Every type of fireplace, whether wood-burning, pellet, coal, or gas, should be inspected annually. It isn't just residue or soot buildup that can cause problems, but cracks that can let in water, gaps that can
capture toxic or flammable fumes, and more.
Areas Of Greatest Concern
If the chimney cap has even a tiny crack or damage, birds or rodents can get inside and make a nest. Rain and snow can also easily get through, resulting in the gradual breakdown of mortar and metal. Chimney caps are susceptible to shifting from wind, which can create gaps.
Bird or animal droppings create a health hazard as well. A respiratory infection called “histoplasmosis” can result, causing flu-like symptoms, chest pain, weight loss, and more.
Fireplaces can catch fire when creosote (unburnt fuel that settles on the chimney lining) catches fire. Creosote is highly flammable, and the soot alone from a chimney fire can cause irreparable damage to personal belongings.
A buildup of creosote from insufficient sweeping can also cause skin and eye irritation, respiratory issues, kidney and liver irritation, confusion, seizures, and even increase the risk of skin cancer.
Gaps or cracks in the mortar can cause wetness to enter. Hairline cracks are not a major concern but should still be fixed. Larger gaps can significantly increase the risk of a chimney fire or collapse.
A firebox can pull away from the structure because of settlement cracks. This most commonly affects the back wall. Some inspectors often see this as benign and may ignore it. Cracks and damage to the mortar joints, however, can contribute to chimney collapse.
A cracked or separated hearth can be a sign of settling or of the chimney pulling away from the house. If gas logs or a fireplace insert are used, this added weight will exacerbate the problem.
Types of Inspections
There are three levels of fireplace inspection that are governed by the National Fire Protection Association.
Level 1 - Looks only at the components of the fireplace and chimney that are visible
Level 2 -Takes a more in-depth approach as the inspector may go through the attic or basement for a more thorough look
Level 3 - Involves taking apart and destroying certain parts.
You can learn more about these levels of inspection here.
Special Action Needed for Double or Triple Wall Chimneys
Fire departments across Virginia are urging homeowners with double or triple wall chimneys to have special cleaning that involves “completely dismantling the chimney and firebox.” A simple cleaning and visual inspection are not enough.
The issue lies in the construction of the walls. These systems were designed to allow airflow between the walls to cool the gasses and air flowing through the main flue. Over the years, debris such as leaves, birds nesting, insulation, and simple dust build up, causing the heat to become more intense and trapped. This leads to chimney fires.
If you have this type of system and have switched to gas logs, you are not out of the woods. The same heat builds up and resulting fire can occur.
Homeowners are advised to seek out licensed, qualified, and insured chimney contractors to perform this specific cleaning along with the installation of adequate screening around the chimney cap.
If you can't remember the last time you had your chimney inspected, you should do so immediately. Experts recommend annual fireplace and chimney inspections to keep your home safe all year round.