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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.
In 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.
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.
Modern Fireplace Inserts for Burning Wood, Coal, Pellet Fuel
A 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.
Unsafe 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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Mark Cramer Inspection Services Mark Cramer, Tampa Florida, Mr. Cramer is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors and is a Florida home inspector and home inspection educator. Mr. Cramer serves on the ASHI Home Inspection Standards. Contact Mark Cramer at: 727-595-4211 mark@BestTampaInspector.com
John Cranor is an ASHI member and a home inspector (The House Whisperer) is located in Glen Allen, VA 23060. He is also a contributor to InspectApedia.com in several technical areas such as plumbing and appliances (dryer vents). Contact Mr. Cranor at 804-747-7747 or by Email: email@example.com
Home Inspection Education Home Study Courses - ASHI@Home Training 10-course program. Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on these courses: Enter INSPECTAHITP in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
The Home Reference Book, a reference & inspection report product for building owners & inspectors. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
The Home Reference eBook, an electronic version for PCs, the iPad, iPhone, & Android smart phones. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference eBook purchased as a single order. Enter inspectaehrb in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
The Illustrated Home illustrates construction details and building components, a reference for owners & inspectors. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Illustrated Home purchased as a single order Enter INSPECTAILL in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
The Horizon Software System manages business operations,scheduling, & inspection report writing using Carson Dunlop's knowledge base & color images. The Horizon system runs on always-available cloud-based software for office computers, laptops, tablets, iPad, Android, & other smartphones.
Thanks to Luke Barnes for suggesting that we add text regarding the hazards of shared chimney flues. USMA - Sept. 2008.
Arlene Puentes, an ASHI member and a licensed home inspector in Kingston, NY, and has served on ASHI national committees as well as HVASHI Chapter President. Ms. Puentes can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger Hankeyis principal of Hankey and Brown home inspectors, Eden Prairie, MN, technical review by Roger Hankey, prior chairman, Standards Committee, American Society of Home Inspectors - ASHI. 952 829-0044 - hankeyandbrown.com
NFPA #211-3.1 1988 -
Specific to chimneys, fireplaces, vents and solid fuel burning appliances.
NFPA # 54-7.1 1992 -
Specific to venting of equipment with fan-assisted combustion systems.
Gas Appliance Manufacturers' Association has prepared venting tables for
Category I draft hood equipped central furnaces as well as fan-assisted
combustion system central furnaces.
National Fuel Gas Code, an American National Standard, 4th ed. 1988 (newer edition is available) Secretariats, American Gas Association (AGA), 1515 Wilson Blvd., Arlington VA22209, and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Batterymarch Park, Quincy MA 02269. ANSI Z223.1-1988 - NFPA 54-1988. WARNING: be sure to check clearances and other safety guidelines in the latest edition of these standards.
Fire Inspector Guidebook, A Correlation of Fire Safety Requirements Contained in the 1987 BOCA National Codes, (newer edition available), Building Officials and Code Administrators International, Inc. (BOCA), Country Club HIlls, IL 60478 312-799-2300 4th ed. Note: this document is reissued every four years. Be sure to obtain the latest edition.
Uniform Mechanical Code - UMC 1991, Sec 913 (a.) Masonry Chimneys,
refers to Chapters 23, 29, and 37 of the Building Code.
New York 1984 Uniform Fire
Prevention and Building Code, Article 10, Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning Requirements
New York 1979 Uniform Fire Prevention & Building Code, The "requirement" for 8" of solid masonry OR for use of a
flue liner was listed in the One and Two Family Dwelling Code for New
York, in 1979, in Chapter 9, Chimneys and Fireplaces, New York 1979
Building and Fire Prevention Code:
"Top Ten Chimney (and related) Problems Encountered by One Chimney Sweep," Hudson Valley ASHI education seminar, 3 January 2000, contributed by Bob Hansen, ASHI
"Rooftop View Turns to Darkness," Martine Costello, Josh Kovner, New Haven Register, 12 May 1992 p. 11: Catherine Murphy was sunning on a building roof when a chimney collapsed; she fell into and was trapped inside the chimney until rescued by emergency workers.
"Chimneys and Vents," Mark J. Reinmiller, P.E., ASHI Technical Journal, Vol. 1 No. 2 July 1991 p. 34-38.
"Chimney Inspection Procedures & Codes," Donald V. Cohen was to be published in the first volume of the 1994 ASHI Technical Journal by D. Friedman, then editor/publisher of that publication. The production of the ASHI Technical Journal and future editions was cancelled by ASHI President Patrick Porzio. Some of the content of Mr. Cohen's original submission has been included in this more complete chimney inspection article: InspectAPedia.com/chimneys/Chimney_Inspection_Repair.htm. Copies of earlier editions of the ASHI Technical Journal are available from ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors.
Natural Gas Weekly Update: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/oog/info/ngw/ngupdate.asp Official Energy Statistics from the U.S. Government
US Energy Administration: Electrical Energy Costs http://www.eia.doe.gov/fuelelectric.html
NFPA 211 - 3-1.10 - Relining guide for chimneys
NFPA 211 - 3-2 - Construction of Masonry Chimneys
NFPA 211 - 3-3 - Termination Height for chimneys
NFPA 211 - 3-4 - Clearance from Combustible Material
NFPA 54 - 7-1 - Venting of Equipment into chimneys
Brick Institute of America - Flashing Chimneys
Brick Institute of America - Proper Chimney Crowns
Brick Institute of America - Moisture Resistance of Brick
American Gas Association - New Vent Sizing Tables
Chimney Safety Institute of America - Chimney Fires: Causes, Effects, Evaluation
National Chimney Sweep Guild - Yellow Pages of Suppliers
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume. Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
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Ceramic Roofware, Hans Van Lemmen, Shire Library, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-0747805694 - Brick chimneys, chimney-pots and roof and ridge tiles have been a feature of the roofs of a wide range of buildings since the late Middle Ages. In the first instance this ceramic roofware was functional - to make the roof weatherproof and to provide an outlet for smoke - but it could also be very decorative.
The practical and ornamental aspects of ceramic roofware can still be seen throughout Britain, particularly on buildings of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Not only do these often have ornate chimneys and roof tiles but they may also feature ornamental sculptures or highly decorative gable ends. This book charts the history of ceramic roofware from the Middle Ages to the present day, highlighting both practical and decorative applications, and giving information about manufacturers and on the styles and techniques of production and decoration.
Hans van Lemmen is an established author on the history of tiles and has lectured on the subject in Britain and elsewhere. He is founder member and presently publications editor of the British Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society. Available at the InspectAPedia Bookstore.
Chimney & Stack Inspection Guidelines, American Society of Civil Engineers, 2003 - These guidelines address the inspection of chimneys and stacks. Each guideline assists owners in determining what level of inspection is appropriate to a particular chimney and provides common criteria so that all parties involved have a clear understanding of the scope of the inspection and the end product required. Each chimney or stack is a unique structure, subject to both aggressive operating and natural environments, and degradation over time. Such degradation may be managed via a prudent inspection program followed by maintenance work on any equipment or structure determined to be in need of attention. Sample inspection report specifications, sample field inspection data forms, and an example of a developed plan of a concrete chimney are included in the guidelines. This book provides a valuable guidance tool for chimney and stack inspections and also offers a set of references for these particular inspections.