Carl and Samantha Miller of Overland Park, Kansas were shocked to find that their was a fire hazard hidden inside their chimney. On January 6, 2013 Gene Padgitt of HearthMasters, Inc. noticed wood exposed inside the masonry chimney during a routine extraction of the tile flue liner to repair chimney fire damages. “A breaching in the mortar on the other side of the flue liner exposed wood supports under a closet on the opposite side that should not have been there,” said Padgitt. That wood was not visible while the tile flue liner was still installed. It was a great fire risk.”
Unfortunately, Gene sees this sort of thing quite often. Padgitt, who is a State Certified Fire Investigator and Certified Chimney Sweep says that chimneys are almost never built to code and there can be fire hazards inside the chimney that are not visible during a routine visual or camera inspection.
The Millers are glad that the potential fire hazard has now been removed, even though some demolition of a closet wall was necessary in order to access it. The wood was not a structural part of the house.
Padgitt said that the biggest problem area with chimneys is the smoke chamber area above the damper and before the flue starts. “This is supposed to be parge coated with a layer of special insulating mortar to seal the chamber and reduce the heat transfer to the outside of the chimney. I almost never see this done in the field, even though it is a requirement in the International Residential Code and NFPA 211 Standards.”
Other common fire hazards are combustible materials placed next to chimneys, wood headers and studs installed behind the facial wall with out clearance to the smoke chamber, no spark arrestor installed on the flue, and inadequate hearths. Chimneys should be built to code in order to reduce the risk of a structural fire, however, even chimneys in newer homes have been found to be built incorrectly.
The only way to tell if a chimney has been built to code is to hire a professional chimney inspector or contractor to inspect it during construction, and if that is not possible, after completion. This may require some demo work in order to view the entire structure. Padgitt uses a tiny camera inserted into a hole in the chimney or in the case of a prefabricated chimney, through the wood chase in order to view hidden areas. Most code officials, engineers and home inspectors do not get specialized training in chimneys and often miss important details. Padgitt says that the best way to find a qualified inspector is to look for a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep and/or F.I.R.E. Certified Inspector, who is also a chimney builder with experience in the field.