Author – Marge Padgitt
I’m surprised at the number of inadequate and incomplete chimney inspections I see from some chimney companies in my area. The main reason for doing an accurate and thorough inspection report is to notify the homeowner of potential problems that could be safety hazards, but a second very good reason is to protect yourself. There is no way to stop all lawsuits from happening, but with the proper knowledge you can save yourself some major headaches, and maybe halt a lawsuit in its tracks.
Many sweeps have the opinion that they are immune to legal problems just because it has not happened to them yet. Let me assure you, it can and does happen. My husband, Gene, is a fire investigator, and sees many fires caused by someone’s negligence. It is usually the installer or chimney sweep who is at fault. It pains me to write up a report about one of my colleagues in the industry – when the information on proper installation, maintenance and inspections is out there and available to everyone in the business. Being vigilant on every job may save you some major headaches.
Some of the more commonly missed issues in reports are:
Clearance to combustibles. Be sure to check the clearances around the chimney chase, above and to the sides of the fireplace opening, the hearth, and below and behind a freestanding wood stove. Be sure to look in the attic and basement when accessible. Have your IRC code book or NFPA 211 Standard handy for reference.
Gap between facial wall and fireplace. This is often overlooked and can be a serious problem if there is any wood framing above this area (assume there is).
Unparged smoke chamber: If not parge coated with insulating mortar, this is a code violation. Don’t overlook this important issue – there may be hidden combustible framing around the chamber that needs to be protected from heat.
Chimney height and obstructions: Follow the 3-1- 10 rule, but if there are other factors such as trees or room addition with a chimney that can’t overcome the height of the main house (stack effect) be sure to note them.
Negative house pressure: We always check for negative house pressure. It is easiest to do this in cold weather. Negative pressure can cause smoke and CO backup from wood burning, and CO backup from gas logs. It is extremely important to the successful operation of a fireplace, especially on a lower level.
CO test on gas logs. Add this to your normal inspection – you’ll be surprised how many gas logs do not vent properly. Check the position of the grate and move it back, and check positioning of the logs if there is a problem. If that doesn’t fix it – you’ll need to dig deeper.
Proper termination cap: Be sure the cap is correctly sized for the appliance and for custom covers, make sure there is enough room between the lid and the top of the flue tile(s) for adequate exhausting of smoke and gasses. For prefabs, make sure it is the proper model and size for the chimney. Different brands can cause overheating of the chimney.
Grate: Improperly sized grates can cause the homeowner to possibly overload the fireplace and over-fire the appliance, which can lead to house fires in masonry or manufactured chimneys.
Screen: A spark screen is required by code.
Glass doors: The wrong set of doors, i.e. masonry doors on a prefabricated fireplace or any doors that block vents can cause overheating of the unit and a house fire. Remove them immediately.
Condition of appliance: Whether it is a wood stove, insert, or metal fireplace, all of these appliances can have problems due to over-firing and abuse, age, and neglect. Look for warping, rusting, gaps, and holes. Also look at the age of the appliance and U.L. Listing along with EPA approval. Suggest replacement with a newer higher-efficient model EPA approved appliance when indicated.
I highly recommend doing a Level 2 inspection on every job possible. Without an internal camera inspection system, you absolutely cannot see the entire flue and may miss holes, missing mortar, cracks in tiles, missing sections of flue tiles, and even holes in the smoke chamber. This has been proven time and time again. Other less common problems that can arise are wood framing inside the chimney, and exposed furnace flues inside chambers. Another benefit to doing a Level 2 inspection is that it makes you look more professional when you use the latest technology in the industry. We do a Level 2 inspection with a camera on every sweeping job, and charge accordingly.
Reports should include photos, which are evidence that insurance companies need in order to pay on chimney fire or lightning strike claims, but are also proof that you did the inspection with a camera. It’s a good idea to use the narrative form of report writing in order to make sure that the report is thorough. Just checking a box off on a form does not tell the whole story. This means taking the information back to the office and either typing it up yourself or having someone else do it, or keeping a computer and printer in your vehicle so the homeowner can have their info right away. Some sweeps even make a copy of the photo disk and hand it to the homeowner along with the report on site. Others use new apps designed for I-Pads and send the report vial email immediately upon completion of the job. It does take extra time to do the job right, but the payoff is worth it.
Don’t be afraid to tell the customer the truth. Some sweeps don’t want to scare homeowners with their findings, but it’s better to let them know what is going on and let the homeowner be the one to decide what to do about it. And if the system is not safe to use say “the chimney and fireplace are unsafe to use in their present condition,” or something similar. Now the homeowner has been notified, and you have decreased your liability if they decide to use a questionable fireplace, chimney, or stove.
~ Marge Padgitt