Even cavemen knew that fire was dangerous—and they lived in flame-proof caves. But here in the 21st century, people blithely build roaring fires right in the middle of their furnished, wood-filled, carpeted, upholstered and bookcase-jammed condominiums. And they want someone to tell them it’s safe.
According to Ashley Eldridge, director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), the issue of safety and maintenance is particularly important in multifamily buildings, not only because of how those fireplaces and flues are built, but because of the close proximity of families and individuals to their neighbors. A fire can spread quickly in a co-op or condo, especially in older, converted buildings that may not have firewalls.
It’s a bit shocking, then, that regular fireplace maintenance is handled in various informal ways by buildings and their managers.There really is no universal standard, though members of the chimney sweeping industry are unanimous in their message: fireplaces are wonderful amenities in any home, but fireplace and chimney maintenance is crucial for the safety and health of building residents and the preservation of their property.
According to the CSIA, every fireplace and flue should have what's referred to as a Level 1 visual inspection yearly. “It’s inappropriate to assume that if it wasn’t used it doesn’t need to be inspected,” Eldridge says. It’s not just creosote build-up that is dangerous; paper and blown-in litter can pose a threat, along with birds' nests, feathers, and other bits of debris. A lightning strike can also cause damage that cannot be determined without an inspection.
And the annual inspection guideline even applies to fireplaces that have never even been used, or that get used just a few times a year. “In many cases, the fireplace may get used at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's and little else,” she says. “Or you may have a consumer who really enjoys their fireplace and lights it every evening when they get home from work. Those two are going to collect [buildup] vary differently. And each fireplace operates differently; based on the height of the chimney, the size of the flue, the type of the fuel.” Regardless, says Eldridge.