On December 1, 2010 the new owners of a 1996 home in Kansas City, Missouri asked local chimney and fireplace inspector, Gene Padgitt of HearthMasters, Inc. to inspect their gas fireplace, which is located in their son’s bedroom on the lower level of the home. The homeowners called a fireplace expert after suspecting that they did not have an adequate report from their home inspector, who had provided a report stating that the fireplace was in good condition. The report was provided as a part of the normal inspection process before they purchased and moved into the home, but the new homeowners felt uneasy and decided not to use the fireplace until it was examined by an expert.
Padgitt said what he found was “disturbing, to say the least.” After running a test with Carbon Monoxide testing equipment he noted that the flames were unusually yellow, and that the levels of CO increased to 800 ppm and were climbing. He had a bad taste in his mouth which was caused by the other by-products of combustion. At that point, Padgitt turned off the direct vent gas fireplace in order to avoid poisoning himself and the occupants of the home.
A reading of 800 ppm is extremely high and unexpected for a gas fireplace. Carbon monoxide alarms are set to go off at 9 ppm, and as levels increase danger to the occupants increases. The fireplace had been installed and set up incorrectly, most likely by the installer, but modification of the air to gas ratio quickly improved the problem and brought the CO readings down. The inspector plans to return to do more testing before giving the OK to use the fireplace.
Carbon Monoxide is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. CO can cause seizure, headaches, vomiting, dizziness, abnormal reflexes, irritability, extreme fatigue and weakness, confusion, disorientation, coma and death. According to Dr. David Penney, Professor of Physiology and Occupational and Environmental Health, and Director of Surgical Research at Wayne State University, exposure at these levels over a short period of time can cause death or permanent brain damage. On average 439 persons die annually from unintentional exposure to CO, but the statistics of illness due to CO are not possible to determine. Penney said that thousands of people are exposed to constant low levels of exposure to CO and are unaware of it, often miss-diagnosing illness. “If a person feels better when they leave their home, this is an indication that a source for CO should be investigated, “ said Dr. Penney.
Padgitt, who has 28 years experience in the chimney industry and is a State Certified Fire Investigator and CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep says that most home inspectors do not have adequate training on chimneys, fireplaces, gas appliances, or woodburning appliances to make an accurate inspection and report. “This part should be left to a professional in the industry, someone who is at a minimum a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep or a F.I.R.E. Certified Fireplace Inspector. We are talking about fire and CO in your home, and it is just too important to omit this inspection by a professional.”
The Midwest Chimney Safety Council recommends that a Level II inspection be performed during a routine annual inspection or at the sale of a home by a professional in the industry. This usually means hiring a Chimney Sweep who is Certified and also does repair and installation work. Janie Rickord, owner/operator of Alpine Chimney Sweep Company in Des Moines, Iowa and president of the MCSC said that the best person to inspect these systems is someone who also works on them and is familiar with their unique and sometimes complicated problems. Rickord said that she believes it is unlikely that the average home inspector has the experience with fireplace and chimney systems to accurately diagnose problems, which may be a potential hazard to homeowners. She also cautions homeowner to only hire National Fireplace Institute Certified installers to install hearth appliances.
Most cities have switched to using the International Residential Code in the past few years, which unlike the NFPA 211 Standards for Chimneys, Fireplaces, and Solid Fuel Appliances, does not include the requirement for a Level II internal camera inspection of fireplaces or a Level I visual inspection of other appliances at the sale or transfer of property. This may leave unsuspecting homeowners unaware of hidden dangers in their furnace flue, fireplace, chimney, or heating appliances. The Midwest Chimney Safety Council is encouraging building officials to re-introduce this inspection requirement.