The wood-burning fireplace is a centerpiece of my 23-year-old home in metropolitan Indianapolis, but it’s sat unused for a decade. My reluctance initially had to do with ignorance — I wasn’t exactly sure how to work it. Then it was fear, as I have small children.
But now my kids are getting to be of age where we can give the furnace a break this winter and enjoy its cozy warmth.
Many homeowners are like me – that have a fireplace but haven’t necessarily used it, but desire to, or are at least intrigued by its operation.
My quest to get it usable began with a unique opportunity. I volunteered my house for the American Home Inspector Training Institute trainees, who regularly hold class sessions at the Chimney Safety Institute of America tech building. They gave my house a brilliant walk-through from garage to bedroom, but they did only a cursory check of the chimney, noting what appeared to be rust stains on the exterior surface. AHIT recommended hiring a qualified inspector, such as a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep.
So then I volunteered to have my system scrutinized for one of our National Chimney Sweep Training Schools; it was inspected on a hot Friday morning in August, and I had fingers crossed that it’d be in good shape. The August inspection meant if it needed fixing, I could get on a CSIA certified chimney sweep’s schedule, using the csia.org website to find one.
One of the great things about using CSIA certified personnel for an inspection is that the services they offer are typically above what’s required by the National Fire Protection Association 211: STANDARD FOR CHIMNEYS, FIREPLACES, VENTS, AND SOLID FUEL-BURNING APPLIANCES for a Level 1 inspection. (For example, an inspection doesn’t require that a chimney sweep ascend to the roof; CSIA pros typically do.)
The CSIA instructor, Rich Rua, walked the students step-by-step through the process, including documenting the scene by taking pictures, and putting down tarp to protect the carpet and surrounding area. He explained the safety gear that is needed. They had all the gear on hand to do a thorough inspection as well as what cleaning my flue required.
I have a Heatilator, a factory- built fireplace installed when the house was constructed in the early 1990s. Many homes in my neighborhood were built identically. My fireplace wasn’t used by the first owner, nor did it get much use when I purchased the house a decade ago. I have burned a Duraflame log for purely aesthetic reasons.
(By the way, the National Chimney Sweep Training School, offered four times per year, is a great resource for folks interested in getting to be a certified chimney sweep or for those in the field who want to expand on their expertise. The last class is Sept. 22-27, and registration information is here.)
Not only was the gear out for a sweep, I also got my fireplace ash/debris cleaned out (a nice bonus – anytime you don’t have to lug in the Shop-Vac from outside.)
On the exterior side, the rooftop inspection revealed several issues, which will require me to dig into my pocket and pay for a qualified professional repair.
My chase cover, or pan (see picture) has surface rust and the storm collar sealant to the chimney is deteriorating. This of course had nothing to do with how I used my fireplace, but rather was due to Mother Nature. Fortunately, the flashing was fine, thus I didn’t experience water intrusion.
During the visual work-up, the training school crew looked at the height of my chimney, which indicated a problem: I’ll need to have the chimney extended vertically by about a foot, to achieve the 3-foot height termination recommendation.
The right termination point is a necessity; on its own, roofs experience air current that’s independent of the chimney. As air moves across the roof, we don’t want the exhaust of the flue to be interfered with. An additional benefit of the flue being the 3-foot length is that it gives sparks to “arrest” or a chance to cool down as they travel up from the fireplace.
As you can see in the picture, I’ll also need to have a professional take a whack at the tall mulberry tree branch that likes to creep over our roof line and is protruding over the flue.
The training school crews also noticed that, although the rain cap prevented birds and other critters from entering, some spiders were living inside. Webs can impact a chimney flue’s performance, no question about that. CSIA certified pros are trained on how to understand why a chimney doesn’t work.
Over and above the requirements of the inspection, the training school students also examined my other home vents on the roof so they could see the difference.
They also saw the firewood that I had placed on the hearth that was in the process of seasoning. (Learn how to identify ready-to-burn wood by its sound in this CSIA video).
I listened as the crews consolidated their findings into one comprehensive report.
Afterwards they provided me with a report so I understood what I needed to follow up with. I’ll need to make those fixes.
MORE: Watch a video about our National Chimney Sweep Training School, and see the types of hands-on lessons that are taught during the 6-day course.
I was impressed by the thorough nature of the chimney sweep inspection process, and glad to see what’s taught. I can’t wait to meet the next class of students. (If you are interested in learning how to become part of that class, e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Author Tom Spalding is marketing and communications director for the Chimney Safety Institute of America. He joined the nonprofit in October 2013.