Chimney Fire Safety
Keep the Fire You Want from Starting One You Don't! Chimney fires don't have to happen. Here are some ways to avoid them:
- Have your chimney inspected annually by a qualified professional and cleaned when necessary.
- Use seasoned woods only (dryness is more important than hard wood versus soft wood considerations)
- Build smaller, hotter fires that burn more completely and produce less smoke.
- Never burn cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, trash or Christmas trees; these can spark a chimney fire.
- Install stovepipe thermometers to help monitor flue temperatures where wood stoves are in use, so you can adjust burning practices as needed.
- Inspect and clean catalytic combustors on a regular basis, where applicable
What to Do if You Have a Chimney Fire.
If you realize a chimney fire is occurring, follow these steps:
- Get everyone out of the house, including yourself.
- Call the fire department.
If you can do so without risk to yourself, these additional steps may help save your home. Remember, however, that homes are replaceable, lives are not:
- Put a chimney fire extinguisher into the fireplace or wood stove.
- Close the glass doors on the fireplace.
- Close the inlets on the wood stove.
- Use a garden hose to spray down the roof (not the chimney) so the fire won't spread to the rest of the structure.
3 Levels of Inspection
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 211 (Standard for Chimneys, Fireplaces, Vents and Solid Fuel Burning Appliances) is the standard upon which CSIA Certified Chimney Sweeps base their services. This new standard now classifies chimney and venting system inspections into three level, Level I, Level II or Level III. Each level of inspection has a specific scope of work and specific criteria.
Level I Inspection
This inspection is recommended when the chimney and venting system is easily accessible and when the homeowner is planning to maintain its current use. In general, this the level of inspection performed in most homes. In a Level I inspection a certified chimney sweep verifies that the chimney structure is sound and that the chimney is free of obstructions and combustible deposits, such as creosote.
Level II Inspection
The addition of a new home heating appliance or a change in the type of fuel a homeowner is burning requires a Level II inspection. This inspection level is also required upon the sale or transfer of a property or after an operating malfunction or external event that is likely to have caused damage to the chimney. The scope of a Level II inspection includes that of the Level I inspection plus the inspection of accessible portions of the attics, crawl spaces and basements. It may also include a performance test such as a smoke test or a pressure test and possibly an interior chimney video inspection if recommended by the certified chimney sweep.
Level III Inspection
When a Level I or Level II inspection suggests a hidden hazard and the evaluation cannot be performed without access to concealed areas, a Level III inspection is recommended. This type of inspection confirms the proper construction and condition of concealed portions of the chimney structure and the flue. Level III inspections are generally necessary when investigating an incident that has caused damage to a chimney or building, or where a hazard is detected and suspected.
Both the Chimney Safety Institute of America and the National Fire Protection Association recommend yearly chimney inspections to help prevent fire and carbon monoxide poisonings.
The Changing Face of the Fireplace, Chimney & Venting Industry
The Fireplace, Chimney and Venting Industries have been rapidly evolving over the last forty years. This evolution has included new materials used to construct fireplaces and chimneys as well as the quality of the engineering and testing standards applied. The end result has been a large volume of options, which include solid-fuel, gas and even a hydrogen-burning fireplace.
Although the manufacturing and design concepts have shown a rapid change, the inspection procedures and techniques were slow in development. This prompted the development of a series of detailed and accurate training classes focused on the Education and Training of Inspection Skills. The challenge was to reprogram the thought process and methodology of those contractors and sweeps that have an existing and thriving business. It is very difficult to take someone who is preparing a contract and change that thought process into an unbiased inspection. In many cases they are already preparing the proposal in their head as they perform the inspection. The act of contracting in combination with the inspection may also misdirect their recommendation for repair based on their line of products, and the possible limitations by their State Laws & Licenses. These financial and mental battles have produced a very real conflict of interest.
However, regardless of our challenges, there are those who have the ability to do what is right. Quality education is now readily available for installers, service technicians and inspectors. However, while the quality of the products has increased, and the training has becomes available, the shear number of improperly installed systems, modifications and aging stock has created a very real and increasing concern. This concern is what fueled the development of a Fireplace & Chimney Inspector Classification within the industry. The need for this classification is obvious, however the detailed understanding of the standards for the Fireplace & Chimney Inspector has proven to be somewhat confusing. This confusion has also migrated to the home inspection industry. To further complicate issues, there are concerns of "negligent referral". A negligent referral, in this case, is the act of referring someone who is not properly qualified, licensed or certified to perform a specific service. Who do we recommend that is qualified to perform this service and why? If we recommend someone who is not qualified, it may be held against us in court and damaging to our business. Remember, our credibility builds our business and should reflect our commitment.
There are two primary goals for this article. The first is to determine a fair understanding of the qualified professionals who inspect within the Fireplace & Chimney Industry. The second is to truly understand the NFPA 211 Standards, which directs the Fireplace and Chimney Inspector but does not explain the process of this service.
Who do I Call For A Qualified Inspection?
There are three professional Certifications within the fireplace and chimney industry. Sometimes these categories may overlap but in most cases there is a main focus and direction for each Certification.
Sweeping (C.S.I.A. Certified Chimney Sweep)
A "Certified Chimney Sweep" is tested and certified through the CSIA, (Chimney Safety Institute of America) and is focused on the service (sweeping), and repair of solid fuel burning appliances, chimneys and venting systems. The primary job of the C.S.I.A. Certified Chimney Sweep is to aid in the prevention of fires related to fireplaces, wood stoves, gas, oil and coal heating systems and the chimneys that they serve. While some sweeps are licensed and certified to perform other aspects within the hearth industry, the C.S.I.A. was born out of the National Chimney Sweep Guild. For more information contact C.S.I.A. at www.csia.org.
New System Sales, Installation and Service (N.F.I. Solid-Fuel, Gas & Pellet Certified Specialist)
A "Certified Specialist" is certified through the N.F.I., (National Fireplace Institute) and is focused on the planning and proper installation of residential hearth appliances and their venting systems. N.F.I. is the professional certification division of the HEARTH Education Foundation and provides tested education on the installation of gas-burning fireplaces, inserts, gas logs, wood-burning fireplaces and pellet stoves. The majority of their focus is on the familiarization of hearth products and increased awareness of their function and operation. NFI's objective is to increase public safety while serving the public interest. This service includes meaningful credentials for professionals and the delivery of necessary education to ensure the proper installation and operation of their products. While they do cover masonry systems, their main focus is on factory-built appliances. The N.F.I. is the successor of the WHERF & HEARTH exam programs and was born out of the Hearth, Patio & Barbeque Association, which is the leading trade association in the Hearth Industry. For more information contact N.F.I. at www.nficertified.org.
Inspection of All Fireplaces, Chimneys, and Venting Systems (F.I.R.E. Certified Inspector)
A "F.I.R.E. Certified Fireplace and Chimney Inspector" is certified through the F.I.R.E. Service (Fireplace Investigation, Research & Education Service) and is focused on the detailed inspection of all fireplaces, inserts, gas-burning appliances, chimneys, vent systems, stoves and other associated components. This training is based on the applicable building codes, manufacturer's requirements, historical performance and the performance of individual products and materials. The F.I.R.E. Certification Program was born out the increasing necessity and demand for qualified inspectors. This program is fueled by information derived from the ongoing efforts of the fire investigation, home inspection and fireplace industries. F.I.R.E. Service supplies the required education and training to provide detailed and accurate inspections. This certification also assists the Home Inspectors, Fire Investigators, Contractors, Architects, Insurance Carriers and others by providing a qualified tool for their professional needs. For more information contact F.I.R.E. Service at www.F-I-R-E-Service.com.
Which Tool Do I Use?
Inspectors, contractors and sweeps are tools for your trade. The decision of which tools to use is based on the needs of the property not the real estate agent. One of the newer developments within the home inspection industry is the recommendation for referral to specialty inspections. In fact, one of the national associations clearly indicates that you shall refer your client in the proper direction. This approach will assist in the reduction of negligent referral claims. The home inspection industry has been gradually moving in this direction for the past fifteen years. When you refer a fireplace and chimney specialist, there are a few things you should consider. Is there the possibility of undetected conditions? Does it need further investigation by an inspector? Does it just need a good sweeping? Make the right call for the necessary service.
How Do I Qualify These Tools?
Although some individuals may have purchased the proper equipment to perform an inspection, without the proper training and knowledge, the conditions or findings may be misinterpreted and in some cases may be used to promote fraud. It is imperative that any individual you refer has the appropriate education and certification for the service they provide. Failure to research these individuals may result in damage to your business. Do not miss the opportunity to question the fireplace and chimney professional on their continuing education achievements. If the owner and their staff are not attending or participating in continued education, then they are not fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility to their clients. Are those in the field performing this service the ones attending these classes? Education and ethics is the key to a successful and honest service. However, no degree, certification, license or other credential will guarantee someone's performance, credibility or integrity. It is always up to the consumer to qualify one's true abilities and performance.
What Is The NFPA?
The National Fire Protection Association is a non-profit origination developed to reduce fire loss and injury through means of education, guidelines and standards. The NFPA has written the 211 Standard for Chimneys, Fireplaces, Vents, and Solid Fuel-Burning Appliances. This standard addresses proper construction and installation of these systems including commercial and industrial applications. The NFPA was concerned with the condition of existing chimneys and added a chapter to the NFPA 211 Standards regarding the inspection of these chimneys. These are the only standards of their kind within the fireplace and chimney industry. For more information contact NFPA at www.nfpa.org.
What Are The Standards!
The NFPA 211 Standard for "Inspection of Existing Chimneys" was developed and first printed in the 2000. This is the first time that an inspection standard was written and presented to the fireplace and chimney industry. These standards have been embraced by those on the professional level while being cursed by those whom continue to provide their service as before. It is important to understand that writing an inspection to generate work is quite different than performing a detailed unbiased inspection. These NFPA standards assist in the direction of an inspection and are not concerned with proposals and/or repairs. Unfortunately, these standards do not explain how to perform these inspections but simply "When" they shall take place and "What" areas are to be accessed.
I Don't Understand The Standards!
The first thing you need to understand is that the NFPA 211 standards are intended for the Fireplace, Chimney and Venting industry Only. These standards do not apply to you as home inspectors. However, everyone with the Fireplace & Chimney industry may be held accountable to chapter eleven within the 2000 edition & chapter fourteen within the 2003 edition of the NFPA 211 Standards. This professional responsibility exists whether the NFPA 211 was officially adopted within the local jurisdiction or not. For further clarification, chapter eleven, "Inspection of Existing Chimneys", within the NFPA 211 standards, was first published in 2000. It was later moved to chapter fourteen in the 2003 edition. The inspection standards found within these chapters are recognized by the Fireplace, Chimney & Venting Industry as "The Industry Standards". What this means is those in the fireplace, chimney and venting industry may be held accountable for their actions in a court of law, based directly on these standards. If the NFPA 211 has been adopted by your local jurisdiction, then the entire standard (all chapters) will be in affect for all contractors and inspectors working on these products, within that jurisdiction. If it has not been adopted, then currently, only chapter fourteen applies as "The Industry Standard". However, please note that many of the recognized and adopted building codes, industry references and manufacturer's specifications refer back to the NFPA 211 standard. Therefore, whether or not the NFPA 211 has been adopted within your area, there are a number of ways to arrive back at the 211 standards.
The inspection of the fireplaces and chimneys during the resale of property has been a very confusing issue. Some who might benefit would like you to believe that a fireplace and chimney inspection is required on ALL resale transactions. However the truth is simple, IF a fireplace and chimney inspection takes place, then it shall follow the NFPA 211 standards. There is no Federal or State Department enforcing fireplace & chimney inspections on any transaction of property. The choice still remains in the Consumers hands. However, these standards are written based on past disasters and injury. Please note that a change in burning habits can result in a fire loss or personal injury if the system does not meet or exceed the code and manufacturer's requirements. This means that a change in operation or use, such as a property resale, is a time of higher risk. Also note that some manufacturers recommend more frequent inspections such as 2-3 times during the burning season by the Homeowner. This recommendation refers to a simple visual inspection for obvious damage, flue blockage or creosote development to assess the need for further inspection, sweep or professional services. This should not be confused with the Levels of inspection described within this article, which are written for professional inspection services and not homeowners.
What Does It Say?
Let's review some of the text found within Chapter fourteen of the 2003 NFPA 211.
There are three levels of inspection, Level I, Level II & Level III. Please note that the scope of the inspection, the areas of the chimney examined, and the degree of invasiveness of the inspection shall be appropriate for the conditions giving rise to the inspection. Another important note is that nothing shall prevent the examination of all or part of the fireplaces & chimney at a higher level than the minimum required by the standard.
A Level I inspection shall be conducted:
- During annual inspections. Chimneys, fireplaces and vents shall be inspected at least once a year in accordance with these standards.
- During routine cleaning of a flue or flues within the chimney.
- At the time of replacement of one or more connected appliances with an equal number of appliances or similar type, input rating, and efficiency.
The Scope and Access Required:
Level I inspections shall include examination of readily accessible portions of the fireplaces & chimney and accessible portions of the connected appliance and chimney connection.
A Level II inspection shall be conducted:
- Upon addition or removal of one of more connected appliances or upon replacement of an appliance with one or more dissimilar type, input rating, or efficiency, unless the last connected appliance is removed and the chimney use will be discontinued.
- Prior to relining of a flue or replacement of a flue lining system.
- Upon sale or transfer of property.
- After a building or chimney fire, weather or seismic event, or other incident likely to have caused damage to the chimney.
The Scope and Access Required:
Level II inspections shall include all accessible portions of the fireplace and chimney exterior and interior, including accessible attics, crawl spaces, and basements. These inspections shall include all accessible portions of the appliance and chimney connection, all areas covered in a Level I inspection, all areas of the fireplaces & chimney and its surroundings that can be accessed without the removal or destruction of permanently attached portions of the fireplace, chimney or building structure, all chimney flues and the internal surfaces of all flue liners incorporated within the chimney, and verification of proper clearances, proper use of material, flue sizing and much more. Video scanning equipment or other means shall be used as necessary to observe these areas.
A Level III inspection shall be conducted:
- Only for those areas suspected of malfunction or damage that cannot be fully evaluated by a Level I or Level II inspection.
The Level III inspection should be performed at concealed locations where there is suspect of malfunction, damage or a hazardous condition. This access will be by removal or destruction of permanently attached portions of the fireplace, chimney or building structure, as necessary to determine compliance with this standard.
The Scope and Access Required:
A Level III inspection shall include examination of concealed areas of the fireplace & chimney suspected of damage or malfunction as well as the examination of all areas required within a level I and Level II inspection.
In conclusion, home inspectors are not required to meet the NFPA 211 inspection standards. These standards apply to the fireplace and chimney industry only. If an inspection takes place by someone within the fireplace and chimney industry, the professional must meet the minimum requirements as set forth by the NFPA 211 standards for inspection. Failure to meet or exceed these standards may result in damage. As an experienced inspector and fireplace consultant, I choose to perform Level II and Level III inspections. It is my opinion that due to the limited access, a Level I inspection may not be sufficient to determine the serviceability and safety of a fireplace or chimney system. However, as the standards read, only a Level I inspection is required when a chimney sweep is called in to service the chimney. This is due to the service requested and not necessarily the qualifications of the sweep. A Level II inspection is required "Upon sale or transfer of property" or one or more of the conditions listed within the NFPA 211 as stated above.
I hope this clarifies the NFPA 211 standards and the current structure of the fireplace, chimney and venting industry.
If you wish to purchase a copy of the NFPA 211 standards, you may contact NFPA at 1-800-344-3555 or www.nfpa.org. for additional information. There is also free education available on the hearth industry at www.FIREexchange.info. This message board is a great resource and can answer many of your hearth questions
Dale W. Feb, Author, Consultant
ICC Certified Building Inspector # 0871896-B5, ICC Certified Building Inspector UBC # 0871896-10, ICC Certified Mechanical Inspector # 0871896-M5, ICC Certified Mechanical Inspector UMC # 0871896-44, ICC Certified Residential Combination Inspector # 0871896-R5, ICC Certified Combination Dwelling Inspector - Uniform Codes # 0871896-56, IAPMO Certified Mechanical Inspector # 090478, UFCA Certified Fire Code Inspector # 500291-00, National Fireplace Institute, NFI Gas Specialist #135479, California State Licensed Mechanical Contractor (C-20) # 619485, California Real Estate Inspection Association M.C.I. # 0017, California Real Estate Inspection Association, CREIA New Construction Specialist, Chimney Safety Institute of America "Certified Chimney Sweep" # 4797, F.I.R.E. Service "Certified Fireplace & Chimney Inspector" # FP-001