A fire breaks out and destroys a single-family home. An investigation reveals that a chimney sweep cleaned the fireplace system 10 months prior. As a claims adjuster, what issues and areas are important to assess? Let’s first look at fireplace systems, and then the duties of a chimney sweep and what areas adjusters should review when it comes to evaluating the potential for subrogation recovery.
The Fireplace System – “Not Practically Perfect”
The chimney and firebox should be examined for damage, as joints in the firebox and chimney system can expand and contract based on usage. All components must be properly inspected to ensure that they will not fail, become damaged, or allow a fire or heated gases to escape.
Factory-built fireplaces became readily available in the last 25 to 30 years and are commonplace today. Most are made of sheet metal and sold as complete systems with a specific chimney. Installation manuals must be obtained to make sure the original installation of these fireplaces met the listing requirements. Applicable building codes require that factory-built fireplaces be installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications/listing. Clearances between one-half and two inches of air space are required from nearby combustible framing. If the clearance is incorrect, nearby wood may dry out over time and lower the ignition temperature of the adjacent combustible framing. If this process continues unabated, a fire can result.
When ignited, creosote deposits will burn at temperatures between 1,200 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Creosote fires may also result in sudden thermal shock to the fireplace and chimney structural components, potentially leading to the transfer of heat to adjacent combustibles during the creosote fire or during subsequent normal use.
There are professional organizations to which a chimney professional can belong. One of the more recognized ones is the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), a nonprofit, educational organization dedicated to chimney and venting-system safety.
A sweep also checks the readily accessible structure and flue portions of the chimney, verifying that the flue is not blocked or significantly restricted.
A Level II inspection is more detailed and more expensive, as it includes examining accessible areas in crawl spaces, basements, and attics. All accessible areas of the fireplace, chimney, connections, and appliance are inspected. Sweeps also check for proper clearance from combustibles in these areas. Video scanning or other inspection of the interior flue is completed, and evaluation of the chimney system’s construction/condition is performed. However, a Level II inspection does not include removal of a building’s permanent parts, such as chase covers, wall coverings, or siding. This level is used when the conditions of use for the appliance are changing or when a Level I inspection discloses the need for a more rigorous examination. A homeowner should be advised of the need for the change, as well as the increase in cost. If a homeowner declines, the sweep should note the refusal in writing on his invoice/report and recommend the system not be used until a more detailed inspection is conducted. Examples of when a Level II inspection is recommended include sale or transfer of property; before a flue is relined; change of an appliance with a dissimilar type, efficiency, or rating; and after an operating malfunction or external event likely damaged the chimney, such as a fire.
A useful CSIA publication is Successful Chimney Sweeping, which sweeps can purchase as part of certification. The manual includes the six-step sweeping process: preliminary examination; inside preparation and sweeping; flue sweeping and examination; final examination; Level I inspection; and customer review. Those sections can be reviewed after a sweep’s work to see whether the standard of care was met.
A Real-Life Sweep Case