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Fireplace Safety and Maintenance A Valuable Amenity Shouldn’t Be a Liability

Some lucky Chicagoland residents can come home from work on a bitter winter’s night and warm their feet by a roaring fire while drinking a hot toddy. A working fireplace is a coveted amenity for many, adding a dash of vintage charm to prewar apartments or a touch of luxury in sleek newer buildings. But hot toddies aside, maintaining a fireplace in your apartment is no small task. From regular cleaning to proper venting, taking care of a working fireplace is a serious responsibility—and crucial for the safety of both people and property. 

Maintaining a Relic

While fireplaces may be considered a nice touch today, at one time they were necessary components in every home, warming the house and providing a place to cook. But that was a century-and-a-half ago. Today, wood-burning fireplaces are most commonly found in converted row houses built in the second half of the 19th century and in upper-floor and penthouse apartments in prewar luxury buildings, while newer construction generally features gas-powered or electric hearths. They are also very common in townhouses, reports David Levy of Sterling Management Services located in Holliston, Massachusetts. There may even be multiple fireplaces in one unit.

John White is the sales manager of Billy Sweet Chimney Sweeps, located in Boston and serving Boston, the North Shore, and Portland, Maine. “Maintenance requirements for a fireplace in an apartment building are no different than for a single-family home,” he says. “Solid fuel fireplaces should be swept and inspected once a year. That recommendation is made by CSIA, Chimneysweep Safety Institute of America. They are the most accepted certification in the industry.”

“If you use it, it needs to be swept,” adds White. “Additionally, throughout the entire year, between heat and snow, freezing and thaw, a chimney’s masonry can become damaged. It can deteriorate over time. Annual inspections are not only to make sure the fireplace system is clean, but also to make sure it’s in good working condition.”

Tony Fikejs is a technician with Jiminy Chimney, located in Huntley, Illinois, and servicing the greater Chicago area. “We recommend annual inspections,” says Fikejs, “but depending on use and fireplace type, more than one inspection and cleaning a year might be warranted. It depends on the user’s burning habits.” While all types of fireplaces, wood or gas burning, can be found in multifamily buildings in the Chicago area, Fikejs explains, they are more commonly found in townhouse type developments in Chicago’s suburbs.

Common Area, or Private Amenity?

As with any element in a multifamily building that involves components that penetrate into both private homes and common areas, it’s important for co-op or condo owners with fireplaces to know whether the component parts to be maintained are under their purview, or that of the co-op or condo association. 

The answer will depend on what it says in your proprietary lease or condo documents. In many cases, the fireplace, flue, and other parts of the fireplace system are the sole responsibility of the shareholder or owner. In others— particularly in a building with multiple fireplaces in a single line of units—the flue may be considered a common element, but the mantle, hearth, and firebox within the apartment itself would be the responsibility of the shareholder or owner.

“When considering annual maintenance,” says Eddie Delgardo, the sales manager of Westchester Fireplace and BBQ, located in Elmsford, New York, “the apartment owner usually pays us directly. In terms of arranging the maintenance visit, though, that depends on the building and the overall situation. If there’s a large number of fireplaces in the building, the managing agent may arrange to have all inspections done at the same time and will schedule maintenance work similarly. Otherwise, apartment owners arrange the annual visits themselves. In both cases, we are paid directly by the owners.”  

Fikejs reports a similar picture in Chicagoland. Who arranges for maintenance and who pays depends on the property. He has seen every possible combination. In some cases, management of the complex will arrange for maintenance and pay for it community wide. In others, individual owners make and pay for their own maintenance arrangements. And yet again, there are cases where management might schedule the maintenance visits, but the unit owners pay individually.

Both White and Delgardo say that older fireplaces are trickier to maintain and require a good amount of TLC. And, Delgardo adds, residents, building staff, and others should never attempt to do fireplace repairs or serious maintenance by themselves! It’s just too dangerous to both the unit owner and the building. Always use a licensed professional chimney sweep. While there is no formal certification or degree for chimney sweeps, these professionals must be members of a chimney sweep guild—in Illinois, it’s standard that the attending chimney sweep be certified by the CSIA—and carry the necessary and appropriate insurance, like any other contractor. White suggests that fireplace owners make use of the CSIA website. “There are blogs that cover everything from how to start a fire to where to find a chimney sweep. It’s a very complete resource.” Their web address is www.csia.org.

Speaking of Insurance...

Lovely and value-adding as they are, at the end of the day, a fireplace is essentially an open blaze in close proximity to any number of flammable materials, as well as foot traffic, kids, possibly pets—so operating them in an apartment building poses obvious safety challenges. Fireplaces by their very presence in a home increase the probability of a fire or of smoke- or ventilation-related problems. That risk has moved some co-op buildings simply to ban owners from using their fireplaces entirely. And some insurance companies will not insure a multifamily building with fireplaces.

Alex Seaman, senior vice president with HUB Insurance located in Woodbury, New York, explains: “The primary concern of insurance carriers is lack of maintenance. When not properly maintained, fireplaces pose a serious fire hazard.  Insurance companies that underwrite properties with fireplaces depend on systemic inspections at least annually and sometimes biannually.

“Inspections can be arranged independently by unit owners,” Seaman continues, “but a better way is to have one contractor [inspect] all the units in the building at one time. That way they can confirm that everything has been done according to requirements and that no individual unit has been left out.” Seaman says that when a building board or management chooses the inspector and maintenance people, it’s crucial that they verify that the chosen pro is properly licensed and carrying proper and adequate insurance that contains risk transfer language. 

Wood vs. Gas vs. Electric

Another interesting point is that unlike a wood-burning fireplace made of stone or brick, gas-powered fireplaces are like cars: they come in many different models.  When a gas-burning fireplace requires maintenance, the maintenance company will ask for the make and model of the unit. Not all gas or electric units are equivalent, and not all components interchangeable; they may require specific replacement parts from the original manufacturer.

According to Delgardo, electric fireplaces have been growing in popularity in recent years. “They are very popular with millennial buyers,” he says. “Many new rental buildings are opting for them as well.” While clearly not the “real thing,” many electric units do a very good job of mimicking the sound and look of crackling logs and flickering flames. The technology is remarkably simple: light from an LED bulb bounces off a rotating metallic silver refractor (a bit like a rotisserie) cut with three-dimensional patterns that create the illusion of a random flickering flame. Some models feature an audio element that makes a crackling noise, extending the illusion even further. Delgardo says that other popular features include programmable optical effects—like changing colors, for example—that users can control with their smartphones and other devices.

In addition to looking cool, electric fireplaces can provide actual warmth as well.  As described on electricfireplacesdirect.com, “Electric fireplaces can provide supplemental heating for rooms approximately 400 square feet in size as well.  Customers control the heating elements, in addition to the flame effect. As a result, electric fireplaces can provide a flame with or without heat so that it can be enjoyed throughout the year. An electric fireplace is a heating element that looks similar to a traditional wood-burning or gas fireplace but doesn’t require any venting or professional installation of any kind. Electric fireplaces work by drawing in cool air, heating it internally using a heating coil, and gently forcing the warmed air back out into the room by way of a fan. Some electronic fireplaces also use infrared technology, which directly heats objects within a room. In both cases, supplemental heating is provided for the desired area without the mess, fumes, or dangerous gas.”

If you’re lucky enough to have that rare find—a wood-burning fireplace—Delgardo has one important piece of advice for you: “Learn how to build a fire safely. The problem is that when they build a fire, most people want to start with the Yule Log right off the bat.” This is an amateur mistake, he says. “Start your fire small. There is a finite amount of smoke you can put into the flue before it spills out of the front. A flue is like a reverse funnel, it can only handle so much smoke. You don’t want smoke to flow back into your apartment.” Fikejs also urges owners with fireplaces to make sure they keep a cap on their chimneys. “You never know what can get in through the chimney,” he says. “You don’t want to find a raccoon in your living room. A cap will prevent that.”

Whether you’ve got a turn-of-the-last-century conversation starter featuring a three-foot-deep mantelpiece held up by carved lions, or a sleek new electric model you can switch on and off from 1,000 miles away, it’s important for your own safety and that of your neighbors to know how your fireplace works and to make sure it gets all the care and maintenance it needs to function properly—and safely.

Cooper Smith is a staff writer/reporter with The Chicagoland Cooperator.

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