Chim-chimney stereotype reconsidered

Posted5/17/2020 6:00 AM

Q: My home is being sold, and the buyer's home inspector reported a safety problem with my chimney -- something to do with the outer metal wall venting inside the attic. That same day, I was having some work done by a general contractor. He checked the chimney and said that it looked perfectly OK. The home inspector says the problem should be checked by a certified chimney sweep, not a building contractor. I'm confident in my contractor's qualifications, but the buyers insist on further evaluation, as advised by their home inspector. This seems like a needless expense. What is your advice?

A: The chimney condition reported by the buyers' home inspector is not a matter to be evaluated or dismissed by just anyone. The debate is a matter of fire safety. Faulty diagnosis and failure to make needed repairs could lead to a fire sometime in the future.


Most metal chimneys consist of two sheet-metal shafts, one installed within the other. The purpose of a double-wall chimney is to prevent the outer surface from becoming hot enough to ignite the wood framing in your attic. The air between the two chimney walls can be extremely hot and must therefore vent into the open air above your roof. When the outer wall of the chimney terminates inside the attic, heated air can scorch the roof framing to the point of combustion.

Building contractors do not always recognize defects of this kind. Regardless of competence and expertise in their own field, they are not chimney sweeps and may not be familiar with the fire-safety requirements common to that profession. Contractors who cross that line of expertise may expose themselves to considerable liability.

The chimney sweep profession is among the most taken-for-granted of all building-related trades. People tend to think of sweeps as mere cleaning crews with top hats, long-tail coats and sooty faces. With all due respect to Mary Poppins, this is an unfortunate undervaluation of a specialized profession.

A qualified chimney sweep is a knowledgeable technician, possessing an array of skills essential to the construction, installation and repair of all types of wood-burning fixtures and equipment. A sweep's overall knowledge is unique, encompassing fire safety standards beyond the sphere of other building trades. In addition to specific hands-on skills, a chimney sweep is proficient in numerous legal requirements set forth in the National Fire Code and is familiar with safety specifications affecting all types of fireplaces, inserts and wood-burning and gas-burning stoves.

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The bottom line in matters of fire safety is to consult an appropriate expert. A building contractor who declares a chimney to be safe and acceptable is advancing speculative guesswork with the potential for disastrous consequences.

If your faucets were dripping, you wouldn't call a brick mason. If your feet were hurting, you wouldn't see a dentist. Likewise, when fireplace or chimney conditions are suspect, the services of a chimney expert are imperative. A proper evaluation could save your home and possibly someone's life.

• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

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