Chimneys are a common component of common wall communities. The chimney vents hot exhaust gasses from fireplaces or from central heating. While most chimneys are brick, many are now made of out of metal. Both present problems if not properly maintained including fires, collapses and even carbon monoxide poisoning.

When wood burns, it never completely combusts. What's left forms a vaporized residue that mixes with condensation as it cools and sticks to the inside of the chimney. This material, referred to as "creosote," can be very difficult to clean and if allowed to build up, a chimney fire could happen. Chimney fires are one of the most dangerous and devastating types of household fires. Fully engaged, they can roar like a jet engine shooting fire into the sky like an oversized roman candle. Fueled by a dirty chimney, temperatures inside can reach 2000 degrees and destroy an entire building.

A Clean Sweep. Dirty flues, the metal or clay liner inside a chimney, are the leading cause of chimney fires. To safeguard the safety on all HOA residents, the HOA should pay to have all chimneys inspected annually. For chimneys that serve the heating system, inspection is equally important. These chimneys can become blocked by bird nests or other obstructions and cause combustion gas to back up into the home leading to carbon monoxide poisoning. Before turning on your furnace or boiler for the season, be sure to have the equipment serviced and the chimney or vent pipe checked for obstructions. If cleaning is needed, the individual owners should foot the bill.

In general, all chimneys should be professionally inspected at least once a year and cleaned as determined by that inspection. As a rule of thumb though, a chimney should be swept by a pro once for every "cord" of wood burned. A cord is a unit of measurement for a pile of firewood that measures 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long.

Hiring a Chimney Sweep. Because proper care and attention to service can help protect people from unnecessary fires and carbon monoxide poisonings, it is important to choose the professional wisely. Questions to ask should include:

  1. How long has the chimney sweeping company been in business?
  2. Does the company offer current references?
  3. Does the company carry a valid business liability insurance policy to protect your home and furnishings against accidents?

There are also a few things a homeowner association can do to keep an eye on safety between those annual evaluations:

  • Chimneys that are separating from the structure can be especially dangerous. Sometimes, the steel straps used to hold the chimney to the structure rust away and leave the chimney vulnerable to a collapse.
  • Use binoculars to look for loose bricks or cracks, especially near the top. Freezing weather can cause bricks to deteriorate or loosen up. Any deteriorated sections should be replaced.
  • Check that the metal flashing between the roof and chimney is tight. Loose flashing can cause leaks.
  • Look at the chimney's crown as well. The crown is the area between the outside edge of a masonry chimney and the liner. Crowns often develop cracks that can lead to leaks and need to be caulked.
  • Look for vegetation at the top of the chimney. Ivy, for example, can grow across the top of the chimney and obstruct the flow of exhaust gases out the chimney.
  • Metal vent pipes can rust or become dislodged from high winds. Look for vents that may have separated at the seams. These may need to be rejoined, and then reinforced so it doesn't happen again.

The fall is the best time to do a chimney safety and cleaning. Make a clean sweep on your chimney fire hazards.

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