Chimneys are one of the many joys of homeownership. When the weather gets cold, you’ve got nothing to fear from the chill or high heating bills. All you need to do is toss some wood on the fire and enjoy the warmth. That said, you may want to hold off on doing all of that until you’ve given your chimney a thorough cleaning in order to avoid serious risks.

Dangers of Unclean Chimneys

While a dirty chimney might sound like little more than some soot on your carpet, that couldn’t be further from the truth. A majority of home fires are caused by unclean chimneys and fireplaces—22 percent of them resulting in fatalities. This is typically in the form of blockages, where soot, debris or other objects get stuck inside the chimney and prevent gases and fumes from venting out the top. Deaths like this are entirely avoidable when you plan ahead.

How to Clean Your Chimney

Cleaning your chimney can be simple, provided you’ve got the right tools. If you don’t plan to hire someone for the task, all you’ll need is a shop vacuum, a push-pull rod, metal-bristle brushes and plenty of plastic tarps. Cover the area around the chimney base with the tarp to prevent soot from getting everywhere, then run a secure hose duct taped from the shop vacuum head to the entrance of the chimney. To avoid soot or any stench polluting your home, you’ll want the vacuum itself outside. Cover this setup with another layer of tarp and secure the sides with tape. From there, simply plunge the rod up and down from the top of the chimney to dislodge any blockages and scrape soot off the walls. Turn on the vacuum and suck everything up as you do this. After that, it’s just a matter of collecting larger bits of debris by hand and scraping out the fireplace with your brushes.

How to Repair Your Chimney

Repairing a chimney is a bit more involved but can be done on your own. To identify damage that needs fixing, look for chipped mortar or broken seals as you’re cleaning. When you identify trouble spots, simply patch them up with a thick mortar, ensuring all gaps are filled. Do not try to descend the chimney to patch holes out of reach. Focus on what you can do yourself and get a professional to help.

Chimneys are a mainstay of many homes all across the country, but they also come with responsibilities. Clean your chimney at least once a year before you start using it to keep your house safe and happy.

Once you’ve cleaned your chimney, check out these signs you may need to fix your HVAC system, too!