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Cleaning That Sooty Fireplace

Whenever you move out of the cold season and into warmer weather, you may find yourself looking at your fireplace surround and hearth with a bit of dismay. Chances are your surround, mantle and hearth are discolored by stubborn sooty residue that won’t come off with just a quick wipe down. So what do you do? How do you clean that stuff?

Well, the first thing to know is this: that oooky residue is essentially grease, so you need a good degreaser. A lot of industry experts agree that tri-sodium phosphate (TSP) is the tried and true solution for just this situation. However, TSP is also a harsh chemical that is not good for humans or the environment in general. This means you need to know how to handle it if you’re going to use it.

Here are some pointers:

  1. Read the instructions and warnings before you begin. And follow them!
  2. Limit your exposure. Wear long pants and long sleeves. Use gloves, glasses and a particle mask or respirator, and make sure there is proper ventilation!
  3. A little goes a long way. ½ to 1 cup of TSP to one gallon of hot water is plenty. For more control on a vertical surface, you can create a paste with the TSP and a little water and apply it with a sponge or scrub-brush (depending on the surface type) but you won’t need a lot, so go easy and rinse thoroughly!
  4. Also note that TSP does unfriendly things to paint, so if you don’t want to be repainting once you’ve finished cleaning, mask and protect painted surfaces as necessary.
  5. TSP can be damaging if it ends up in lakes and streams, because is stimulates the excessive growth of algae, which depletes the oxygen levels in the water, endangering fish and other wildlife. It’s not something you want ending up in your septic system or individual water purification system either. Dilute well and make sure you know where that waste-water is headed.
  6. The toxic nature of TSP means its use and disposal may be restricted. Be sure to check local and state regulations so you don’t run afoul of them.

Those are the basics for dealing with TSP, but there are a couple of other important things to consider in general. Namely, what is the surface you’re cleaning made of? Is it porcelain or ceramic tile, brick, natural stone, etc.? For example, the rougher side of a standard kitchen sponge should work fine on glazed tile, but you wouldn’t want to use an actual scrub-brush or abrasive pad, which could potentially scratch or otherwise damage the surface. On the other hand, brick may actually require a tougher scrub to come clean. Oh, and don’t assume that because a stiff brush is ok for brick that it’s necessarily ok for all natural stone as well. Take soapstone, for instance: you’re quite likely to find it in hearths and fireplace surrounds because it retains and radiates heat very efficiently. However, it’s a softer stone, which scratches relatively easily and it doesn’t really appreciate a rubdown with a good stiff brush.

If all these considerations have you thinking maybe you’ll hire someone to get rid of that sooty residue, it’s understandable. Calling a professional to deal with all of that for you is always an option, but even then, it’s good to know enough to be able to evaluate how well they are caring for you, your family, your property and the environment.

This is one of a series of articles written and published  on behalf of Stone and Tile PRO Partners.

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