Picture this: you do your due diligence as a responsible homeowner and decide it’s time for your annual chimney inspection. You hit up the internet for a local chimney sweep who, after a few minutes of poking around your chimney, provides you with a repair estimate that seems a little too high. So, you call another company to get a second opinion, but now the second contractor provides you with an entirely different scenario. With mounting frustration, you then call a third company to get to the bottom of this confusing scene(hopefully).
Now you have three inspection reports that appear to contradict each other and arrive at different conclusions. So, how do you decide the best course of action?
Any reputable contractor should be able to provide sufficient documentation to support their estimate. Photographs of the issue in question are one of the best methods of demonstrating the need for repair and to later demonstrate the solution provided.
It is incredibly important to choose a contractor that you feel comfortable hiring to provide the work. Making a hiring decision based heavily on the estimated project cost could cost you a whole lot more in the long-run…
Conflicting inspection reports often arise when a home is being sold: the seller will have a chimney inspected and receive a satisfactory report, but when the buyer has his own people do the inspection, damage that requires extensive (and expensive) repairs magically comes to light. This can be a total nightmare for both parties and we unfortunately get calls about this happening all the time.
Occasionally, homeowners add something to the house that is in violation of the proper clearances, such as the fancy bookshelves you see flanking a fireplace while browsing Pinterest or flipping through an IKEA catalog. Even a fireplace considered acceptable upon construction, may be used for decades before the homeowner learns it no longer meets code requirements. Some inspectors will make a note of this deficiency and others may not.
But is it safe?
When it comes down to it, what most people really want to know is whether or not the fire place and chimney are safe. Although we don’t often consider it in these terms, setting a fire within the walls of your home can never be considered 100% “safe”, as many things could potentially go wrong. The inspector has no control over the operation of the fire and many parts of the chimney structure cannot be seen without intrusive or even destructive methods.
To Use or Not to Use…
While some homeowners are risk averse enough to have every detail repaired in order to reduce the risk of a chimney fire or carbon monoxide poisoning, others are often hesitant to acknowledge the inherent risk of using a combustion appliance. The most important thing is that the fire remains in the fireplace —hence the name “fireplace” –and that its byproducts (both the obvious, like smoke and the not-so-obvious, like carbon monoxide) will be sufficiently vented outside the home.
For various reasons, some homeowners will only use their fireplace sparingly, taking the chance that the fireplace will not create a problem. To be frank, we at CSIA (and probably your local fire department and home insurance provider) would rather you just quit using the fireplace altogether until the appropriate repairs have been made. Keep in mind that the flue serving the furnace will be used any time that the thermostat calls for heat and the appliance kicks on. It is for this reason that the furnace, boiler and water heater venting systems should be considered a priority.
In some cases, the signs a fireplace is not operating properly, such as observing smoke stains above the fireplace opening, are apparent. This particular situation could indicate a flue is too small, a chimney is too short or has offsets or some other restriction. Many homeowners expect a fireplace to smoke from time to time, which is why you might hear “I just love the way it smells when I burn my fireplace”. If you’re smelling the smoke coming from your fireplace, this is a bad sign… Sorry.
Light at the end of the Tunnel?
If you don’t understand the details of fireplace construction and the clearance requirements, no problem, you’re not expected to. That is why there is a need for CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps to perform those inspections and any necessary maintenance. It should be noted that the inspection process requires much more skill than simply sweeping the chimney.
Not only can you rely on CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps to do a competent inspection and cleaning, you can also expect them to discuss their findings and present options in a way which will allow you to make an informed decision about your chimney. We even require each CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep to follow a strict code of ethics (or risk losing their certification), so you can expect them not to take advantage of your lack of knowledge. We hate to say it, but chimney scams are not uncommon, especially up in the New England area, but if you’ve read this entire blog post, you should be well-prepared to protect yourself and your home.
*You can easily find a local CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep (or CSIA Certified Dryer Exhaust Technician) by typing in your zipcode on the CSIA website.
About the author: Jordan Whitt is the current Director of Communications and Marketing for the Chimney Safety Institute of America. Outside of the CSIA, you’ll occasionally find him doing some public affairs work for the American Red Cross or Indiana Department of Homeland Security. You can email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.