chimney fire safety
Please don’t read if you’re expecting x-rated disclosure!
With a lot of sweeps on the road there are a lot of stories told when we get together. Many are chimney related – clogged up flues, tallest, widest, deepest chimneys, tar that a road builder would be proud of. But we thought we’d share the human stories since it is our customers who make our work important.
The Scary Moment
Many of our customers offer us a drink – a mug of hot tea or coffee is always very welcome. Some provide it with a biscuit. But one of our team was absolutely made up when visiting the home of a very famous man (a Sir, no less) who had staff to help. He was shown into the drawing room and began work as normal when the wife (a Lady) of the man arrived bearing a silver tray with a bone china cup and saucer, a plate of biscuits and a slice of cake. She stopped to talk with the sweep and make sure he was fine – what a charming lady.
There are hundreds more stories to share but just one last one… I married my chimney sweep!
Thank you to all of our wonderful customers.
Wishing you a great weekend and penultimate day of Chimney Fire Safety Week.
We know that you most likely know all of this…but…here’s a prompt. It might just be worth a read to keep you safe.
If you have just moved into a home, whether you have an open fire or an open or ‘closed’ wood burning or multi-fuel stove, unless you have proof that the chimney (or flue) has been swept recently obtain the services of a trained professional chimney sweep and have it swept.
The following applies to all the above appliances:
Ensure there is sufficient air available to the appliance to enable it to burn efficiently. If there are air bricks or vents ensure they are open and not blocked or covered. Ensure the fuel is dry and as in the case of wood, is of the correct type and has been allowed to ‘season’ properly (this will be explained later). Damp or wet fuel will lose a large amount of it’s heat ‘energy’ if it has to dry out fully before burning.
Some appliances, such as open fires, can burn a variety of fuels, some are more limited. Please check with a ‘qualified’ person or the instruction book of your particular appliance if in doubt.
See our blog on Fuel!
LIGHTING THE FIRE
The following are general guidelines for lighting open fires and woodburners /multi fuel stoves. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that, until you’re experienced with your type of appliance it’s all a bit ‘hit and miss’ or ‘trial and error’.
Before the first fire of the year or after a period of time when the fire hasn’t been lit in cold weather it might be best to warm the flue before lighting.
Lightly crumple 6 to 10 pieces of newspaper in the grate or woodburner – light it, this will warm the flue and assist the convection. If a small amount of newspaper smoke enters the room initially this usually doesn’t cause too much inconvenience.
- Begin with a bed of newspapers either lightly crumpled or long pieces rolled up and knotted in the middle.
- Arrange small pieces of kindling wood either laid in a lattice across the newspaper or stood up in a ‘tepee’ shape.
- If required fire lighters can also be used. These are often wax blocks impregnated with paraffin or similar. Natural versions are also available.
- If using coal arrange some around the paper and kindling leaving air gaps around the fuel to assist the burn then, using a long stem match or a purpose made gas fire lighter, for safety, light the newspaper.
- Add coal or small logs slowly as the kindling burns to encourage a ‘bed’ of embers. Top up with coal or wood as required.
WOODBURNERS/MULTI FUEL STOVES
If the fire has not been lit for a while, especially in cold weather, warm the flue as per ‘open fires’. Laying the initial fire is the same as for open fires except that you must not use coal or smokeless fuel unless the appliance and flue are specifically designed to burn this type of fuel.
Check with the manufacturer’s instructions as to which vents to open whilst lighting the appliance; in the event these are not available best to start with all vents open and close the top ones first and then the bottom as the fire gets established.
If you’ve not been left any instructions you might find guides online.
Fairly straightforward really, add the appropriate fuel as necessary remembering not to allow the appliance to get too hot. A stove thermometer is ideal to guide you – especially one colour coded for ideal burning temperatures.
Don’t slumber a stove if you are burning wood (whether ‘seasoned’ or not) as this could form creosote (tar) in the chimney/flue which is highly flammable and could catch fire or block the flue causing the danger of Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
When you no longer need the fire, usually at bedtime, try to remember not to put any more fuel on for a half to one hour before the actual time you wish to finish the fire. This is especially important if you have an open fire or open woodburning stove. Place a fireguard in front of the fire or close the doors on a woodburner just in case any embers ‘spit’…this is not very likely but is a good precaution none the less.
Please take a look at our article on the dangers of slumbering your woodburner.
CARBON MONOXIDE ALARMS
Two rules: HAVE ONE and TEST IT regularly! Look out for #TestitTuesday when you can test that and your smoke alarm…
CHECK YOUR TERMINALS
See Day 4!
As a minimum you should have your chimney swept annually unless you know you have used it significantly more, in which case, also have a sweep half way through the burning season.
The best time to have a sweep is when you stop using the fireplace. A good sweep will be able to advise you if you need to change the frequency of sweeping –and on the quality of the soot or debris removed.
Your insurer may impose conditions on frequency of sweeping – do check so you don’t get caught out…
A chimney terminal is the bit right at the top – sometimes known as a cage, cap, cowl, birdguard or ‘chimney thingy’! There are a number of uses:
- Keeping out birds (Jackdaws) who nest in the flue and vermin such as squirrels
- Keeping out rain
- Combating down draught problems
Some homes may not need anything on the chimney – sometimes a chimney pot is sufficient – indeed occasionally even a pot isn’t needed! But anyone with a woodburner, multi-fuel stove, AGA or similar appliance are advised to have a cowl of some type, if only to prevent water ingress – water will rust away the metal box beneath and can mix with the soot to create a corrosive substance in the flue.
Having the correct terminal is important and we frequently see the wrong type fitted and/or fitted incorrectly – perhaps the wrong advice has been given or simply the customer has changed how they use the flue and not considered the other end of their chimney.
Simply put, whatever is fitted to a ‘live’ chimney (one in use) should be installed so that it:
- can be swept into without dislodging it – ensuring that the flue is clear all the way to the top
- allows the safe removal of gases caused by combustion to pass out of the flue
- prevents condensation build up in the flue of a disused chimney
If you use any appliance or open fire you should NOT have this type of terminal on your chimney. They are dangerous as fumes are prevented from escaping quickly enough – they are not designed to be used with a live flue and could result in the build-up of highly poisonous carbon monoxide.
If you have a problem with birds, rain or vermin entry into your chimney – there’s a cowl for that. The silver one on the right can also aid with a down draught (in certain circumstances). There are also a variety of chimney pots and cowls for lined chimneys.
This terminal is a no-no for any live chimney. It doesn’t prevent any birds entering – in fact it’s a lovely shelter for the birds – and the cowl will impede the outflow of fumes. In addition, the design of many clay terminals, which are not intended to get hot, means that the tops can crack and be dislodged in windy conditions or when the chimney is swept. This can damage roof tiles/slates…or worse!
If you need any ‘terminal’ advice contact your local professional qualified chimney sweep or experienced chimney expert builder or woodburner supplier. Whilst a roofer will be able to install a unit they may not have the necessary skills to advise what should be fitted for safety.
Wilkins Chimney Sweep
At Wilkins Chimney Sweep, we often find ourselves having to guide customers in the safe use of their chimneys – and fuel is the key ingredient of that discussion. Burning the right fuel could save you money and prevent the build-up of creosote (tar) on your chimney lining. Ultimately it could prevent a chimney fire…
This blog would be about a mile long (and just a tad tedious!) if we gave you the full story about fuels so we’ve decided that it’s best to simply point you in the right direction of where you can find full details. The following are the best links we know that should guide you on fuel:
Whilst some appliances, such as open fires, can burn a variety of fuels, many are more limited. Please check with a ‘qualified’ person or the instruction book of your particular appliance if in doubt.
The Solid Fuel Association – not just a cute logo – is the official body representing the solid fuel industry in the UK. Fuels include coal, smokeless fuels, Anthracite and wood (including pellets and chips). It’s a really good place to start.
For all oil-fired appliances, OFTEC are a good place to start. If you’re burning oil you will still need the services of a chimney sweep to keep your flue clear if your regular servicing engineer doesn’t do this work.
Proprietary brands of manufactured logs are available made from either wax and wood bi-products or fully natural made from straw etc. These produce similar or slightly more heat than burning logs. They are easy to light and store, due to their uniform shape. They also produce less soot and ash and can be more environmentally friendly depending on the type used.
Wood is, of course, covered in the ‘Solid Fuel’ category but is such a significant part of the burning ‘challenge’ that we think some pointers are valuable.
The ‘Ready to Burn’ campaign by WOODSURE is a great place to start – and the Ready to Burn logo is an excellent guide for those who buy wood in small quantities for almost immediate use.[/ezcol_4fifth_end]
For kindling, use small pieces of ‘hard or ‘soft’ wood to assist in starting the fire. Birch bark is extremely flammable even when wet; it makes an excellent fire starter if you have lots lying around.
3 TO AVOID:
And finally, there’s a great little poem to guide you:
Beech wood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year.
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for long it’s laid away.
Birch and fir logs burn too fast,
Blaze up bright and do not last.
It is by the Irish said,
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like a churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold.
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke.
Apple wood will scent your room
With an incense like perfume.
Oak and maple, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter cold.
But Ash wood wet or Ash wood dry,
A king shall warm his slippers by.
Safe burning to everyone!
Franchise Director, Wilkins Chimney Sweep
Today is day 2 of Chimney Fire Safety Week and appropriate, as a Tuesday that we reinforce ‘Test it Tuesday’ with news around carbon monoxide awareness…
The Chimney Fire Safety Week campaign aims to ensure that anyone who owns or uses a chimney, be it attached to a wood burning stove, open fire, Aga or other type of Range cooker, is aware of the need to have the chimney swept at least once a year. However tragedy can strike two ways with a blocked chimney, firstly the deposits that build up inside the flue can catch fire but secondly a blocked chimney can cause Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
‘The Silent Killer’ Carbon Monoxide (CO) is an odourless, tasteless and colourless toxic gas which is produced by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels used in central heating systems, gas appliances and fires. CO can be emitted from any appliance burning combustible fuel, e.g. gas (mains or bottled), solid fuel (coal, wood, etc), petrol, oil or paraffin etc.
At the start of this Chimney Fire Safety Week we wanted to bring to our customers’ attention the dangers of CO poisoning through an un-swept chimney and have this week adopted the Katie Haines Memorial Trust as our charity of the year for the next 12 months.
Katie Haines (nee Samuel) was born on 31 January 1979. She was the daughter of Gordon and Avril Samuel and married Richard Haines on 12 December 2009. On 18 February 2010, just two months after her wedding, she died tragically of accidental Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning at her home. The Katie Haines Memorial Trust was founded in 2010 by Katie’s husband Richard and her family to promote awareness of the dangers of Carbon Monoxide.
Wilkins Chimney Sweep’s franchise director Louise Harris went to visit Katie’s mother Avril at her home in Gloucestershire and asked her to contribute to today’s blog.
‘We exist because of a tragic accident. Our work is inspired by the life of the person we lost. Our mission is to raise awareness about the dangers of carbon monoxide and to prevent unnecessary loss of life. We are run by a committed group of individuals but rely on the help of other people to ensure the dangers of carbon monoxide are prominent in people’s minds – most notably the vulnerable groups in society such as the elderly and university students living in low cost accommodation.
Our vision is that everyone in the UK understands the dangers of carbon monoxide and takes preventative measures to make sure that they do not fall victim to it, such as buying an audible alarm, having burning appliances checked regularly and taking an alarm when travelling away from home, and of course testing that alarm weekly to make sure it’s working.
We are in close contact with the All-party Parliamentary Monoxide Group and on the 3rd October 2017, the Government will meet to review the smoke and CO alarm regulations. This presents an opportunity for harmonisation of regulation across the nations of the UK and we very much hope for some positive changes.[/ezcol_2third_end]
We are delighted that Wilkins Chimney Sweep have adopted us as their charity of the year, helping to spread the word about Carbon Monoxide poisoning; word of mouth is sometimes just as important and we are grateful that the Wilkins Chimney Sweeps will be encouraging their customers to get a CO alarm where they can see they don’t have one.
Below is a full list of do’s and don’ts regarding CO poisoning but here are a few points we’d like to add that don’t always make it onto the regular lists;
- At the current moment landlords in the private sector in Scotland must provide CO alarms to all their properties with a fuel burning appliance. However, in England, they only need to provide alarms for rooms with a solid-fuel burning appliance. If you or a member of your family is travelling or living away from home, make sure they have their own Carbon Monoxide detector with them to keep them safe.
- Carbon Monoxide can travel through the walls of a property. Even if you have had your appliances swept, next door may not have. An alarm is the ONLY way you will know.
- Carbon Monoxide alarm batteries don’t last forever – check how long yours is good for!
We would like to thank Wilkins again for adopting us as their charity of the year and hope that working together we can reduce the number of deaths in the UK from Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
Katie Haines Memorial Trust
Taken from the ‘Chimney Fire Safety’ website, here are the steps you need to protect yourself from CO poisoning
- Have your appliance serviced and cleaned regularly by a trained and registered professional
- Ensure your chimney is kept clear by having it swept at frequent intervals by an Approved/Registered Chimney Sweep
- Make sure the installation complies with Building Regulations guidance. The guidance is there to protect you.
- Fit an audible CO alarm conforming to BS EN 50291 and positioned in accordance with Building Regulations.
- Ensure your gas appliances are installed and serviced by a Gas Safe Registered engineer
- Carbon monoxide alarms should be regularly tested and should not be regarded as a substitute for regular maintenance of the appliance and chimney. #TestItTuesday
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning
The early symptoms of CO poisoning are usually similar to common ailments such as upset stomach, tiredness and flu.
- The common symptoms can include:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Dizziness or Collapse
- Chest and/or stomach pains
- Erratic behaviour and/or Visual problems
Actions to take in a CO emergency
- If you suspect fumes are escaping from your combustion appliance into your home, or your carbon monoxide alarm goes off.
- Turn the appliance off.
- Open doors and windows to ventilate the building.
- Leave the building immediately and don’t return until your appliance or boiler has extinguished and the air in the room is clear.
- If you feel unwell go to your Doctor, or call one of the following:
- Call NHS Direct on 111 (in England)
- NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 (in Wales)
- NHS 24 on 111 (in Scotland)
Landlords: Guidance on The Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm (England) Regulations 2015 can be viewed at:
4221 chimney fires in England in 2016/17. That’s 4221 too many…
Chimney fires (like many household fires) are avoidable. Of course a cynic might suggest it is in a chimney sweep’s interest to ‘frighten’ customers into having regular sweeps because sweeping is our livelihood. We believe, however, that this is a critical safety service and we work tirelessly to help people avoid a chimney fire. And that’s why we’re getting behind the HETAS Chimney Fire Safety Week.
Chimney fires are frightening – those who have talked to us about having a fire report a loud roar from the fireplace that they don’t immediately relate to a fire in the flue – many think they have an intruder in the house – which indeed they do – FIRE. A very unwelcome fire that could destroy a house and, in extreme circumstances, even claim human lives. Thankfully chimney fires rarely result in the loss of whole properties although thatched properties remain the exception.
2016/17 figures for England (Scotland and Wales have yet to report) show a slight increase over 2015/16 figures but the trend until now has been downwards. Better regulation of woodburner installations through HETAS – the drivers of the safety week campaign – have undoubtedly helped this figure supporting the clear recommendation to sweep annually at least. Sadly many sweeps will tell you they have had customers suggest there is ‘no need to sweep any more as we’ve had a woodburner installed’. And sadly some sweeps are not trained or professional in their skills leaving customers who have taken steps to have their chimney swept at further risk by not cleaning the chimney fully.
Fires are not the only problem – carbon monoxide poisoning is also a potential killer. Even mild symptoms, which are often overlooked, are unpleasant.
This week (4th to 10th September 2017) we will be publishing blogs that we hope will go some way to help the continuing education for our current and new chimney users regarding safe use of fires. Because of course we want people to use their fires safely and enjoy their woodburner, multi-fuel stove, AGA and/or open fire. And we know we can help to make that happen safely.
Look out for our competition on DAY 7!
Have a wonderful, safe, week!
Wilkins Chimney Sweep
Our team in West berks have had an interesting challenge over the last few days. An elderly customer asked us to come in as a sweep had apparently been sweeping her boiler flue for a couple of years and then told her it could no longer be swept as the flue was blocked. We were called in to take a look since the expense of a new boiler was looming on the horizon.
Our chaps tried with a standard sweep and took the pictures shown. Rain water was ‘washing’ down the chimney bringing with it lots of solid fuel ‘soot’…
Stalactites of solid fuel ‘soot’ had formed in the flue. This was dangerous and had nearly blocked the flue, causing CO build up. However, we were able to clear the flue (sorry no pictures of it clean…only some of the resulting debris removed from a slight bend just inside the flue)
Peter used Power Sweeping technology to remove these along with the 6” brush in the photograph to remove this solid fuel ‘soot’ which had solidified because it had got wet and had not been swept properly, by a different local sweep, for many years. Power sweeping is not great for all chimneys but really important in this case. So, for the price of a sweep we were able to save the customer the price of purchasing a whole new flue and possible whole new boiler…!
The moral of this – if you want something doing, ask a Wilkins Chimney Sweep. If we can’t do it…no-one can!
Woodburners and multi-fuel stoves are fantastic. They look good, they’re cleaner and their warmth output is greater than open fires. But…and you knew there was one coming…they can be trouble if you aren’t careful.
Simply put, there is typically a steel liner installed from your stove up your chimney to take away the smoke. And this often catches out new owners of stoves. The problem is that stainless steel doesn’t last forever – and is quickly corroded if you burn wood and coal or smokeless fuel together – even in a multi-fuel stove.
This liner was installed in 2011 and gave up after 5 years. Whilst there is definitely a warranty on most of these flues, there is also a protocol regarding what to burn. Multi-fuel stoves –designed to burn both coal and wood – should only burn one or the other. Combinations of fuel can lead to production of a mild acid that can destroy stainless steel.
Using a reputable HETAS installer, following the instructions regarding the stove use and having the flue regularly swept will help but burning the correct fuel and not mixing fuels is essential – and not something that is widely known.
Unfortunately this customer will have to have her flue replaced and will undoubtedly feel despondent at having to make a further investment. It is the second one this month that our team have been called to sweep and it doesn’t make for good news.
Keep safe this winter – book a sweep now so you’re ready for the cooler season and, if problems occur you have time to resolve them!
For more information on this HETAS is a good place to start…there are some excellent booklets available that are free to download: HETAS
Our team at Wilkins Chimney Sweep have been very busy sweeping chimneys and now removing nests built during the spring. It is critical that we now install some form of bird guard for our customers and have been horrified to find people have been sold unsuitable, and sometimes dangerous, options by builders or occasionally other chimney sweeps.
There are a few criteria for fitting a suitable bird guard:
- It needs to prevent birds getting in!
- If the flue is going to be used, the bird guard needs to be fitted to ensure that we can sweep fully into the unit to maximise the chimney clean and ensure there are no further blockages.
- In the event that the flue is not going to be used, it must still allow for air flow in the chimney to prevent damp.
- The bird guard should be suitable for the property e.g. our customer might like something that matches the colour of the pot if there is one!
Our guys have reported instances when they have gone onto the roof to check a problem and the birds have pulled off mesh wiring and made a nice nest with it in the chimney! The problem with the nests, aside from smoke into the room, is the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning as it blocks a vent into a room. In addition they can cause damp as a result of the blockage. So worth getting rid of and preventing further problems.
Adrian Steel in North Hampshire has just completed a job where the customer had had a DANGEROUS ‘terminal’ installed by a builder – the unit is clearly marked as unsuitable for use on a live flue – this clay bonnet terminal cannot be swept into and it provides a nice shelter for the birds – they love them! It is dangerous because this terminal may prevent fumes from escaping when a fire is lit. The final no-no for us is that it is a terracotta unit in a buff pot – not great to look at!
As a Which? Trusted Trader we have to deliver every time – a professional job is required. Don’t be fooled by people who don’t have to take the consequences for their actions. We take a little extra care and ensure that we fit the correct cowl properly!
- It is secured tot he pot so it can be swept into
- The mesh is big enough to prevent clogging with soot and tar
- The top helps to keep the rain out
- The whole thing will prevent birds nesting in this chimney
- We fitted this from a ladder too…it helps to keep the price down for our customers.
Keep Safe & Ask a Professional!
The Jackdaws are nesting! Having bird guards (cowls, cages or caps for redundant chimneys etc.) is essential if you don’t want the birds to nest in your flue.
Wilkins franchisees usually work from a ladder to keep the price of this work to a minimum. Sometimes a cherry picker is needed and occasionally we have to resort to recommending scaffolding. John Baldacchino in West Cheshire recently undertook a cherry picker job to protect six new town houses. Despite a 50 minute ‘hairy moment’ when the cherry picker sensor jammed stranding him in mid-air, the job was successfully completed once the engineer has rescued him!
The importance of this work should not be underestimated. Nesting birds (primarily Jackdaws) in the chimney are a danger – worst case scenario is that they will block the chimney and subsequently carbon monoxide can enter the room and could be fatal to humans and pets. Nests can also cause chimney fires when the nesting material and debris catches fire. Larger nests may also be the cause of damp on the bedroom ceiling or chimney breast – we frequently find that a chimney has been closed up because it’s blocked and then forgotten about – the long term damage can be difficult to remedy.
Most nests are found as our customers light their fires for the first time after the summer and the room fills with smoke. There are also the tell-tale signs of twigs falling down the chimney (that’s the birds putting scaffolding in place for the nest…), sightings of the Jackdaws on the roof and around the pot, and even the noise of the chattering birds can sometimes be heard.
Prevention is far better (cheaper and safer!) than cure. We cannot take out nests or cap a chimney if there is any evidence of a ‘live’ nest, and indeed eggs or live young. It’s against the law for us – and for the householder – so we will have to wait until the nesting season is over. As the weather has been so warm, birds are already active so time is of the essence! (We have seen this and the BBC reported this during the week!) THE BBC REPORT (Click to play video)