BEFORE YOUR FEEL THE BURN:
Staying Ahead of Fireplace & Chimney Liabilities

FSTCS NEW LOGO Stencil Round Seal Gold | Before You Feel The Burn: Staying Ahead of Fireplace & Chimney Liabilities

Even in sunny southern California, a home’s fireplace maintains images and realities of warmth, gatherings of family and friends, and romantic interludes.

But to any multi unit dwelling owners, managers or HOA board members responsible for their building’s maintenance under the Davis-Sterling Act, awareness of the real and present liabilities of fireplaces and their venting systems is crucial.

Time is not on the side of home, condominium or apartment owners with fireplaces and chimneys. It is not an issue that will resolve itself or end well without committed action today on the part of owners and managers.

BUT, THE GOOD NEWS...

Development of a targeted risk management strategy addressing both fireplace and chimney systems can significantly mitigate or eliminate problems addressed herein.

And the best part is that it does not have to be a complex or time consuming undertaking if structured within the existing framework and schedule of building.

Only prompt implementation of a comprehensive fireplace and chimney risk management strategy addressing identification, assessment and repair/replacement can effectively mitigate what are today literally “accidents waiting to happen”.

Using a systematic approach to assess and prioritize the issue, and then action it on a consistent basis is a simple way to address potential liability and protect all relevant parties today and in the future.

aesthetics over function & safety

Speaking as a former developer, I focused on the fireplace’s placement and facing to maximize the beauty and drama of the room. Factory built fireplace’s quality and their chimney’s effective and safe venting was at best a passing thought.

In my belief then if the system was UL listed, then no risks. No different when considering the quality and placement of the chimney’s metal pipe. And if an existing antiquated fireplace could be preserved, then even better as I’d have enhanced eye appeal at lower cost.

Working in the fireplace and chimney business a decade later I now know reliance on a UL listing or classic masonry work did and does not address the quality of unit manufacturing or calculate the adequacy of venting for either wood and gas burning systems.

The reality we discover daily in our work – over 90 percent of fireplaces and chimneys we inspect in all manner of properties have some significant problems relating to poor system construction and/ or maintenance and venting defects.

To the point, any use of these systems without repair or replacement increases the probability of a significant bad outcome including but not limited to structure fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.

How Do You Eat an Elephant?

One Bite at a Time.

The Davis-Sterling Act speaks to some but not all areas of construction that requires maintenance at a complex, fireplaces and chimney being an example.

Thus a first step for owners, board members or management groups, is to confirm their governing documents directly address chimney flues and clearly defines the responsibilities of the individual owner’s relating to their fireplaces in terms of cleaning, maintenance and repairs.

Placement of chimney maintenance and repairs on the owners or HOA’s maintenance schedule activates the “identification” component.

Said another way, this action and concurrent documentation is the critical first step and moves responsible parties from a reactive to a predictive maintenance mindset. This is also a time that discussions can address reserve account requirements for future risk mitigation.

Assessment of fireplace and chimney systems is the next action item with chimneys under the direct responsibility of the building owner or management group and fireplaces more of a case of participation with individual home owners.

By participation I mean that many times owners and groups are not always aware the homeowners already have documentation from a fireplace and chimney company that details existing system deficits for their individual fireplace – often with language stating it “should not be used until made safe”.

With this data, the group can now reach out to a company and request a representative sampling of fireplace and chimney video inspections to determine if there is a pattern of deficits within the complex.

Again, this is a powerful risk mitigation and liability reduction action!

Owners and groups can now claim in the event of a fire or similar event they were aware of issues and were “in process” with corrective measures.

Remember, it is strongly recommended to be in the place of identifying and documenting a problem before a negative event occurs and having a plan of correction in place versus being caught off guard.

Final steps distill down to three paths:
a) Repair
b) Replacement of a fireplace and/or chimney or
c) Elimination / stoppage of use of the flawed systems.

These decisions may at first appear to be purely cost driven. Costs discussions however rarely stay as simple as fix or seal up and can divide individuals whose home values can hinge on ongoing fireplace and chimney functionality versus parties with limited resources and overall who and what portion all parties will pay to maintain safety.

Key in this process is selection of a fully licensed, bonded and insured fireplace repair and maintenance company with direct and long-term experience working with owners, management companies and HOA boards.

Meetings and education with all parties often result in a holistic understanding of issues and paths for resolution.

In addition, making sure a company’s technicians are FIRE certified versus simply CSIA is an important distinction when selecting a company.

In simple terms, anyone can pass a chimney sweeping class, but very few technicians possess the education, experience and skills required to address fire safety and corrective mitigation unless they have achieved this level of credentialing.

safety & success is an ongoing process

In summary, fireplaces and chimneys today present a significant liability that owners or groups have either not been made aware of or believe it is an afterthought issue.

Both from a legal and humanistic position, neither are a tenable risk mitigation position.

But with committed action, integration of these systems into routine building maintenance schedules, documentation of all findings, having a written plan of correction including defining reserve account requirements result in a recipe that insures liability protection and respect for human and animal life.

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