General Safety Information
Safety – what you can do.
- Get your chimney swept regularly.
- Follow safety advice.
- Use the correct fuel, don’t burn waste.
- Follow manufacturer’s instructions.
- Test smoke and carbon monoxide alarms regularly.
- Don’t dry clothes close to your fire.
- Don’t store fuel too close, particularly logs around a woodburner.
- Maintain chimney stacks and terminals as advised.
- Use dry wood – less than 20% moisture
- Don’t block air vents.
- Use fireguards where appropriate.
- Smoke anywhere in the house is never acceptable, take professional advice.
A Guild sweep should be able to provide you with good basic safety information on many aspects concerning your fire and fuel. They will make many basic safety checks during the sweeping of your chimney and most of these will not require comment.
They check things like:
- Is the chimney terminal safe to use with solid fuel? Sometimes it’s not and is potentially dangerous.
- Does the chimney meet regulations regarding height, size or proximity to other structures? This is important to ensure it works properly. Unfortunately even some newly installed chimneys and flues are wrong.
- Visual condition of the pot, cowl / guard, flaunching, stack etc. You need to know if something is damaged or about to fall off. Is it leaking water in to your house? Could it block the chimney?
- Inside the house – is the fire too close to wooden or other flammable structures?
Is the chimney the right size and material for the intended use? Is the ventilation to the room sufficient?
- Are there conflicting problems with other fires or extractors in the building?
- Is the hearth big enough and made of the correct material?
- Is a carbon monoxide alarm fitted?
- Is the fire damaged, are repairs or replacement parts required?
- etc. etc. It’s much more than pushing a brush up a chimney!
Sometimes a fire or woodburner can be correctly installed but there are issues with poor function, smoke to the room, lack of heat, black glass etc, etc.
This is where the knowledge and experience of a professional sweep can make all the difference. Even if your sweep can’t solve the problem they have excellent technical resources and back up from the Guild to help them to help you.
Fuels: Correct Fuel, Correct Use
It is very important to burn the correct fuels on your solid fuel appliance. Using the right fuel will help keep your fire and chimney good condition and you’ll get the most efficient use from it.
The chimney liner fitted must be suitable for the fuel you want to burn or the fuel must be suitable for the existing liner. Using the wrong type of fuel on a liner will reduce the life of the liner considerably due to increased corrosion. This can create a dangerous situation.
If burning wood it must be dry , about 20% or less. Burning wet wood produces poor heat, much more pollution and can block the chimney. The risk of chimney fire will also increase.
Beware of the word “seasoning”. You can buy logs from many sources but the moisture content is often too high for modern efficient appliances.
Wood storage is very important. It’s best kept in a dry store with good ventilation allowing air to get round it. Correctly stacked logs will continue to lose internal moisture even if they are rained on from time to time. That said, the best store will be under some sort of shelter that keeps the rain off and allows plenty of air to circulate.
If the wood is not kept aired then it will start to decay. It will have a reduced heat output and may take on moisture.
Using wrong or poor quality fuel is bad for your chimney, bad for the environment and bad for your wallet.
It is very important to allow your solid fuel appliance breath properly or the flue will be unable to take away the fumes effectively. Inadequate ventilation can lead to smoking back or slow gas speed inside the fire and chimney. The chimney can soot up much faster. Insufficient air flow will also lead to incomplete combustion, resulting in potential increased levels of carbon monoxide.
In the case of an open fire with or without boiler, air opening/s with a total free area of at least 50 percent of the throat opening area should be provided. This is usually 16,500mm2 for a typical open fire. This is ventilation to the room from outside the building.
Houses built before 2008 normally have a 5KW heat output allowance without the need for a vent. If the stove is bigger than 5KW a vent must be fitted. The vent needs to be 550mm2 per KW over the 5KW. This means an 8KW stove would need a vent of 1,650mm2.
If the house was built after 2008 then a vent needs to be fitted that is 550mm2 per KW. So an 8KW stove in a new build would need a vent about 4,400mm2 or as advised by the appliance manufacturer – whichever is the greater.
NOTE: It is sometimes necessary to fit a vent in an older property with a 5KW stove if there is not sufficient air to the room, or, if the property had undergone significant draught proofing or heat loss prevention measures such as double glazing, cavity wall insulation etc.
Your Guild sweep will be able to advise you on your ventilation requirements.
Help Prevent Chimney Fires
There were around 5000 reported chimney fires 2014 – 2015. The real number will be far greater as not all fires result in an emergency call. Also, as professional sweeps, we know that some customers have smaller chimney fires they are unaware of. Chimney fires can be slow and quiet or burn explosively – noisy and dramatic enough to be detected by neighbours or passers-by. Flames or dense smoke may shoot from the top of the chimney.
A fierce chimney fire will most likely cause damage. This damage may not be apparent at first and everything may seem fine. Do not use the appliance / chimney until a full survey has been carried out and a report produced. This will often require the use of specialist CCTV surveying equipment
Chimney fires don’t have to happen. Here are some ways to avoid them:
Use seasoned woods only with a water content of less than 20%. A moisture meter is very useful.
Build smaller, hotter fires that burn more completely.
Never burn cardboard boxes, waste paper or Christmas trees. These can start a chimney fire as bits can get sucked up the flue, setting fire to soot or tar in the chimney
Burn recommended fuels ONLY and NEVER use your fire for waste disposal. This can start chimney fires and produces toxic chemicals.
If you are unsure check the manufacturer’s instructions or ask your stove supplier. Your local fuel merchant may also be able to give you advice as of course will your Guild sweep.
If you have a thatch property it is very important to follow your insurance company recommendations and Local Authority guidelines.
Make sure you are aware of the frequency that your chimney must be swept in order to comply with your insurance policy. Your Guild sweep may advise a more regular sweeping frequency than your insurance company requires depending on your situation and what they find in your chimney.
Damaged Chimneys – Stacks, Liners, etc.
The two main reasons for damage to a chimney stack are:
- A chimney fire
- Weathering with age.
A chimney is built in the most exposed part of the house. Sun, wind, rain and frost weathers it for years, and then we light fires under it and fill it full of corrosive soot that eats away at it from the inside. It is no wonder that it needs maintenance from time to time.
The chimney’s other big problem is that it is built on top of the house where the homeowner does not tend to look. Only when things go wrong with it does it get looked at and by this time the damage is more advanced than it needs to be, having not been inspected regularly. Your local Guild sweep will always visually check your stack (usually with binoculars) before sweeping.
Damage to the chimney stack and flue can affect the performance of your chimney and reduce its ability to remove harmful combustion gasses. Flue damage can also create leaks into bedrooms or the loft area which can result in injury or death in extreme cases – see Carbon Monoxide. Following a chimney fire the Guild strongly recommends that a full survey is carried out on the installation and flue before it is used again. If a chimney has not been used for many years it also makes sense to have it surveyed.
There are a fair number of Guild members who have the required training, equipment and insurance to undertake this work for you. See their individual profiles for services offered.
The chimney / flue terminals pictured below MUST NOT be used on any live appliance. They are for redundant chimneys only.
Approved document J is the section of the building regulations that relate to heat producing appliances in domestic properties. It has sections for solid fuel, gas and oil. Your local Guild sweep is trained in all aspects of document J that relate to your fire / woodburner and chimney and will be able to give you guidance.
Carbon Monoxide (CO)
The following messages and information can sound frightening but there are some simple ways to safely enjoy effective home heating with wood and solid fuels.
There is a great lack of public awareness surrounding carbon monoxide and the use of woodburning stoves, open fires and solid fuel boilers and cookers. Many people think that carbon monoxide only comes from gas appliances but the truth is that any fuel that burns, creates carbon monoxide.
Woodburning and solid fuel use has increased significantly in recent years but the safety messages have yet to catch up!
We all know that fire can be dangerous but you are statistically more likely to suffer injury from CO poisoning than from a chimney fire. There are between 15 and 25 deaths per year from CO poisoning due to woodburning and solid fuel use. In addition there are 100’s of non-fatal poisoning incidents. We don’t really know how many due to a lack of proper investigation and reporting. Some people will be chronically poisoned and never know the cause.
How does CO poisoning happen?
Carbon Monoxide gas is produced when burning any fuel. Poisoning occurs if you breathe it. You can’t see or smell carbon monoxide so unless you have a working alarm, you may be unaware of any problem. It can kill quickly and without warning. The symptoms of low level CO poisoning are often mistaken for flu or generally feeling run down. They include headache, fatigue, dizziness, feeling or being sick.
Burning any solid fuel produces CO along with the other combustion gasses. These normally pass harmlessly out the top of the chimney. If however the chimney is blocked or leaky, if the fire / appliance is faulty or if the ventilation to the fire is inadequate, CO gas may enter your property. This can happen in a different room from the location of the fire.
Remember, in the UK there is no requirement for someone calling themselves a chimney sweep to have undertaken any training or registered with a proper trade association. You expect your gas engineer to be trained and registered and it is equally important that your chimney sweep is too. Please use a member of the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps. They have the best training in the UK and can prevent or draw attention to a problem before it happens.
How to stay safer
- Ensure your chimney is swept regularly by Guild registered sweep and follow any safety advice.
- Have Carbon Monoxide alarms fitted and correctly located (many alarms are fitted in the wrong place). Many Guild sweeps can provide you with an alarm.
- Don’t ignore an alarm, even if you are not using your fire or boiler. Phone the number on the back of the alarm or the emergency services.
- Ensure that the fire has adequate ventilation. Don’t block air vents. Guild sweeps are trained to check ventilation on every job and advise you accordingly.
- Always use registered installers for fitting woodburners, fires etc.
You can get excellent advice, information and statistics on CO issues at www.co-gassafety.co.uk
Landlord and Tenant Advice
In this document the term “solid fuel” means any fuel that is not liquid or gas e.g. wood, coal, mineral smokeless fuels, wood derived fuels, biomass etc. The term “appliance” means any device or fire manufactured to be used for heating within a domestic property which uses solid fuel e.g. open fire, woodburner, pellet stove, biomass boiler, cooker, solid fuel boiler etc.
The laws, duties and responsibilities of a landlord towards tenants can seem a little ambiguous when it comes to the maintenance of solid fuel fire appliances and chimney flue sweeping. This is largely due to the absence of the use of words such as ‘chimney’ and ‘sweeping’ in most legal publications and guidance papers.
Instead, generic terms and words have been used in Government guidance publications e.g. landlords are deemed responsible for ‘heating systems’, ‘ventilation’, ‘gas appliances’ and ‘flues’.
All solid fuel appliances, be that an open coal fire, a wood burning stove or a solid fuel cooker will give off combustion gasses (all fires produce poisonous gasses). All solid fuel appliances fall within the category of heating appliances.
The landlord of a rented property has a legal responsibility to maintain the gas heating system, including chimney / flues and ventilation associated with the gas heating appliance. Therefore, the issue of who is responsible for maintaining solid fuel appliances and the chimneys / flues that expel dangerous gasses becomes less ambiguous.
The landlord has the responsibility.
A solid fuel fire appliance (heating system) will obviously produce poisonous gases that will require a clear and unobstructed flue to carry them away from the property. The property will also require an adequate ventilation system such as air vents or airbricks that are of an appropriate size to serve the appliance.
A landlord’s legal responsibilities to their tenants are tough enough and the cost of meeting those duties and responsibilities can weigh heavy. A landlord has a lot of capital invested in a rented property and the last thing they would want is to see their investment go up in smoke as a result of a chimney fire. Or worse, to be the defendant in a criminal case of negligence where imprisonment may be a possibility.
The reality is tenants do not always use solid fuel appliances correctly and this can result in dangerous occurrences and chimney fires. Entrusting their property investment to a tenant may be a risky venture for a landlord in certain circumstances. The modest cost of a simple annual sweep by a trained professional will greatly reduce exposure to the risk of a chimney fire or dangerous incident through poor tenant usage.
Landlords should also pay particular attention to their property insurance policies. A number of insurance underwriters stipulate in their policies that chimneys and flues should be adequately maintained. Failure to do so could render the insurance policy invalid in the event of a claim.
A landlord may through misguidance or ignorance construct a rental / tenancy agreement with various clauses that attempt to transfer certain of their responsibilities over to the tenant. The tenant may well sign that agreement in order to secure the accommodation. However, landlords need to be aware that such signed contracts may not always be legally binding and may in fact be unlawful since these type of clauses may be in breach of existing housing laws and tenant’s rights.
Just because a tenancy agreement / contract is well written and contains impressive legal terms and jargon does not mean that established laws can be over ruled by it. The law is the law and only an Act of Parliament can amend an existing law, not a landlord’s tenancy agreement.
Before constructing a tenancy agreement a landlord should seek professional documented legal advice to ensure they protect both themselves and their investment.