In many homeowner associations, fireplaces are a warm and inviting amenity that boost market value and livability. Some owners use them passionately, buying cord upon cord of wood while others rarely use them except for special occasions like Christmas. Regardless of the usage, the homeowner association has an obligation to see that they all meet fire safety codes.
The National Fire Protection Association advises that "chimneys, fireplaces, and vents should be inspected at least once a year for soundness, freedom from deposits and correct clearances. Cleaning, maintenance, and repairs should be done if necessary." This is particularly important in common wall communities like condominiums and townhomes where a chimney fire can spread to neighboring units.
The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends that open masonry fireplaces should be cleaned at 1/4" of sooty buildup, and sooner if there is any glaze present in the system. Factory-built fireplaces should be cleaned when any appreciable buildup occurs. This is considered to be enough fuel buildup to cause a chimney fire capable of damaging the chimney or spreading to the home. The fact that fireplaces are rarely used doesn't change the need for inspection. Birds and other animals may build nests in the flue or there may be other types of deterioration that could make the chimney unsafe to use. Chimney caps rust away defeating the spark protection features.
If your common wall community has either gas and/or wood burning fireplaces with chimneys, now is the right time for the association to arrange and pay for a mass inspection before the chimney sweep busy season kicks in. Chimney sweep services offer discounts on multiple inspections, often in the $10-$20 per chimney range instead of $30-$40. Usually the inspection can be done from the roof without having to enter the unit. If repairs and/or cleaning is indicated, the unit owner should pay for it.
The costs, again, can be negotiated down if there are multiple chimneys to clean. Before fall turns to winter and fireplace burning starts, arrange this critical fire safety inspection and make sure to include it in your budget next year as a line item so you don't forget to do it.
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