In our previous two blog posts on fire-related issues that may be discovered by a home inspector, we looked at indoor electrical system red flags (lack of GFCIs, overuse of extension cords, outdated wiring); service drop concerns (inadequate clearance, dangerous disconnections); and garage defects (lack of a fire-rated door between an attached garage and living space, non-recommended wall and ceiling material). The fact that we’re devoting a third article to fire hazards that may surface during a home inspection is further proof of the importance of hiring a certified home inspector like those at A-Pro before you buy and settle into your new space.
Below are a few more items we’re adding to our checklist of fire-related hazards that have ended up on A-Pro home inspection reports over the last 27 years:
Smoke Detectors: Based on prevailing codes regarding placement of smoke detectors, your home inspector will check for the presence of these lifesaving devices in various recommended locations on each story of the home on ceilings or walls: e.g., bedrooms, outside sleeping areas, basements, rooms with fireplaces, finished garages, etc. While testing to determine if the smoke detectors are functional is not required, many home inspectors take this additional step as part of the assessment. Inspectors may also check for the presence of portable fire extinguishers, make sure access to these devices is unobstructed, determine if they are charged, and examine them for cracks and other damage. Inspectors are not required to test the extinguishers. Your inspector may recommend that action be taken to shore up fire extinguisher deficiencies.
Chimneys and Fireplaces: Statistics show that about 25,000 chimney fires occur annually in the U.S., resulting in more than $120 million in damage. Per InterNACHI standard operating procedures, the inspector will check visible portions of chimneys and fireplaces, lintels above fireplace openings, the damper door (by opening and closing), and cleanout doors and frames. With this being said, much of a chimney’s interior will not be visible to the home inspector, so a higher level of inspection by a certified chimney professional (including, in some cases, a video showing the condition along the length of the chimney’s interior) may be recommended to concretely pinpoint dangerous defects such as a damaged flue liner, fractured masonry, or obstructions such as a bird’s nest or dead animal. Additionally, the home inspector’s non-invasive inspection does not allow for the removal of inserts to check for proper flue attachment.
Defects the inspector may find include dampers that will not open and close or are missing, cleanouts that are not made of a non-combustible material such as metal or pre-cast cement, deterioration/damage to the hearth extension, and hearths that aren’t sufficiently thick or don’t extend far enough to prevent embers from igniting combustibles. In extreme cases, no hearth extension will be present at all—a condition that presents a significant risk of fire. If possible, your inspector will check the firebox floor for cracked, missing, or broken masonry. Further investigation may find floor hoists below that show evidence of being singed by the extreme heat above.
Your inspector may discover creosote (a highly flammable, wood-tar byproduct of burning wood, coal, etc.) that has accumulated on the damper or in the firebox—a sign that the fireplace is too small to handle the amount of use it has been subjected to. Under heat, the hard creosote may melt, find its way up into the flue, and lead to a chimney fire. During the exterior portion of the inspection, signs of blackened creosote that has leaked through may be noted between bricks. Settlement of the hearth or chimney movement may lead to gaps or cracks that present a potential fire hazard. Further, the hearth should not be made of combustible material or show signs of cracking or sagging. Your inspector may also find dangerous wood structures supporting the damper or wood framing below the hearth.
Chimney issues that will be visible to an inspector include a missing, damaged, loose or wrong type of chimney cap. In addition to keeping animals and moisture out, the cap is also designed to prevent burning embers from reaching the roof. Other concerns include exterior masonry damage or loose pieces, cracked chimney crowns, separation of the chimney from the building, and harmful vegetation growing on or near the structure.
Wood-Burning Stoves: There are a number of fire hazards associated with wood-burning stoves. These include stoves that sit directly on the floor without buffering from a noncombustible floor pad, improper recommended clearance from combustible materials, weakening caused by cracks in the appliance, and the presence of creosote, which should be managed by regular cleanings.
Other hazards include fireplace insert doors that don’t have proper clearance from the hearth; ill-advised placement of wood- or coal-burning stoves in unauthorized masonry fireplace openings; ash dumps that contain combustible materials; insufficient roof-to-chimney clearance (chimneys that are too short can restrict proper venting and increase the chance of fire); carpeting too close to a fireplace; a leaning chimney that may collapse; and amateurish fireplace repairs, such as caulk used to repair separation of the hearth and the floor.
It is highly recommend for homeowners to hire a fireplace/wood stove professional to perform regular checkups/cleanings to keep everything in top shape and spot potential fire hazards that demand replacement or repair.
Firewood: Storing firewood (or flammable debris) against a house or near the structure is a hazard. All it may take is an ember from a cigarette or stray spark from a barbecue grill to ignite the pile, leading to a house fire. Further, this condition may be sited by the inspector as being conducive to wood-destroying insect and rodent infestations.