How to Avoid a Chimney Fire This Winter

While curling up by the fire is always great when the weather gets cold, there are a few things you should do first to make sure your fireplace is safe to use. Chimney fires occur more often than you’d think and can cause real damage to your home, but they’re easily preventable with some simple maintenance.

What is a chimney fire?

Chimney fires occur when your fireplace ignites a buildup of flammable material in your chimney. The most common culprit is a substance called creosote, which is really a residue of smoke and vapor from burning wood. This residue accumulates in your chimney as you use your fireplace, and if it isn’t cleaned regularly, it can build up in layers to form an incredibly flammable glaze.

What’s worse is that you may not even know you’re having chimney fires until you’ve had several of them. Chimney fires usually burn themselves out before they become noticeable, but they can burn at temperatures of up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to crack mortar and affect the structural integrity of your chimney. If a fire starts in an already-damaged chimney flue, that fire can spread to the home’s wooden structures and cause catastrophic damage.

What causes chimney fires?

Simply put, chimney fires are caused by a lack of proper maintenance. If you don’t have your fireplace and chimney inspected and cleaned regularly, you’re giving soot and creosote the chance to build up. The more flammable creosote buildup you have in your chimney, the higher the chance of combustion when you use your fireplace.

There are a few things you can do to slow the buildup of creosote in your chimney. First, burn only seasoned wood in your fireplace. Seasoned wood has been left to dry and age outside for at least six months to a year. Using “green,” or unseasoned, wood in your fireplace leads to more water vapor, inefficient burning and higher levels of creosote.

You can also lessen creosote buildup by ensuring proper air flow through your chimney. This means keeping the glass doors on your fireplace open, and making sure that the damper is all the way open before starting your fire.

How can you prevent chimney fires?

Regular inspections are the only way to be sure that your fireplace and chimney are in proper working order. An inspector can determine whether your chimney has suffered any structural damage from past fires and knows the signs of dangerous creosote buildup.

Even if you don’t use your fireplace very often, having it inspected regularly is important because creosote isn’t the only flammable substance in your chimney you have to worry about. Branches, bird nests and other debris can become lodged in your chimney (we’ve found even weirder things like footballs and raccoons, too—yeah, it happens). These can either obstruct air flow, causing an accumulation of carbon monoxide, or they can combust. Neither option is good news.

Call Your Local NPI Inspector for a Safe Chimney

National Property Inspections has the tools and expertise you need to keep your fireplace safe for your family this winter. Find your local NPI inspector today and schedule an appointment.

Chimney Maintenance

Like any home appliance, chimneys need their share of maintenance. Inspecting and cleaning your chimney annually is essential to fire prevention, as well as your ventilation system. This can include the chimney itself, the flue liners that keep it protected, as well as the vents that encompass the entire home. Vents, like chimney flues, are used to transfer exhaust from appliances and some furnaces to ensure your family’s safety from day to day. In high efficiency furnaces, vents may be plastic as well as metal.

Inside a chimney, the conditions are bleak. Burning wood creates creosote, an oily black substance that coats the lining of your flue, which over time can become thick enough to ignite. If this happens, and the resulting creosote fire is intense enough, it can crack the liner of the chimney itself, risking weakening it and surrounding flammable materials which can include wood framing. If this happens, a comforting evening by the hearth can turn into a full-blown house fire, which is why it is so essential to have your National Property Inspections team member visit annually for prevention. The Chimney Safety Institute recommends a cleaning once the creosote gets to ¼ inch or thicker, so if you live with the fire burning, be wary of your creosotes. However, once your chimney sweep has finished, feel free to use the leftover creosote residue in flowerbeds. It is a great source of calcium and other nutrients!

During cleaning, your chimneysweep should check the damper to ensure correct positioning, as this helps with energy efficiency. Along with the flue itself, the damper ledge must always be cleaned, while the outside should be checked for obstructions as well as normal wear and tear. A chimney cap, which serves an important function, should be in place if it is not already, because it keeps animals, rainwater, leaves and debris out, while keeping the flames held in. If you decide a wood fire is best for you, remember never to burn green wood, but to make sure it is seasoned enough to crackle.

Between inspections, it is always good to keep an eye out for rust, discoloration, or cracking, especially the areas around joints. To prevent damage should there ever be a fire, always be sure to install smoke detectors in every level of the home to properly detect and alert everyone to the hazard. It goes without saying, never forget to check the smoke detectors each month for functionality.

Fire Safety Tips from the Inspector

By Stephen Gremillion, NPI Property Inspector, Montgomery, Texas

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) http://www.nfpa.org, there were about 365,500 household fires in 2015. As an inspector, I’ve learned that many house fires are preventable. In fact, the NFPA also states that three out of five fire deaths were in homes without working smoke alarms. This, to me, says that simply installing and maintaining smoke alarms could save your life.

When talking about fire safety, I like to break it down into three categories: Fire Prevention, Fire Preparation, and the Fire. Fire Prevention items are things that you can do to prevent a fire. Fire Preparation items are things you can do to be prepared in case of a fire, and the Fire is what to do if you find yourself in a house fire.

Fire Prevention:

  • Use caution when using electrical resistance heating items like toasters, heating blankets, etc.
  • Use caution when using open flames like candles, barbecues, fireplaces, tobacco, etc.
  • Keep your kitchen clutter free and clean of grease.
  • Fix sub-standard electrical work.
  • Add Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) protection. For more info: http://www.npihome.com/2016/2510/afci-and-gfci-outlets-improve-electrical-safety-in-your-home/
  • Keep your dryer vent and lint trap clean. For more info: http://www.npihome.com/2014/1248/have-you-cleaned-your-dryer-vent-lately/
  • If you have a wood burning fireplace and use it regularly, the flue must be kept clean. For more info: http://www.npihome.com/2014/1728/keeping-your-chimney-clean/
  • If you use portable heaters, they should be monitored and have a tip safety. A tip safety is a function that shuts off the heater if it tips over. Also, it should be kept clear of combustibles.
  • Get a home inspection. A home inspection can reveal problems like sub-standard electrical work, improper fireplace hearths, etc.
  • Get a thermal imaging inspection. A thermal imaging inspection can reveal electrical problems that can’t be seen with the naked eye.

Fire Preparation:

  • Proper smoke alarm placement and maintenance. You should have a smoke alarm in each bedroom and each adjoining space. These should be tested once a month, have the battery changed once a year, and be completely replaced every ten years.
  • Fire extinguishers. We recommend that you have clear access to an extinguisher in the garage, kitchen, and bedroom. You should be familiar with their use and have the right type. For more info: http://www.npihome.com/2014/1863/1863/
  • You should have two escape options from each room. (Second-story windows do count).
  • Teach your kids some basic fire safety.

The Fire:

Hopefully, you never find yourself in this situation. However, if you do, here are some basic tips.

  • If the fire is small, try to put it out with your extinguisher.
  • If the fire cannot be contained, then you must leave immediately. Gather your family and an extinguisher and leave through one of your planned routes.
  • Door handles may be hot. It is best to grab them with a piece of cloth.
  • Close doors behind you! It may seem silly, but it’s for a good reason. A door can act as a barrier in two ways; 1) It can restrict airflow, 2) It acts as separation that the fire will take time to burn through.
  • If you find yourself trapped, there are two important things you must do:
  1. Signal for help. A piece of cloth hanging from the window is a largely recognized symbol, but a phone call is better.
  1. Minimize your exposure to smoke and flames. This can be done by opening a window, getting low, covering your mouth with cloth, and blocking underneath doors with wet cloths.

 

Make sure to be diligent about fire protection to keep your home and family safe. Practice these steps and have a happy and healthy 2017.

Stephen Gremillion Stephen Gremillion is a professionally trained NPI property inspector working for franchise owner/inspector Garner Gremillion in Montgomery, Texas. If you live in the area, call 936 230-3440 to schedule your home inspection with Garner or Stephen.

Before you move, make sure to have your house inspected by an NPI or GPI home inspector. Visit the links below to find an inspector near you.

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Keep Your Wood-burning Fireplace Clean and Safe

By Jon McCreath, NPI Franchise Owner, Emerson, Georgia

Fireplace-Brick_shutterstock_120704617Now that winter has arrived, it is a great time to refresh your maintenance plan for your fireplace. The following tips can ensure that your wood-burning fireplace operates safely and at peak efficiency.

  1. It is important to set a maintenance schedule and stick to it.
  2. Dispose of ashes as they accumulate. Never use a regular household vacuum for cleaning of the fireplace; purchase an ash vacuum designed specifically for this function. It is also a good idea to keep an ash bucket near your fireplace. Remember to make sure that the ashes have cooled before you dispose of them.
  3. Cleaning any glass or other exposed surfaces is easier when done on a regular basis, so add this task to your weekly cleaning list during months when the fireplace is in use.
  4. Examine how the smoke is traveling through the chimney. Make sure all chimney joints are tightly sealed and the ventilation system is not clogged. If you find leaks in the chimney, call a qualified contractor to make the repairs.
  5. Check for creosote buildup and clean with a creosote remover if necessary.

Once you have gotten through the colder season, it is a good idea to conduct a “spring cleaning” on your fireplace. Clean the fire box thoroughly (refer to your owner’s manual for any specific guidelines). Generally, chimneys should be cleaned annually by a qualified chimney professional.

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Fireplace Safety Can Prevent Potential Accidents

Fireplace-Stone_shutterstock_164472098Cold winter evenings are certainly an invitation to light a cozy fire in the fireplace after a long day. Here we offer a few basic safety tips to help you enjoy the fire and avoid fire-related accidents and injuries:

  • Be aware of children. Children should never be left unattended while a burning fire or hot coals are active in the fireplace.
  • Use fireplace tools. Fireplace tools are specifically designed for use with your fireplace. Using your hands or other objects, such as sticks, to reach inside and poke around the fire can be very dangerous. Serious burns can occur, or a foreign object can ignite, possibly creating a contact fire.
  • Ensure proper venting. When using the fireplace, consider opening a window as well as the damper to ventilate the room and allow smoke to escape. This can prevent possible damage from smoke inhalation or build-up.
  • Close Doors. Close the doors of the fireplace after the fire is lit. Hot coals could crackle and jump from the fireplace, causing injury or a contact fire.
  • Clean the chimney. A properly maintained chimney should be cleaned and inspected once a year by a chimney professional. The inspection will be for soundness, buildup, and overall safety conditions and corrections needed. Creosote is buildup from smoke that is extremely flammable and can cause a chimney fire, which could devastate your home. Creosote is also corrosive and can deteriorate the chimney. Furthermore, creosote exposure poses health threats to individuals exposed to this harmful toxin.
  • Keep flammable material away from the fireplace. Never store or place flammable materials near your fireplace. Fire-proof mats or rugs should be used in front of or near the fireplace. Do not dash flammable liquids onto hot coals or a flame, as this can cause an explosion or severe burns.

Many resources are available for additional information regarding fireplace safety. Professional chimney cleaning companies, fire departments, yellow pages and Internet resources are readily available if you have further questions or concerns.

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Common Causes of Chimney-related Leaks

By Lawrence Englehart, GPI Franchise Owner, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Chimney_shutterstock_159544304Most people would be surprised to know that Nova Scotia gets an average precipitation of 1,388 mm per year — which equates to more than 54 inches of water hitting the ground, roof and chimney each year — so keeping water or excessive moisture out of our homes can be a constant battle.

Regardless of where you live, when it comes to typical penetrations of the roofing system, the chimney offers the most opportunities for water to make its way into the home. Here are examples of the four common causes of chimney-related leaks:

Rain Cap
Flue pipes come in many sizes, but 8”x8” or 8”x12” clay liners are typical, providing a large opening for water to get inside. If rain is allowed to freely flow down an open flue pipe, it will mix with soot or creosote and can create unsightly stains. A properly designed rain cap will not only minimize water entry, but it can help keep leaves and critters out.

Masonry Cap or Crown
The chimney cap or crown is a cement cover placed on top of the masonry chimney in an effort to shield the top of the bricks from the elements. A properly designed masonry cap should overhang each side by at least two inches and should gently slope away from the clay liner. Visible cracks or a poorly designed masonry cap could allow water in.

Deteriorated Mortar/Brick
The mortar between the brick will naturally deteriorate over time and will eventually need repointing. Repointing is the process of replacing the old mortar with new. Any visible gaps or cracks in the mortar will allow water to enter these voids and can cause significant damage through multiple freeze/thaw cycles.

Flashing Failure
Chimney flashing is designed to prevent water intrusion from where the chimney passes through the roof. Visible signs of excessive tar cover usually suggest past problems with leaks and nonprofessional installation. Sometimes the best place to inspect for flashing failure is from inside the attic space.

The inspection of a masonry chimney is part of a typical home inspection, but once they take possession of their new home, most homeowners never think about regular chimney maintenance. Your masonry chimney should be inspected each year by a qualified masonry contractor. And, if there are any wood burning stoves or fireplaces attached to the chimney, then your chimney it should be cleaned and inspected by chimney sweep. In Canada, your chimney sweep should be a WETT-certified.

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Keeping Your Chimney Clean

Chimney_shutterstock_126328937Chimneys need to be kept clean to prevent chimney fires, but how often they need to be cleaned is a tricky question. The National Fire Protection Association Standard 211 says, “Chimneys, fireplaces, and vents shall be inspected at least once a year for soundness, freedom from deposits, and correct clearances. Cleaning, maintenance, and repairs shall be done if necessary.”

In wood-burning fireplaces, creosote can build up and cause chimney fires. But even if you have a gas fireplace or don’t use your fireplace very often, you should have the chimney inspected and cleaned about once a year, as animals can get into the chimney and build nests, or leaves, sticks and twigs from nearby trees can become trapped in the chimney and cause chimney fires.

You could try to remove creosote and clean your chimney yourself, but for a thorough, professional job, you’ll need to call a chimney sweep. The cost is around $150 to $200, and you should make sure that the chimney professional does a thorough job. Ask for a Level 1 inspection; if the chimney sweep doesn’t know what that is, move on to another company. If you live in Canada, be sure that your chimney sweep professional is certified by Wood Energy Technology Transfer, Inc. (WETT).

For more information about chimney cleaning, visit the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s website. In Canada, visit the Wood Energy Technology Transfer, Inc., website.

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What If an Inspector Can’t Inspect the Flue?

Fireplace-Brick_shutterstock_120704617A chimney cap is often required in order to keep animals and debris out of the chimney and to prevent deterioration of the chimney liner. But when a chimney cap is in place, it can hinder a home inspector’s ability to inspect the chimney.

In cases where a chimney cap is in place and the inspector can’t inspect the chimney, the inspector will note on the report something like, “Unable to inspect the chimney flue from exterior due to presence of chimney cap. Very limited observation from the interior.”

If you want the chimney and liner professionally inspected, you should call a professional chimney sweep for an inspection.

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