Consulting a Chimney Sweep

A flue liner should be inspected annually by a certified chimney sweep.

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Sensible people try to escape the heat of summer by retreating to their air-conditioned homes or offices. Little attention is paid to the home's fireplace or chimney, even though there were more than 15,500 chimney fires reported in 1999, resulting in 130 deaths and more than $152 million in property loss.

I began to study these Consumer Products Safety Commission facts after a recent inspection of a home where the homeowners had installed a free-standing, wood-burning stove only inches from a common Sheetrock wall in their finished basement.

I could not find a label anywhere on the product indicating what the clearances to combustibles should be. A testing laboratory such as the Underwriters Laboratory (UL), I know from experience, might approve a label for reduced clearance if the stove had been tested in its lab; otherwise the rule of thumb is that the clearance should be a minimum of 48 inches on all sides.

The 48-inch rule would place the stove in the middle of the room. If someone had inspected the installation, the stove would not have been approved.

A survey by the Consumer Products Safety Commission found that 70 percent of the wood-burning appliances installed during the year 2000 were installed by do-it-yourselfers and that more than half of those installations were never inspected by a building inspector, fire official or chimney sweep. These do-it-yourself installations are house or chimney fires waiting to happen.

Another problem I noted was the installation of the flue or chimney for the stove. The flue was not secured at each joint with three screws or rivets as required, and the chimney sections did not have the proper slope to vent properly.

And there are generalized safety rules for when the chimney pokes out atop the house. The flue's termination at the top of the chimney should be at least 3 feet above the roof where it exits the roof and at least 2 feet higher than the roof area or a wall obstruction that is within 10 feet of the chimney.

And a flue liner should be inspected annually by a Certified Chimney Sweep. The Chimney Safety Institute of America, or CSIA, offers the following questions to ask when choosing a chimney sweep:

  • How long has the company been in business?
  • Does the company offer current references? (Don't hesitate to check them.)
  • Does the company have unresolved complaints filed with your city or state consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau?
  • Does the company or individual carry a valid business liability insurance policy to protect your home and furnishings against accidents?
  • Is the company a member of the National Chimney Sweep Guild? (This group provides access to ongoing education.)
  • Is the employee a CSIA-certified chimney sweep?

(Dwight Barnett is a certified master inspector with the American Society of Home Inspectors.)

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