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Jul 21

Safe Fireplaces

Posted by C. Mason Hearn in select contractor, repairs


My family is purchasing a 1950's home, and our home inspector noted a concern about the poor condition of the "caps" on the chimneys, as well as some of the bricks and mortar directly below.  He could not inspect the entire inside of the chimney (although he did note alot of creosote inside, when he opened the damper at the fireplaces).  The seller is having a masonry contractor come out for another look.  How concerned should we be?

Assuming that we might be concerned, I have seen stainless chimney liners advertised and at home shows.  Is this a good solution?

Jim L, Cleveland, OH



If you expect to use your fireplaces for their intended purpose, be very concerned.  The masonry cap, or "crown", of a chimney is the primary protection against weather and resulting decay of your chimney.  The damage visible on the exterior is likely happening on the interior as well, as water seeps down through the very porous brick and cavities.  Such action is especially aggressive in your area, where you have many freeze / thaw cycles - the source of this deterioration.

A second indication of potential damage would be the presence of creosote.  This substance, a byproduct of normal wood burning, should be cleared from your flues on a regular basis to avoid damaging chimney fires.  Many folks don't even know they have had chimney fires, for they may be "minor" events that happen, and then burn themselves out without much obvious fanfare.  However, the intense heat produced by a chimney fire often results in dangerous flue damage... a chimney fire within a damaged flue may migrate to your home's structure, then you have a REAL problem!

Have a Chimney Sweep, preferably certified by the Chimney Safety Institute ( is a great resource... check it out) perform a minimum Level 2 inspection of your fireboxes and flues.  This will get you a very close, professional look at the system conditions.  Likewise, such a professional can make recommendations regarding appropriate repairs to achieve safely working fireplaces and your peace of mind.  You will find that most of these inspectors also offer repair services - which may be a good thing, or might be perceived as a conflict of interest.  Therefore, as with all things home-improvement-wise, check references!

There are plenty of good masonry contractors that know their way around proper chimney repairs.  I would caution, however, that you're dealing with a specialty system with life safety implications.  If you had heart problems, I assume you would seek out a cardiologist, not just any medical doctor, right?

Another opinion regarding flue replacements....  While there are functional, UL-listed stainless liner systems, those are not my preference.  Although substantially cheaper than other alternatives such as cast-in-place liners, the latter in my opinion offers more benefits in terms of durability, structural soundness, and proper function.

There is nothing that says "home" quite like a roaring fire in the fireplace.  With the right precautions, you can assure that the fire stays there.  Good luck, and best wishes!


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written by C. Mason Hearn, July 21, 2008
ps: A bit of levity in closing, and (our readers might think) appropriate to both the subject matter-at-hand, as well as the corny-ness of my typical humor. From the tea party scene in Mary Poppins:

(Note: Based solely on his vintage and British nationality, it is unlikely that Bert was CSIA-certified)

Bert: “I always say there’s nothing like a good joke”
Uncle Albert: “And THAT was NOTHING like a good joke!”

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