Avoiding Chimney Fires and Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Chimneys are like septic systems, no one thinks about them until there’s a problem.

Chimneys are especially ignored in second homes and rental properties. A chimney can be a dangerous thing to forget, and it can cost you the loss of property and or life. But there are some simple steps you can take to drastically reduce your chances of ever becoming a statistic.

Step 1. Have your chimney inspected every year, even if you hardly use it.

Chimneys change like children grow. Water, settling, age of use will continue to alter the flue system. Having your chimney inspected annually, and swept when needed is the requirement given by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 211, Standards Codes for Chimneys, Fireplaces, Vents, and Solid Fuel-Burning Appliances.

Step 2. Hire a qualified company with certified employees from the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA).

There is no regulation for the chimney trade in NYS. Anyone can go and buy some brushes from a hardware store and call themselves a chimney sweep. It is very important that the company your hire is updated with the latest safety standards and codes, uses technology for a detailed inspection, and is held to a high standard through a reputable certified chimney safety organization.

Step 3. Have your chimney scoped with a chimney camera.

We often joke with our customers asking if they have ever had a chimneyoscopy! To our surprise very little have ever had a chimney camera inspect the inside of their flue. Only with a camera can you find damages or incorrect installations that increase your chances of putting your home and family at risk. Make sure you are present for the inspection so the sweep can explain the process. Pictures are not helpful if you don’t understand what you are looking at.

Step 4. Stop the water, or pay the price.

Chimneys are the most exposed piece of your house to the elements. In the northeast water will penetrate deep into cracks and freeze, causing large cracks, which in turn allow more water, more freezing, more cracking. It’s a simple cycle that should be stopped early on before those small cracks turn into a large multi-thousand-dollar repair. Water will not only destroy the outside of your chimney, but also the inside creating blockages and odorless carbon monoxide poisoning to back up into your home. For water protection every masonry chimney should be waterproofed with a vapor permeable solution, proper flashing, and have an outside mounted cap installed which covers the entire top of the chimney.

Step 5. Don’t forget about the chimney that your heating system uses.

There are many boilers and furnaces that still use the chimney to vent poisonous gases from your home. It’s easy to forget about them. The HVAC company will not service or inspect the chimney properly. Chimneys serving oil appliances will have a very corrosive chemical compound called sulpher dioxide which will damage and weaken flue tiles and metal. A chimney serving natural gas or LP furnace will have one gallon of water pumped through them per hour during the heating season. In both cases this is cause for concern if not checked on an annual basis. The best remedy for these problems would be to ensure the chimney is structurally sound and then install a lifetime stainless steel liner which is resistant to corrosion and water damage.

Step 6. Be careful what you burn

The sage advice of burning dry season wood is paramount. This will keep your creosote levels down while giving you a much more enjoyable fire. Remember that certain woods, especially oak take a few years to fully season after split. Always avoid paper or cardboard with gloss or glue in them and do not burn wood with paint or varnish on them. These products have chemicals that can accelerate corrosion in your chimney liner. Many of our chimney fire calls are from customers right around Christmas. They have just finished opening their presents and figured it would be fun to burn the wrapping paper in the fireplace. Unfortunately, this leads to many sparks and even ignited paper getting sucked up the flue causing a chimney fire.

While no one can guarantee a safe chimney, by following these simple steps you can drastically reduce chimney fires and other problems.