Antique coal burning fireplace Poughkeepsie (C) Daniel Friedman Fireplace Inspection Procedures & Checklist
Tips from a Chimney Sweep & from code experts

  • FIREPLACE INSPECTIONS - CONTENTS: Fireplace safety inspection checklist - indoor procedures. Indoor chimney inspection points around the fireplace. Fireplace hazards listed by a chimney sweep professional
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Fireplace safety & structural inspections - indoor procedures: this article describes Fireplace Inspections performed from indoors, listing a professional chimney sweep's fireplace and chimney hazard checklist for problems that can be found by visual inspection at the fireplace or chimney cleanout.

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Fireplace Inspection Checklist

Antique coal burning fireplace Poughkeepsie (C) Daniel FriedmanIn the 1980's Bill Murphy, Hudson Valley Chimney Sweeps, met with New York Metro ASHI home inspectors to list his biggest safety worries when inspecting a fireplace or fireplace chimney flue from indoors.

Here is the list of concerns Bill provided, in alphabetic order, not in order of level of risk. From a variety of fire safety inspection sources we have added a few items beyond what Murphy originally listed, and readers are welcome to us to add other inspection suggestions.

  • Ash dump shared between a fireplace and a heating appliance such as an heating boiler. A shared ash dump risks chimney draft problems for both appliances, unsafe or improper heater operation, and possible movement of dangerous or fatal carbon monoxide or flue gases out of the heating system and into the building's occupied space.

    Watch out
    : some older homes used a shared flue among fireplaces and heating appliances on different floors - a practice that is considered unsafe and is prohibited today.
  • Common brick instead of fireplace (refractory) brick used in the fireplace firebox. This softer form of brick absorbs moisture and can explode during a hot fire, sending masonry shrapnel out into the occupied space.
  • Cross-Vents between chimney flues: chimney flues that leak into one another, such as leaks between a heating appliance flue and the fireplace flue. As above, this condition risks potentially fatal carbon monoxide poisoning as well as improper draft for both fireplace and heater. Bill uses a mirror to look upwards into the chimney from the cleanout opening. We have also found breaks between a fireplace flue and heating flue by observing boiler or furnace noises that were louder at the fireplace opening. The heating flue must be entirely separated from the fireplace or woodstove flue.
  • Gaps or cracks at the hearth, firebox, or chimney due to hearth settlement or chimney movement are very dangerous, risking a building fire. Details are at  FIREPLACE DAMAGE & UNSAFE HEARTHS.
Zero clearance metal fireplace (C) Daniel Friedman
  • Heatilator-type fireplaces, steel rust-out: Murphy indicated that steel "heatilator" style fireplaces that are 20-25 years old are at very high risk of having rusted out and become unsafe. Rain falling down a chimney rusts out the smoke shelf - a condition that you may not be able to see but can feel by hand. Bill suggests rapping on the steel fireplace components and listening for falling rust.
  • Smoke detectors missing - easy to correct, do not use your fireplace or woodstove unless smoke detectors are installed properly and at the recommended locations.
  • Wood framing or forms left in place below the hearth, a common practice, risk an eventual house fire either from sparks or coals falling through hearth cracks onto the framing, or by repeated heating to high temperatures and the process of pyrolysis that lowers the combustion point for wood.
  • Wood framing or forms visible through the ash dump opening, a fire hazard. No wood should be in the ash dump opening or ash dump path or storage area as coals from a fire can set this framing on fire.
  • Zero clearance? we have found a few zero-clearance fireplaces improperly installed too close to combustibles. Details are at FIREPLACE INSERTS.

Visible fireplace chimney flue condition

At FIREPLACE INSERTS we detail the exploration of the condition of a cast-iron "fireplace" or fireplace grate that was originally intended for burning large chunks of coal, probably soft coal. This installation was found in a home built in Poughkeepsie NY ca 1900 and restored by the author.

Antique coal burning fireplace Poughkeepsie (C) Daniel Friedman Antique coal burning fireplace Poughkeepsie (C) Daniel Friedman

Modern Fireplace Inserts for Burning Wood, Coal, Pellet Fuel

Fireplace insert (C) Daniel FriedmanA modern fireplace insert for burning wood is shown at left. You can see why inspecting the chimney from inside is impossible without removing the appliance.

This installation is particularly interesting. If you click to enlarge the photo you can see light colored bricks at the right of the fireplace insert: the installer appears to have bricked the original fireplace opening to better fit the new insert.

Watch out: adding a fireplace insert that moves the fire doors closer to the edge of the hearth reduces fire clearance (for heat or if the doors are open, sparks and coals) between the appliance opening and nearby combustibles or flooring.

The owners have placed a "fireproof rug" in front of this unit - that semi-circular carpet observed on the floor. Is this adequate? Be sure to consult your local fire inspector when installing or converting a fireplace or fuel burning appliance.

Woodstove inserted (C) Daniel FriedmanUnsafe Fireplace Inserts

By "fireplace insert" we refer to a wood or coal-burning stove designed to be inserted into an existing masonry fireplace opening.

The wood-stove installed in the fireplace at left may work in such a location, but it was not designed as an "insert" - and does not fit the opening of this odd fireplace. In fact not much would fit in this angled firebox.

Placing the feet of the woodstove past the hearth and onto a rug, as well as less than 3' from combustibles, are further fire hazards - this is an unsafe installation.


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