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.

6 Ways to Prevent a Christmas Tree Fire

Christmas tree fire

With the holidays just around the corner, we’re guessing things are hectic around your home. You’re getting ready for company and putting the finishing touches on your decorations. Without adding undue stress, we’re here to give you tips on something that may have fallen to the back of your mind: Christmas tree fire safety. Here are some ways to stop a burning Christmas tree from ruining your holiday.

1. Pick a tree that’s green.

Fresh Christmas trees are much less likely to catch on fire than those that are already starting to dry out. Dry trees can ignite in a second and become a raging fire in less than a minute. When picking out your tree, pay attention to how the needles look and feel. If they look brown, come off the branches easily and snap between your fingers, the tree is too dry. Instead, look for vibrant green needles that look waxy and don’t break easily.

2. Place your tree strategically.

Being aware of heat sources in your home is the next step in preventing a Christmas tree fire. You should always maintain a distance of at least three feet between your tree and any sources of heat. This includes fireplaces, candles, space heaters and radiators. Remember, it only takes one spark on a dry tree to create an out-of-control flame.

3. Keep your tree watered.

How much should you water your Christmas tree? If you said a gallon a day, you’re right! Trees need even more water the first few days and may need more in general depending on their size, so make sure not to skimp. Once you notice needles beginning to fall, your tree is a fire hazard and should be removed from your home.

4. Use appropriate types of lights.

Only use UL-listed Christmas lights for your tree (check the manufacturer’s directions) and be sure you’re not overloading your outlets by connecting too many light strings together. We recommend connecting a maximum of three traditional light strings together. You can also switch to energy-efficient LED lights instead, which produce much less heat, and flameless candles, which can look and feel like the real thing without the danger of an open flame.

5. Turn off the lights when you leave.

Any time you leave the room, you should turn off your Christmas lights and extinguish any candles or other sources of heat, like fireplaces. This is especially important when you’re leaving the house or going to bed. Enjoy the cozy firelight when you’re relaxing at home with your family, but when you go to bed, make sure it’s lights out.

6. Know when to take down your tree.

We know it’s hard to say goodbye, but listen to this—half of all Christmas tree fires occur in the 20 days AFTER the holiday, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Even a well-watered tree begins to show signs of drying out after four weeks. That means if you put your tree up around Thanksgiving, you should take it down right after Christmas.

Have a Safe Holiday with National Property Inspections

National Property Inspections is your partner for a safe and festive holiday season. Your local NPI inspector provides many services to help you keep your home’s most important components in tip top shape this winter. Locate your nearest inspector and make an appointment today.

Icicles Signal Problems for Home Owners

IciclesThis winter, take special note of any icicles hanging from your roof. Small icicles are normal, but large, thick icicles can be dangerous if they fall and usually spell trouble for your home. Fortunately, most problems that cause icicles can be remedied easily.

Icicles typically indicate ice damming on your home’s roof, a problem usually caused by insufficient or missing insulation and ventilation in your attic and between your house and your attic. During the winter, this warms the roof, causing snow to melt more rapidly and move down the roof to the overhang, where it refreezes in the form of icicles. It can also cause an ice dam to form, which eventually pushes the water up under the roof’s shingles. This damages the roof and gutters, and it can lead to water intrusion causing leaks in ceilings or walls, or soaking insulation, which would make it ineffective. As if those problems weren’t bad enough, ice dams can cause structural decay and rot to your house, or cause mold and mildew to form in your attic and on wall surfaces.

Try the following remedies to reduce or eliminate ice damming and the damage it causes:

  • Seal all holes or gaps connecting your heated living space and your attic.
  • Ensure that the attic is properly insulated.
  • Attached with clips along the roof’s edge in a zigzag pattern, heated cables prevent ice dams, allowing you to equalize your roof’s temperature by heating it from the outside instead of blowing in cold air from the outside.
  • Use an aluminum roof rake to pull snow off of your roof.
  • Install a ridge vent and continuous soffit vents to circulate cold air under the entire roof.
  • Make sure that ducts connected to the kitchen, bathroom and dryer vents all lead outdoors through either the roof or walls — never through the soffit.
  • Seal gaps between chimneys and the house framing with L-shaped steel flashing held in place with unbroken beads of a fire-stop sealant.
  • DO NOT attack an ice dam with a hammer or other tool to chop it up, as you could cause further damage to your roof. If necessary, contact a roofing company to steam the ice dam off.
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Winter Home Maintenance Checklist

Winter-House_shutterstock_93938941Winter officially begins this month, although some of you may feel like it’s already been in full swing for a few weeks. Here are the tasks and projects around your house that you should work on during the next couple of months:

  • Make sure any firewood is stored at least 30 feet away from your house so it doesn’t attract wood-destroying organisms to your home’s structure.
  • Note the location of any roof damage and/or icicles that develop over the winter. Icicles could indicate ice damming.
  • Check the caulk around your bathroom fixtures and make sure it is in good condition and adequate.
  • Check wall and floor tiles for any cracked or missing grout and repair.
  • Check your basement for leaks and seepage during thaws throughout the winter.
  • Going on a ski trip for a week? Open the cabinets below sinks to avoid frozen pipes while your house is unoccupied.
  • Test smoke alarms and replace batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Check water hoses on clothes washer, fridge, icemaker and dishwasher for cracks and bubbles.
  • Check all your plumbing shut-off valves to ensure that they work properly.
  • Check the base of your water heater for leakage, rusting and proper venting.
  • Check extension cords and replace any that are brittle, worn or damaged.
  • Check electrical outlets for loose-fitting plugs and replace any outlets where this is a problem.
  • Test your ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets and arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) breakers to be sure they are working properly.
  • Check multi-pane windows for fogginess, which indicates broken seals.
  • If you didn’t have your chimney cleaned in the fall, it’s time to have it cleaned to remove creosote buildup, which can become a fire hazard.
  • Have your heating system cleaned and inspected. This usually costs between $75 and $100.
  • Test your sump pump by slowly pouring several gallons of water into the sump pit to see whether the pump turns on.
  • Wash and change seasonal bedding.
  • Clean out junk drawers, catch-all closets, medicine cabinets and other areas where you stash “stuff.” This is sure to reveal treasures you forgot you had.
  • Use the time indoors to clean all of your windows.
  • Make sure to sweep snow off any wooden porches or decks.
  • Replace or clean your furnace filter monthly.
  • Make sure the hinges and springs on your garage door are adequately lubricated.
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Prepare for Cold Weather: Caulk, Seal and Weather-strip

Winter House_shutterstock_128124284As you prepare your home for the cold weather, you’ll want to be sure to eliminate drafts, which can cause cold spots in your home and waste energy. Caulking, sealing and weather-stripping windows and doors is the way to stop drafts in their tracks.

In addition to saving money and eliminated cold spots near doors and windows, sealing drafts can help prevent unwanted visitors like rodents from entering your home.

Regardless of the season, sealing cracks around doors and windows offers a number benefits and is wise for any home owner:

  • Saves money by preventing cold air from entering your house in the winter or hot air entering in the summer.
  • Eliminates easy entry points for insects such as ants, roaches, spiders, flies and crickets.
  • Requires no special skills to apply caulk, sealant or weather-stripping.
  • Offers an inexpensive solution. You can purchase any type of weather stripping, caulk or sealer from your local hardware store, and it will be worth the investment.
  • Provides an accent to the paint around the trim of the doors and windows inside your home and can be appealing to the eye. A paint job or stain can look unfinished and appear to have unattractive gaps or spacing without proper caulk or sealant.
  • Prevents rain and snow from entering your house. If the existing doors or windows in your home are wood, then weather stripping prevents water from damaging the wood.
  • Dampens some of the outdoor noise levels (animals, mowers, children, vehicles).
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Ask the Inspector: Winterizing Outdoor Faucets

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

Water PipesQ. My neighbor just had a basement leak caused by her outside tap freezing, which busted a pipe. I’m concerned this might happen to us. Is there a proper way to winterize our outside water faucets?

A. This is a really good question, but the answer may depend on the age of the home or the type of exterior faucet in use. In older homes, the exterior faucet is a simple compression faucet that has a type of in-line shutoff valve inside the home, which should also have a small brass drain cap located on the side of the valve. As well, the copper pipes for this older configuration should slope toward the exterior faucet.

The proper procedure to winterize this older exterior faucet is to first shut off the inside valve by turning the handle clockwise, then proceed to the exterior faucet and open the faucet by turning that handle counter-clockwise. The homeowner should then proceed back to the inside shut-off valve and open up the small brass bleeder drain cap, which would then allow all of the water to drain out of that section of copper pipe. The reason the water needs to be drained out of the exterior faucet is the risk that any water left inside the exterior faucet may cause damage to the water pipe if the temperature outside were to go below the point that water freezes.

The newer type of exterior faucet is called a frost-proof faucet, or freeze-proof faucet. As the name implies, these are designed to minimize the risk of water freezing inside the unit and possibly rupturing the water pipe. However, just like the older configuration, these units need to be installed with the pipe sloping toward the exterior of the home. This unit is also a type of compression faucet, but the physical shut-off valve is actually up to 12 inches away from the exterior tap and located inside an insulated wall or rim joist area.

If you’re not sure if your exterior faucet is an older style or a frost-proof type, the general rule of thumb is that the handle for the frost-proof faucets tend to be perpendicular to the home.

Unfortunately, although most home owners may be familiar with this quick overview of a winterizing process, some may not understand that the garden hose must be disconnected before winter or there is a very real risk that the garden hose would keep water inside the faucet, which could potentially freeze and possibly rupture the water pipe.

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Reduce Dampness and Moisture in Your Home

Empty RoomIs the humidity in your home too high? Telltale signs include condensation on the windows and a damp feeling in the air, but more serious problems can occur. For example, high humidity levels contribute to mold growth and dust mites, neither of which is healthy for your home and its inhabitants.

Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air, and the mold and dust mites that high humidity levels promote are allergens that can cause people to cough and sneeze, as well as experience skin irritations. In addition, high humidity levels can cause rot, especially in the south, and they draw insects, as the condensation from high humidity provides them with the water they need.

So, what’s the right amount of humidity? A level of 50 percent or lower is ideal for most people, but you also don’t want the level too low, either, especially in the winter months. To mitigate high humidity, add ventilation, use exhaust fans and dehumidifiers, and run the air conditioning for a spell.

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It’s Cold: Turn the Thermostat Down — I Mean Up

Submitted by Roland Bates, President, NPI/GPI

Thermostat_shutterstock_92965054As property inspectors, we are frequently asked to explain how various components of a home work. For example, if someone has never owned a heat pump, then a heat pump would certainly generate curiosity. The same holds true for any number of components, and we are happy to explain them. That’s part of our service and especially important to a first-time home buyer.

One of the calls that we receive with more frequency pertains to thermostats. Today’s programmable thermostats are nothing short of computers. Some even give weather forecasts and the like. Throw in phone apps, where a homeowner can adjust the thermostat from afar, and you get a lot more “this-thing-isn’t-working” calls.

Most professional inspectors become very familiar with programmable thermostats and are happy to explain them to the homebuyer. Let your inspector do so, or take the time to learn how to program your thermostat yourself. Don’t end up setting your thermostat to where you want it and pressing “hold.” That won’t affect the intended energy savings.

A couple of throwback stories pertaining to thermostats: I remember doing an inspection on a small house in the dead of winter and it was very warm inside. The prospective buyer commented that since the house was so warm it must be well insulated. That wasn’t the case. The thermostat was simply cranked all the way up. Another homeowner had sweating, poorly insulated single-pane windows. He figured out that if he turned the thermostat way up, the sweating went away. (Warmer air holds more moisture.) This didn’t fix the problem, but the thermostat helped to hide it.

In short, thermostats control the HVAC, which in turn leads to our personal comfort. And used correctly, they can save energy and more to the point, save you money.

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Drafty Windows? We Have Help

Submitted by Kenn Garder, Technical Support, NPI/GPI Corporate

iStock_000000197663SmallThere is a chill in the air, the North Wind has an extra bite and a draft is coming through the windows. What can you do?

First, open and close the window and look for any torn or missing weather-stripping on the sash. Make sure the window lock is adjusted properly to close the window tight against the weather-stripping. If there are storm windows, make sure they are shut and latched properly.

Next try to determine where the air is coming in. Make sure all of the windows are closed. Make sure window coverings are held away from the glass and will not ignite. Light a candle and hold the flame near each window, fairly close to the window at the seam between the widow frame and the sash. Move the candlestick slowly around the frame and the sash, pausing to allow the flame to steady. If the flame bends or flickers while in the pause mode, then there is probably a leak, mark the area with a piece of tape or a sticky note and continue around that window and the others in the home and mark any suspect area.

Once you have identified the problem areas and drafts, you need to seal them up. Some methods can be completed by the homeowner; other, more complicated methods of repairs may be best left to a contractor.

  • Weather-stripping can be purchased at a hardware store or home center. Different products are available, most commonly plastic, felt, foam or metal. These materials can be cut and pressed into the gaps between the frame and the sash, or installed on the frame and pressed against the sash to create a good seal.
  • Caulking is usually installed on the exterior, so this is a task for warmer weather. Caulking can be applied where the trim meets the window frame and where the trim meets the wall covering. If old, deteriorating caulking is in place, remove it by scoring the caulk where it meets the trim and the frame, and remove it with a putty knife or chisel. Make sure to clean the area well with a brush before applying new caulking. A good exterior latex caulk may be preferred for ease of application and cleanup, this type of caulking is usually paintable if the caulk does not match the window or if you wish to paint the window in the future. Be sure to follow the installation instructions on the tube of caulking for proper installation.
  • Insulating film. If the window will not be opened during the winter months, then a layer of shrink film can be applied to the window. The film is usually applied to the window using double-sided tape. The window trim should be clean so the tape will stick properly, then apply the tape and film as directed in the instructions. This film is usually removed in the spring and summer months so the windows can be opened.
  • Replacement windows. This is usually an expensive venture, but in most cases the cost of the replacement is at least partially recouped in the sale of the home. Until the home is sold, you still have the benefit of fewer or no drafts and lower energy bills. Proper installation and insulation is important when replacing windows.

Several options are available to reduce drafts, and your local utility companies may offer energy audits and recommendations for weatherization contractors to help limit the amount of energy lost by drafty windows.

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Ice Damming Spells Trouble for Your Home

Submitted by Scott Ward, NPI Franchise Owner, Southern Johnson County, Kansas

Winter House_shutterstock_93938941In parts of North America that are now experiencing accumulations of snow and ice, ice damming can cause water damage and stains on both exterior and interior walls and ceilings. Ice damming occurs when snow and/or ice builds up in gutters, roof valleys, and roof-to-wall intersections and then begins a series of freeze/thaw cycles. Snow and ice melt, typically in daylight hours, can be combined with heat radiated from the home itself, then refreezes at night when temperatures drop. The melted snow travels downward until it hits the ice-filled gutters or valleys and begins to back up and refreeze.

This moisture can actually work uphill, refreezing under roofing and flashing materials. Later, when warmer conditions prevail, this ice buildup melts, many times draining back through the roof and walls.

One indication of ice damming is large icicles forming from gutters or roof edges. Water stains that mysteriously appear in the winter along exterior walls and ceiling can usually be traced back to ice damming. Ice can also accumulate in attic and wall cavity areas that are not easily visible.

Once the ice is formed, it is usually not practical to attempt to melt it away due to the inherent danger of snow, ice and roofs and ladders. If the problem is chronic, as it may be in the northern sections of North America, gutter heaters are available at many home improvement retailers. Most use a heat tape type strip, similar to heated pipe wrap, to increase the temperature in the affected gutter or valley to prevent ice from building up. Some are even equipped with thermostats that will turn them on and off as temperatures fluctuate.  These are fairly easy to install and simply plug into an exterior outlet.

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