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Andy Wojtowski

Podcast: Chimney and Fireplace Safety

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This episode is all about chimney inspections, chimney safety, and we discuss some of our craziest interactions with so-called chimney experts.

TRANSCRIPTION

The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

Bill Oelrich: How many chimney flues actually come back with a clean bill of health?

Tessa Murray: None! I wish I could say that there were a few, but that’s the surprising thing for most people is that most masonry wood burning fireplace flues, they do not pass the level 2 chimney inspection.

BO: Welcome everybody to Structure Talk. I’m Bill Oelrich here today with Reuben Saltzman and Tessa Murray, like always. And we’re gonna talk about chimneys today. We’re getting into the Fall season and people are thinking about burning wood. I have no idea why anybody wants to burn wood but we’ll talk about it. I’m a big fan…

TM: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Sorry to interrupt. You like story-and-a-half houses, but you don’t like real wood fires.

BO: Yeah, yeah. That’s, exactly. What the heck?

Reuben Saltzman: That’s right.

TM: I know. Everybody likes a real wood fire.

RS: Bill isn’t too…

BO: You put a gas insert into your beautiful chimney and you flip a switch, and it’s wonderful. But anyway, we’re gonna talk about chimneys because if you’re burning wood, it’s a really good idea to get a level two chimney inspection on a regular basis. And also get your flue cleaned out on a regular basis. So we’ll go on to some chimney talk. Reuben, tell us what you’re thinking today.

RS: Alright, well my first thought about chimneys is that there’s a lot of clowns out there who do chimney inspections. And I started learning about this because… And this is really realtor-driven. We would do home inspections and then we’d have realtors who would tell their clients “You should get a chimney inspection done by a chimney specialist at the same time.” And we’d start having these chimney guys show up at our inspections. They’d bring these fiber-optic cameras and they’d run it down the chimney from the top or up the chimney from the bottom, and then they’d be like, “Yeah, we got cracks, and you got missing mortar. You got this, that and the other, and it’s gonna be $10,000 to fix it.” And we started seeing this happening over and over again. And so, we started digging into this and realizing, you know, we really need to start recommending these things.

TM: Yeah, well, just to clarify, too, and we’re talking about people that have wood-burning masonry fireplaces.

BO: Thank you, yes.

TM: That’s what we recommend doing a level two chimney inspection on. So if you’ve got just a masonry chimney that… You know, your furnace or water heater vent out of, you don’t need to do a level two chimney inspection on that. Just if you’re burning a wood fire.

RS: Yeah, you say level two. I don’t think I introduced that but what’s the difference? What’s a level 1, 2, and 3?

BO: You’re not suggesting that the guys with the cameras are clowns, are you?

RS: No, the guys using cameras usually do a pretty good job.

BO: Excellent. Okay, that’s all I wanted to know.

RS: The camera inspection, that’s considered a level two. A level 1 inspection is gonna be basically what we as home inspectors do. We’re gonna look at all the visually accessible areas. We’re gonna look inside the firebox, we’re gonna look up the flue, we’ll look down the flue. We’re gonna walk on the roof if it’s safe to do so. And we’re gonna look at the chimney in the attic. Look at all the accessible areas. Now a level two is where you take that camera okay, and you inspect the entire interior. I mean, you run that camera up the entire flue and you see every mortar joint.

TM: So what’s a level three?

RS: That’s where there’s been a fire or you think that there’s something really serious going on, and you need to tear that sucker apart. That is destructive testing.

TM: Oh, okay, okay.

RS: Yeah. That’s what they’re gonna do if maybe, if there has been a fire and they need to get to the bottom of it. There’s concealed damage. They will tear it apart.

TM: Wow.

BO: Destructive testing seems like an oxymoron. I’m not even sure what the right word is. It’s a rebuild.

RS: Destructive inspection, maybe. Yeah.

BO: Okay, so Tess, in your experience, all the home inspections you’ve done, all the level twos you’ve seen… How many chimney flues actually come back with a clean bill of health.

TM: None. I wish I could say that there were a few, but that’s the surprising thing for most people is that most masonry wood-burning fireplace flues, they do not pass a level two chimney inspection.

BO: Okay, Reuben I’ve always thought this, but I wanna get your opinion on this. I feel like most of these flues that are failing were installed exactly in this manner and they’ve been that way since day one.

RS: Yeah, that’s what a lot of people say. Say, well, this passes because it was installed properly at the time, therefore it meets code. People will use that argument. The grandfathering clause. And will say, “Well, it’s never been a problem.” Well yeah, we know it’s never been a problem. We can look at the house and see it hasn’t burned down. That much is clear.

[chuckle]

RS: But it’s only not a problem until it’s a problem. Whenever you have a change in use, that’s when we’re really concerned about there being a fire. And when do you have a change in use? When you have a change in occupancy. When the house sells, when you have new owners moving in. Maybe the previous owners use those little fire logs They just have little fires all the time. New owners, they might not be doing that. They might have big rip roaring fires and use it much differently than the previous owners did. And if you’re gonna have a fire in your living room, that whole flue better be safe.

BO: See, that’s why, get your gas insert.

[chuckle]

BO: And you live life safely.

TM: So we didn’t talk about what that means if it fails. So define fail, right. My understanding is any time they find a crack in the clay tile, in the liner or if they find missing mortar in between the clay tiles, right? That means that it fails.

RS: Those would be reasons for… Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff.

TM: And there’s other things, too. Like missing parging on the smoke chamber and cracks in the firebox and lots of other things that can lead to it failing.

RS: Exactly.

TM: And if it fails, then technically they say it’s not safe to burn wood in. And you shouldn’t have a fire ’cause you could start a chimney fire.

RS: Yeah, I hear this all the time. Like, “Oh yeah, it’s been that way for a long time, it’s been safe, it’s never been a problem.” And people question how often do we really have fires? And I got this little statistic here, this is from the Consumer Product Safety Commission talking about how often people actually have fires and this is… We’re talking about chimney fires. And usually when people say a chimney fire, most of the time, it’s gonna be a structure fire. It’s not an actual fire that happens inside the flue of the chimney. It’s where you’ve got these little gaps in the chimney, missing mortar and then you have heat from the chimney getting… Heat from the liner in the chimney getting transferred to the structure of the chimney, the actual bricks that hold the chimney up. And then those transfer heat to the wood framing. That’s how a chimney fire starts. It’s technically a structure fire. And so, the CPSC said between 2012 and 2014, anybody wanna guess how many fires we had in the US, chimney fires?

TM: 2000.

RS: 22,000.

TM: Oh my gosh.

RS: In that small period, this is how many to many fires we had.

TM: Wow. Wow.

RS: So this is a serious thing. I mean it’s not us as home inspectors or the chimney inspectors blowing stuff out of proportion. There are a ridiculous number of unsafe chimneys out there and most people just don’t know about it.

BO: Reuben, I’ve got a few questions about the inspection process. I know you’ve dug into this because you brought this service in-house for all our clients so they know exactly what they’re buying. Just talk to me about why you decided to bring the service in-house.

RS: Well, really, it’s because we had so many of our clients asking us, “Do you do chimney inspections?” People were seeking this out. And we ended up partnering up with another chimney company. They do great work. Well, I can say it on here. It’s Chimney Doctors. And we partnered up with them and they would do all the inspections for us, but after a while people started getting concerned that there was a conflict of interest. They said, “Well, these guys actually do the repairs on chimneys too and they’re calling out all of these chimneys as having defects and this is not right.” Of course, they were gonna call it out. They wanted to just fix it. And I didn’t buy that at all but there was an appearance of a conflict, and that’s why we ended up taking this in-house, and we ended up getting our own guy trained in to do chimney inspections. That’s Patrick Brannon, and now he does all of them for us.

BO: You know, it’s really interesting. I’ve read a ton of the Chimney Doctors inspections and I’ve read a ton of Patrick’s inspections and they all seem the same because they’re governed by the same organization. Tell me about this organization. And I think Chimney Doctors was so far above board, people just didn’t like the news they were getting and they threw them under the bus at their chimney.

RS: Yeah. That’s the Chimney Safety Institute of America, CSIA. They are a certifying body for people to do chimney inspections, repair chimneys, to work on them, and they’re recognized all over the country.

BO: So, Tess, I know you have a question. What are you thinking?

TM: Well, no, I was just gonna say for the consumer out there for someone who’s buying a house or has a wood-burning fireplace, what should they know when they’re researching who to hire to do this chimney inspection because, yes, the CSIA certified that’s great? What does that mean? And is that typical? Are most of these chimney companies CSIA certified out there?

RS: It seems like there’s a ton of them that aren’t. And we’ve had some crazy experiences with some companies who aren’t. Bill, there was one. I don’t know if you remember this one, but I got to tell this story ’cause it was awesome. I inspected a house and the woman buying this house…

TM: I was there with you, I think.

RS: Oh my Gosh. You guys were both…

TM: Yeah. We were both involved on that transaction.

RS: Wow. Small world. Yeah, you took a picture of me leaning against the chimney.

TM: Yeah.

RS: Okay. So do you remember the woman? She’s buying this house.

TM: Yes.

RS: She just got a divorce. She’s got three kids, 50th in France. She needs a turn-key house. One of her requirements for a home was that it have a wood-burning fireplace. This was important to her. So the garage was sliding down the hill from the alley.

TM: Yeah.

RS: The flat roof, which had apparently just been “repaired.”

TM: “Repaired.”

RS: Yes. “Repaired.” I think they clocked it because there was a deck on top of this flat roof and it was leaking at the time of our inspection. And then we get to the chimney and we looked down the chimney and the middle was gone. The chimney is fine, the structure actually, but then the liner, the clay liner was completely gone…

TM: Missing.

RS: About half way down. And we saw this. We got on our 28-foot extension ladder which we bring to our inspections, we looked on the chimney. Whoa, that’s bad news. Chimney inspector shows up, the level two chimney inspector who we had no partnership with at the time, the client just hired their own chimney inspector. He gets in and he bad-mouths all the other chimney inspectors in the Twin City. He’s like, “These guys just wanna make a big deal. They wanna sell liners and blah, blah, blah.” And this guy doesn’t do any repair work and he’s bad-mouthing everybody. And then he looks up there with his camera and he goes, “Oh.”

[laughter]

RS: And then he goes back and he says, “Well, yeah, I know what I said, but this is a serious problem. This is a rebuild. What is this gonna cost? I don’t know, 12,000, like, something crazy and… “

TM: Yeah, or more.

RS: Yeah, or more. And the buyer tapped out. She’s like, “I’m done. I’m not buying this house.”

TM: She walked away from that.

RS: Yeah. She ended this. We never even got to the basement. So that ended the inspection, and then a week later we get this email notification saying we’re scheduled to do an inspection on the same house again. You were scheduled to do it, Bill.

BO: That was me. That’s correct.

RS: Yeah. And then I called you up and I’m like, “Hey, Bill, just so to let you know, the chimney is tossed, the garage is doing this, the roof is doing that.”

BO: Structural stucco on the garage.

RS: Structural stucco. Yeah. The studs are routed out to nothing. That’s where we got structural stucco. And then we get an email from the listing agent saying, “Hey, just thought I’d let you know, we just had so and so’s chimney service come out and the chimney is safe and in working order.” And we’re like, “Wait a minute.”

TM: Yeah. And they had an invoice from the company.

RS: Exactly. They sent it out to us everything it’s like, “Wait a minute. Hold on. Who said it wasn’t in good working order? Where did this come from?” ’cause they don’t even know that it’s us doing the inspection again. They just sent this out of the blue. All right. That’s strange, but also, no, it’s not. The middle of the chimney is gone. So, we’d like to meet him out there. We met the chimney guy out there while you’re doing the inspection, Bill. I met the chimney guy there.

BO: There was a whole group of people standing there waiting for X, Y, Z chimney company to show up and declare the chimney in good working order.

[laughter]

RS: Yeah, yeah. So he gets on your ladder. He shows up in his vehicle, he’s got no ladder, no camera, no fiber-optic camera. And so, of course, our thought right away is, “How’d you inspect it the first time?” And then we realized, “Oh wait, we know how you inspected it the first time. You did it just the way you did it like no, You didn’t have a camera, you just looked up the flue.” So he gets on our ladder, he looks down. He gets off the ladder, he’s looking at the ground, he’s like, “Oh I’m trying to figure out how we could get a liner in there.” And we’re like, “What liner? What’s the deal?”

BO: It’s perfectly safe.

RS: Yeah, and then we said, “Alright, alright, just straight answer. Is it safe to use?” He says, “No.” And we’re like, “Alright, thank you.” We excused him, ’cause it’s super awkward. And he left very quickly and that was the end of it. Thank you, goodbye. And what it all comes down to is there’s a ton of clowns out there. There’s a lot of companies out there who will just look up the flue, they’ll say, “Yep, looks good. Call me again next year, and we’ll do another inspection.” And they’re not really doing a chimney inspection. They’re not doing a level two chimney inspection. And that’s what needs to happen when you’re buying a house.

BO: Okay, so let’s talk about what I love is sticking a liner inside of these old masonry chimneys and forget about what the flue looks like. Tess, I know you’ve got a story that you wanted to share with us.

TM: I just had a recent inspection and the buyers, this house had a wood-burning fireplace and it was really important to them. They really wanted to have a wood-burning fireplace. They had ordered a level two chimney inspection. So we went out there, I did the home inspection, and then Patrick did the level two chimney inspection. And he found some pretty significant issues with this chimney. There were big cracks, chunks missing, missing mortar. So, it failed, like they all do pretty much 99% of the time. So anyways, that inspection, I completed that, that the house had a list of things going on with it, and the fireplace was one big thing for them. But I get a call from their agent, from the buyer’s agent like the next day. She said, “Can you explain something to me? I’m kind of a newer agent.” And she said, “The sellers have provided documentation from a chimney inspection company that says the chimney is in fine and working order. And they’re basically saying that this is bogus and they don’t wanna fix anything,” ’cause I guess they had asked them for some money, or negotiations, or something about that. She’s like, “You know, what do I do? This letter came from someone who’s CSA certified.”

And I was like, “What? Okay,” because we always recommend go to the website, look up a CSA certified chimney sweep, find someone who’s credible to do this level two chimney inspection. And I said to this agent, I said, “Well, so what does their report look like?” And she’s like, “Well, you know, it’s just writing. It says it’s acceptable.” I said, “Well, did they provide any pictures of the inside of the chimney?” And she said, “No, apparently he didn’t use a fiber-optic camera and he didn’t do that.” And I said, “Well, then why is there any debate? Here you are, you’re provided with a report from our certified CSA chimney sweep with pictures of a broken down clay liner, and you’ve got sellers who are trying to debate that it’s actually acceptable, ’cause they have a contractor who says it’s fine.”

RS: Who didn’t even see it.

TM: Who didn’t see it. I said, “I don’t even know why you’re talking to me [laughter] right now.”

BO: Do you think maybe he inspected the wrong house?

RS: We need to take a break, I’m just mad right now.

[laughter]

TM: Yeah, but that’s the thing. It’s like, “Okay, do your due diligence, have a level two chimney inspection, use a CSA certified chimney sweep. But if they don’t use a fiber-optic camera, you can’t inspect the chimney.

RS: That’s all there is.

TM: Yeah, yeah. Mic drop.

BO: I do think we can be honest that it is a big shock when you think everything’s fine and dandy, and then all of a sudden, somebody comes out of left field with a pretty big ask like the chimney needs to be rebuilt and this is going to be several thousand dollars. I could see how somebody would be knocked off their foundation a little bit and need some further explanation. But if you’re gonna fight it, fight it with good information, not just the company next door who spent three minutes looking at it.

RS: So, Bill, before we went to break, you talked about what you’d like to do to fix this.

BO: Yes.

RS: We’re just about out of time. We’ve talked about all the ways to get these inspected, but what do you do when there’s an $8,000 repair that needs to happen? What…

BO: Hunt. Go buy a $3500 insert and you put it inside and have it installed. You make sure the chimney is good at the exterior and you’re good to go.

RS: Okay, that’s it.

BO: Sounds like a perfect plan.

RS: Now, are you talking about a gas insert or are you talking about a wood-burning insert?

BO: Yeah, yeah, of course. A gas insert. No, no, gas insert.

RS: Okay, you’re probably on the low end of the price spectrum when you say that, but that’s okay.

BO: Okay, I know, I’ve lived most of these. We did two of them at in our house, and we got a break because we had a main floor and a basement and we did them both at the same time. And it cost us about $7,500. Now granted that was eight or nine years ago that included running the gas line, and we’re in the city, so it had to be inspected by the municipal inspector and all that good stuff. So it’s affordable in comparison to rebuilding your precious wood fireplace that you’re gonna use three times.

RS: Yeah.

TM: So just to back up for a second, if someone has a wood-burning fireplace and it fails, it’s in bad shape, it’s not safe to burn wood in, they’ve got a few different options though, right? Adding a gas insert fireplace is one option, but if they are just married to the idea of having wood burning, what can they do? And there’s a…

BO: Spend a lot of money.

TM: Well, they can spend a lot of money, yeah, but there’s a few things. One, rebuild the chimney, right? And that’s quite a process of breaking up the plate tiles and re-parging the inside.

RS: Reline.

TM: Relining, thank you.

RS: Reline the chimney.

BO: Sure, yeah, you could reline it with…

TM: Relining or installing like a steel flue up the middle, right?

RS: If there’s enough space.

TM: If there’s enough space for it.

RS: So, usually isn’t to just drop those in there, but that’s an option too.

TM: A steel liner. Yup, and those are very expensive as well. Or another option, burn some candles maybe?

BO: Yeah, leave it as it is.

TM: Yeah. Leave as it is, yeah don’t do anything.

RS: Yeah, yeah, put candles in there and don’t do anything. That’s a really important piece, Tessa, is that you don’t ever have to fix this. All you have to do is don’t have a fire in your living room. And there’s no hazard then. That’s okay too.

BO: Yeah, and we spent our whole time talking about basically the inside of a masonry fireplace. And we didn’t even talk about repairing anything at the exterior, which could add some significant value. And if you’re like me and a lover of gas, I still have to maintain all the exterior components of my fireplace. So I’m not off the hook with any of that.

TM: Yeah, you still have the chimney portion that’s outside above the roof that you have to maintain, top pointing, the crown. We didn’t even talk about issues that we see all the time in inspections with crowns and chimneys.

RS: We’ll have to have Steve Kuhl come back out. He did one with us on heat cables, but he loves talking about chimneys too, at least the exterior. We gotta have him talk about that.

TM: Yes.

RS: Maybe in the winter, maybe in the spring, we’ll see, but he’d be good to talk about that too.

TM: Yeah.

BO: Alright, sounds great. We’re gonna wrap this one up, but before we go, Reuben, tell everybody where they can get all the information they need to know about home inspections and home ownership.

RS: Structuretech1.com.

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