build chimneys from the bottom up, they deteriorate from the top down, and sometimes you just have to rebuild the entire structure. Some situations are even worse. I was once called by a woman who had a chimney leak and first called a roofer. The roofer came out and said that he fixed the issue. This woman had gas logs, and she slept on a couch beside her fireplace. After the roofer came to fix the leak, she got sick, and quickly went from bad to worse. She was close to death, and no one knew what was wrong with her.
When I was called out to the job, I realized that what had happened. The roofer tried to stop the leak by putting shingles over the top of the fireplace flue. Every time she burned her gas logs, she was breathing in carbon monoxide and was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. It took her about a year to recover. For years, she called me thanking me for saving her life. I am just thankful that I was called out to the job and was able to help.
As you can see, it’s important to know how to identify chimney water damage, how to prevent it, and what steps you should take. Is it time to schedule an inspection and have your chimney looked at? The team here at Ashbusters has always been committed to fixing leaks and other chimney-related problems in the Nashville and the neighboring areas, and we’re happy to serve you. Call us at 615-459-2546 to schedule your appointment today!