Is your fireplace safe? Why you should read and heed the Home Inspector’s recommendations.

On every home inspection with a fireplace I place important advisement wording in the report.  The wording is there to help the home buyer understand the importance of chimney safety.  But I do have to wonder just how many read and heed this wording?

[tab: The Importance Of Fireplace Safety]

At the end of the fireplace inspection section of every home inspection report I have several paragraphs regarding additional recommendations for the buyer.  I will summarize the three major recommendations here.

  1. Make sure that your home is equipped with Carbon Monoxide (CO) detectors.  You should replace all of your smoke detectors with combination CO and smoke/fire detectors.  They are cheap and well worth your family’s safety!
  2. Have a Level 2 Inspection performed before the end of your option period.  During an inspection the chimney has limited viewing and we can not see many problems that could be hidden from our view.  If you ever plan to use that fireplace a Level 2 Inspection is cheap insurance for your family’s safety!
  3. If you have a manufactured fireplace then read your owner’s manual before you use that fireplace.  If you have a full site built fireplace then research (I even provide links for this) and read how to use that fireplace.  The time spent is free and well worth ensuring your family’s safety!

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission there is an average of 27,000 or more fires every year due to chimney and fireplace issues.  Approximately 100 of those result in significant injuries with an average of 20 resulting in deaths.  It would not be surprising to learn that even more injuries, and possibly deaths, are indirectly related to chimney fires and issues.

The fireplace is a beautiful addition to any home but if not properly cared for it is also a vicious killer!  It kills because people just don’t understand how dangerous they can be if not properly used and cared for.  Even when they do understand they choose not to take the necessary steps to properly use and maintain that fireplace.  Most times it has to do with not wanting to spend the money.  It is amazing that people will buy a $300,000 home and not spend a few hundred dollars to make sure that fireplace is not a problem before they use it!

So what can you do to help ensure the safety of your family?  It’s simple, open your wallet as money and things can be replaced with more money but your loved ones can NEVER be replaced.  Read on to the next tab for what you can specifically do to help ensure your family’s safety and well being!

[tab: What You Should Do]

We will break this down into two time periods for what you should do.  The first will deal with buying that existing home or having the new home built.  The second is after you already own the home and are now living there and using that fireplace.

You might hear the myths that gas fireplaces are much safer than wood burning fireplaces and gas fireplaces don’t need further inspections.  That simply is not true!  Every different type of fireplace has their own sets of potential dangers and all of those dangers can kill!  Whoever tells you different is certainly not looking out for your best interest or the safety of you and your family.

When you are buying an existing home with a fireplace you just don’t know what the full condition of that fireplace and chimney is!  If that fireplace or chimney has a problem then it can potentially be very expensive to correct.  Whether you plan to use the fireplace or not in the future you might sell that home and be faced with a buyer who does take the following precautions.  So why not do this yourself, save some money on the home purchase, but most importantly keep your family safe in the event you do choose to use that fireplace?

  1. Most every home out there now sports a fireplace.  Many are manufactured fireplaces with metal fireboxes and flues for chimneys.  Take a moment to understand how these different types function so you can fully understand what the Home Inspector is telling you.  On the links page are various links to organizations with simple tutorials on all styles of fireplaces.
  2. Before you even make an offer on a home make sure you have found a competent fireplace and chimney specialist that can perform a Level 2 inspection.  A description of the Level II inspection can be found HERE.  The CSIA and your local fire department can help you find a qualified fireplace professional.  You don’t want to wait to make an offer as you will most likely be rushed, forget it, or not want to deal with finding one in a short time.  Select several specialists and ask each one what they charge for a Level 2 inspection.  When you make the offer on the home take this into consideration in the event one has not been performed recently.
  3. When you make the offer on the home also put in the offer that you want a copy of the fireplace and chimney maintenance records.  These should include when the services were performed, who performed them, and what was done during the service.  If there are no records, or no service has been performed, then you can use the estimates you obtained in step 2 above to determine how much it will cost you, or how much to ask the seller, for a proper Level 2 fireplace and chimney inspection.
  4. When your Home Inspector provides information and recommendations for the fireplace and chimney closely read and heed their advice.  Also keep in mind that no Home Inspector has the necessary equipment, resources, and time to perform a thorough and complete inspection of a fireplace and chimney.  If the Home Inspector is not advising you to have a Level 2 inspection performed then I would be concerned about the validity of the inspection altogether.
  5. Before you take possession of the house if it is a manufactured fireplace make sure that the current owner produces the manufacturer’s manuals for use and care or at least identifies the make, model, and serial number with a WEB link to the manufacturer’s manuals.

If you are buying a new home don’t think that since everything is new it should be alright and correct.  I have seen new homes with significant defects in fireplace installations.  Hopefully you have decided to have phased inspections of the home as it is being built.  During the pre-sheetrock phase inspection the fireplace and its flue/chimney components are fully visible for a proper inspection of its installation.  There are other items to consider with a new home’s fireplace.

  1. Another item that many new homeowners don’t realize is how a fireplace actually functions and what can happen on the “First Burn” of a new manufactured fireplace.  On the first burn of a manufactured fireplace the paints used can heat up and emit noxious odors.  Before you take possession you will have a walk-through with the builder and part of that is demonstrating and explaining appliances.  Before that day arrives make sure you let your builder know that you want them to demonstrate the actual use of the fireplace and perform a “First Burn”.  Let the builder know you will not sign off on the walk-through if this is not performed.  At the walk-through the builder can demonstrate the full usage of the fireplace, review the owners usage instruction manual, and perform a first burn and test of the unit.  You would be surprised how many problems are found at that time.
  2. You should review with the builder if there are sufficient CO detectors in the home.  I would highly recommend that you demand from the builder they have all combination smoke/fire/CO detectors in all appropriate locations.  More about these will be below.

Once you take possession of the home there are actions you need to take.

  1. If the owner could not produce any maintenance records, and you chose not to have a Level 2 inspection performed, you should have a Level 2 inspection and cleaning performed immediately so that you do not forget to before it is first used.
  2. You should review the placement of CO detectors to make sure there are sufficient detectors in all home locations to warn occupants of a CO hazard.  Regardless of the home’s age I would highly recommend that you take this opportunity to replace all current detectors with new separate or combination smoke/fire/CO detectors.  These are very cheap in comparison to a family members life!  Currently you should have smoke/fire detectors in each bedroom, in each hallway serving bedrooms, on each floor landing, and at various locations on other floors without bedrooms.  Replace them now and hopefully the current ones are interconnected to cause them all to sound if one alerts?
  3. Make sue everyone in the home is fully aware of how to treat the fireplace and fires.  Children should never be allowed to use the fireplace without an adult present.  All adults should be properly trained how to start, maintain, and extinguish a fire in the fireplace.
  4. Make sure you have sufficient fire extinguishers strategically placed around the home for fast access.  Also make sure these are checked routinely through the year to ensure they are charged and ready.
  5. Create a fire and other hazard evacuation plan and practice it routinely to make sure if an even happens you and your family are ready.
  6. Annually perform proper inspections and service on your fireplace to help prevent an incident from happening.  Fire and safety prevention is worth a lot more than even the best hazard reaction/evacuation plan.  You want to prevent it from happening and not have to depend on an action plan in the event of an emergency.

All of this sounds like such a hassle doesn’t it?  The reality is that it is never a hassle to make your family safe!  You also need to consider this one very important fact if money is an object to you.  By following these guidelines and having the problems found and corrected by sellers before you take possession of the home you will be saving money as well.  Even if you never use that fireplace one day you might want to sell that home.  Do you want to take a chance the next buyer doesn’t find the problems and make you pay for their repairs?  So why should you pay for deadly defects in a home that are there when you are in the process of buying?

[tab: Links and References]

Consumer Product Safety Commission links for fireplace information

Chimney Safety Institute Of America

National Fire Protection Association

The Masonry Heaters Association of North America

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