Chimney and Fireplace Safety

When smoke travels up a chimney, some of it condenses into creosote, which is a tar-like substance that will build up over time. The creosote sticks to the flue and creates a major fire hazard in the chimney as it builds up.

If a fire occurs in a chimney, there are extremely high temperatures that will cause the flue to crack. Any cracks in a chimney will create serious health threats for family members because of the carbon monoxide that is drawn into the home. This substance is normally supposed to be vented out through the chimney. It is a colorless and odorless gas that can be deadly for family members and pets.

Chimneys should be inspected professionally every year and should also be cleaned by a professional at least once every year. The National Fire Protection Association has created several levels of inspection, which resulted in the NFPA 211 code. It is a standard for fireplaces, chimneys, appliances that burn solid fuel and vents. The NFPA 211 is the standard that all certified chimney sweeps use whenever they are hired to clean chimneys.

Level I Inspection
This level of inspection is recommended when a chimney is easy to access and the homeowner plans to maintain it as is. During a Level I inspection, the chimney sweep will verify that the structure of the chimney is sound and that is also free of obstructions or creosote.

Level II Inspection
If a new heating appliance has been added or an existing one has been modified to burn a different type of fuel, the chimney must have this type of inspection. This level of inspection is also necessary after a property has been sold or if something happened that would have probably caused damage to the chimney. Level II inspections include the same points covered in the previous level as well as crawl spaces, basements and parts of attics. In some cases, this type of inspection may also include performance tests such as pressure or smoke tests. An interior video inspection of the chimney may be conducted if it is deemed necessary.

Level III Inspection
If the previous levels’ inspections result in the suggestion of a hidden hazard and evaluations cannot be performed without accessing areas that are concealed, this type of inspection is necessary. It verifies proper construction and conditions of any portions of the chimney and flue that are concealed. Level III inspections may be necessary if an incident damaged a building to the point its chimney had to be inspected.

Annual inspections are important, but it is also helpful to consider purchasing a metal chimney liner. These liners are designed to protect the inside of the chimney from corrosion, which is the result of combustion byproducts building up. Chimney liners are made from aluminum or stainless steel and may be used for repairing existing chimneys. These items are U.L. tested, so they are both safe and durable if they are installed and maintained properly. For chimneys over gas, oil or wood-burning units, stainless steel liners are used. Aluminum is only suitable for some gas applications. In addition to the liners, high-temperature insulation must be used to ensure safety.

More Fireplace Safety Tips

Sitting around a cozy, warm fire can be a wonderful experience for a family. But that experience can quickly turn to tragedy if you don’t follow some simple do’s and don’ts of fireplace safety.

After having your fireplace and chimney inspected, there are several other steps you should take before ever lighting a fire:
  • Put a guard on top of your chimney to keep out birds and small animals. The guard will also shield sparks that could set your roof on fire.
  • Keep newspapers, magazines, rugs and carpeting a safe distance away from the fireplace.
  • Remove any holiday decorations from the fireplace and mantle before lighting a fire. Decorations can easily ignite.
  • Teach children to stay away from the fireplace.
  • Be sure that an adult is in the room at all times when a fire is burning.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher handy in case of an emergency.
  • Dispose of ashes safely after the fire has had time to completely cool (this can take several days, depending on the fire) by transferring them to a metal container away from all combustibles and wetting them down. After soaking, the water can be poured in the yard to provide nutrients.
There are also some things you should never do when you light a fire:
  • Never burn charcoal in your fireplace because it produces carbon monoxide, which is deadly.
  • Never light a fire without enclosing the fireplace’s opening with glass doors or a sturdy screen. This will prevent sparks from escaping that could ignite curtains or furniture.
  • Never close the flue while a fire is still smoldering because it could result in a build-up of carbon monoxide.
  • Never use gasoline, kerosene or lighter fluid to start a fire. Burn only dry, seasoned hardwood.
  • Never light a fire with anything other than long-stemmed matches.
If a large fire breaks out, act immediately because smoke and flames will spread quickly. You and your family should leave the house at once. Don’t stop to call the fire department and don’t try to extinguish the fire yourself. Fumes overcome most victims long before flames do. If you must go through the smoke to escape, get down on your hands and knees on the floor and crawl with your body as low to the floor as possible. Keep your head about 12-24 inches above the floor. After you and your family are safely out of the house, call the fire department from a neighbor’s home.

To ensure your family’s safety, conduct periodic fire drills. Know your safest escape route and be sure you and your family have a designated meeting place outside the house. And finally, practice crawling out of a room so that everyone knows exactly what to do if the need ever arises.

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