Wood Burning Fireplace Inspections

Fireplace Inspection Solid State Inspections

For thousands of years, man had to build a fire in a home in order to offer some heat and comfort. Typically in older homes that pre-date central heating, homes were either small with few rooms so the heat from a fireplace or stove could serve the whole home, or in large homes (think about castles) there would be a fireplace for each room, and staff to keep them lit and clean.

For most centrally heated homes built from the mid 1900's on, wood fireplaces have either been a secondary heat source or purely a luxury item installed in homes. Of course in most municipal jurisdictions today, wood smoke and structure fires are not desired so it has become increasingly rare to see new wood fireplaces built with gas or even electric fireplaces taking over if there is a fireplace at all.

Wood Fire Risks

Wood fireplaces are one of the highest fire risk areas in the home and with both concerns about loss of life and costs of rebuilding, insurance companies and code makers have increasingly raised the standards for wood burning equipment in the home.

The non-profit organization taking the lead for setting standards in the wood burning fireplace and appliance industry is known as the Wood Energy Technology Transfer (WETT) association. There are WETT local chapters across North America and they provide training and education for the construction, installation, maintenance, and inspection of wood burning devices like wood fireplaces.

When it comes to inspecting wood burning fireplaces, the WETT group has created 3 distinct levels of inspection based on the amount of work involved in the inspection. All WETT inspections include a written report (or checklist for level 1) for each fireplace.

  • WETT Level 1 Inspection - This is an inspection of the 'readily accessible' components of the system. The inspector in a level 1 WETT inspection will not use any tools (including ladders) and will look at the visible systems of the fireplace and chimney to determine if it is code compliant and appears to be safe to operate. Any observed deficiencies will cause a recommendation for another level of inspection prior to operation of the unit.
  • WETT Level 2 Inspection - This is an inspection of all 'accessible' components of the system. The level 2 inspection (which may be a follow-up to a level 1 inspection) looks at the suitability and integrity of system components. It is also required if there has been any changes in appliances or major components; or, if there has been an event like a fireplace fire. Technicians in a level 2 inspection may disassemble some accessible components of the system as part of the normal inspection.
  • WETT Level 3 Inspection - Level 1 and 2 inspections look at accessible areas for inspection. Unfortunately, not all areas of a fireplace or chimney system are readily visible and in some cases, technicians will need to gain access to a concealed area. When gaining access for the inspection will require an 'invasive' or 'destructive' inspection (e.g. damaging walls, chimneys, ceilings) this is called a level 3 inspection. Level 3 inspections will create damages to the home that will require repairs and may involved specialized tools.

Home Inspections and Wood Fireplaces

Depending on your local jurisdiction, some jurisdictions (and insurance companies) will require inspections be done by a certified professional. In most cases, the WETT certification is the standard required for inspection. If your local jurisdiction requires certified inspectors, such as in our home Province of British Columbia, Home Inspectors cannot perform wood fireplace inspections and will need to clearly communicate this in the report. The best advise is to recommend to clients a level 1 WETT inspection. 

There are some home inspectors who are also WETT certified and can do a WETT inspection (typically level 1) at the time of the house inspection, often for an additional fee. These inspectors are however quite rare as a current review of the CAHPI BC membership reveals only about 10% of inspectors have this additional certification and most of those serve rural areas where secondary/emergency heating from fireplaces is more common.

Final Thoughts

Wood fireplaces for the typical home owner have become more of a liability than a benefit and the risks associated with an incorrectly operating system could mean life or death for home occupants. Home inspectors should be recommending that clients with wood burning fireplace need to have the systems inspected by a WETT certified individual before use and if clients do not plan to use the system, they should consider its effective removal or conversion to a safer gas or electric system.

By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.