Fireplace hazard found by home inspector
Q. We purchased our home about 10 years ago and one of the features we liked was the firewood storage cabinet next to the living room fireplace. Now that we're selling the property, the buyer's home inspector found a problem that has gone unnoticed since the house was built.
The interior of the firewood cabinet provides open access to the metal casing around the fireplace unit. Firewood and other kindling materials are actually in direct contact with this metal surface, and the home inspector says this could cause a fire in our home. How could this condition have been allowed at the time of construction?
A. In the complex process of building a home, there are always a few defects that escape detection. In most instances, shortcomings are limited to minor details. Sometimes, however, construction errors involve critical safety issues, as with your fireplace.
It is possible that the firewood cabinet was not part of the original construction but was added later. Regardless of when the error occurred, this is a significant fire hazard that should be corrected.
A manufactured fireplace consists of a sheet metal box, lined with special ceramic tiles known as refractory plates. The plates are there to prevent overheating of the metal box. However, when large fires are maintained for prolonged periods, the metal casing can still become quite hot. Direct contact with firewood or other combustible materials can cause spontaneous combustion within the walls of the home.
Direct access behind a manufactured fireplace is prohibited, but violations sometimes occur. In some homes, fireplace casings are exposed in utility closets or storage areas, where homeowners may unwittingly store flammable objects such as magazines and brooms against firebox surfaces. Anyone with open access behind a metal fireplace box should hire a licensed general contractor to construct an approved fire separation around the fixture.
Q. Both of our toilets make terrible gurgling sounds whenever they are flushed. I had the vent pipes snaked out so there would be no restrictions. The home sat vacant for over a year before we bought it, and we're wondering if calcium build up could have damaged the bowls. One plumber even suggested that the toilets are wearing out. Do toilets actually wear out?
A. From your description, a few possible causes come to mind, but diagnosis is uncertain without conducting an on-site inspection of the toilets and related piping. If the toilets are very old, calcium build up could have developed, which could affect the flow of solid waste through the traps. Toilets seldom wear out, as you suggested, but the tank mechanism could be defective, although this would not be a likely cause of the gurgling noises.
The most common cause for this kind of problem is faulty design of the drain vents. Other possible causes could be poor design of the fixtures or foreign matter stuck in the traps or lack of adequate drain ventilation. If the problem persists, in spite of various plumbing repairs, try replacing one of the toilets to see if that eliminates the noise.
• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at www.housedetective.com, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.
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