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Smoke on the mountain, fire in the hearth

As fires rage outside your home, be sure they’re under control inside

Posted: October 17, 2008 9:10 p.m.
Updated: December 19, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Richard Balliger Jr. vacuums a fireplace after cleaning it. With all the ash in the air from recent wildfires, cleaning your fireplace is a good idea for safety and better heating.

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With all the smoke and ash flying around in the air, and blazing brush fires displayed on your television, these days you’re probably seeking less fire, and not more. Even so, with the coming of cooler weather, you may soon find yourself craving a curl-up in front of a cozy fire in your fireplace.

In preparation for that, now is the time to inspect your fireplace and chimney, and have them cleaned or repaired, as necessary.

“It’s best to call us as soon as possible,” said Richard Balliger Jr. of Chimney Saviors in Canyon Country. “When it’s cold, everybody wants us out.”

The Signal caught up with him, and his father, Richard Balliger Sr., owner of the company, on a fireplace inspection/cleaning in Granada Hills on Monday. With the billowing smoke from the burning hills of Porter Ranch in the background, there was a certain irony to the job.

Balliger Sr. is an ex-general contractor, builder and former fireman. Alluding to home fires and fires in general, he said, “I used to have to stomp these out.”

The Granada Hills home was being spruced up for new renters, and owner Diane Lew thought that checking out the fireplace and chimney was a good idea. Of the former renters, she said, “I don’t know what they burned in there. But it was dirty.” She went on to explain that she and her husband wanted the fireplace to be safe for the new renters. “Now that it’s getting cold, we know they’re going to use it,” she said.

The job this day included inspection and cleaning of the prefab fireplace and chimney. Balliger Sr. explained that as solid fuel is burned in the fireplace, creosote slowly builds up on the inside of the fireplace and chimney. This eventually becomes dangerous because the creosote can, itself, catch fire. When wood is burned regularly in the fireplace, he recommends cleaning it once a year. But when wax logs are burned, he recommends every six months.

As far as the inspection went, there were a couple issues that needed to be addressed. First and foremost, Balliger Sr. noted that the chimney was in need of a metal chase cover at the top. What was there was flammable plywood. “The cap keeps rain and spark intrusion out of the chase,” he said.

“The creosote coating in the chimney is unburned fuel,” he said. Without the chase cover, “A flash fire (of the creosote) would deflect down and burn right through the chimney and attic system.”

In addition to the missing chase cover, there was also no metal flashing around the base of the chimney, where it met the roof shingles. This was not a fire issue, however. The flashing prevents water from leaking into the home and causing damage.

Another problem was that the hole where the metal gas line entered the fireplace was too large. This left space around the gas line where fire could get out of the firebox and get to the home’s framing inside the wall. “We’ll fill this with a high temperature refractive compound,” Balliger Sr. said. 

Balliger Jr. explained that a fireplace evaluation by Chimney Saviors includes checking the chimney and firebox for fire worthiness, fire safety and structural safety — and that the structural evaluation will reveal if the chimney has been damaged by an earthquake.

n Exterior evaluation —  This includes inspecting the spark arrestor, crown and chase. It also includes checking the fireplace grate and spark screens.

n Interior evaluation — This includes inspecting the inside of the flue, which is the “exhaust portal for all of the hot, poisonous gasses and soot.” It also includes inspecting the inside of the firebox. Is the gas line secure and closed off where it enters the firebox?

Inside the smoke chamber the inspection notes any voids, cracks or separations, where hot gasses could escape to the wood framing of the home.

Balliger Sr. explained that, with prefab fireplaces and chimneys, they check to be sure all parts are the correct ones and all from the same manufacturer, and that it is illegal to alter any UL-certified part. Fireplaces and chimneys are strictly regulated, and he said that there are “about 15 different trades involved in a fireplace tear out.”

If customers need more information on the insurance company and building code parameters of safe chimneys, Chimney Saviors will answer their questions for free.

Chimney Saviors has been operating in Canyon Country for 15 years and is licensed under Right Way Builders. They will do a fireplace inspection for $195. A cleaning is $125-$135. You can have both done for $225. Call (661) 263-2608. The new Web site will be www.chimneysaviors.biz.

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