Most homeowners have never seen the top of their chimneys

Time To Check Your Chimney Cap

Would-be car buyers kick the tires and take a test drive.

Homebuyers are a lot more selective: We’ll check for termites and rodents, bring experts in to inspect the floors and windows, and make sure the roof and appliances come with guarantees.

But how many of us even ask about the chimney, let alone take the time to inspect it?

I learned my lesson when Superstorm Sandy struck. I was on the west side of the house, after finally coercing the dog to go out for a walk after 20 or so hours indoors. I figured the house would protect us from the driving rain coming out of the east, and it did. But the wind also sent the top of the chimney down from the roof, where it landed with a thud inches from where we were standing.

I started to call chimney repair and replacement contractors at once. About a thousand other people in my neck of the woods did as well.

Look, I’m not what you would call a handy guy around the house. We figured that out when the lady on the other end of the line started to ask a few questions. “Is it a masonry chimney?” She asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Is it made of brick? Is it made of stone? What exactly blew off?”

“The top,” I said meekly.

I can get a guy out there in a couple of weeks,” she said tersely, hanging up on me.

Yes, Virginia, most chimneys have caps, and a lot of homeowners install them themselves. Not this guy. If you must though, heed these immortal words from “Ask the Chimney Sweep” — wear gloves!

If you have a top-mounted cap and a single flue (if you don’t know, don’t ask), it’s relatively easy — for a normal guy. If you have more than one flue, or any variation from the norm, let the professionals handle it.

Within the chimney itself is a chamber known as a flue, which acts as a ventilation shaft for smoke, gases, and combustible byproducts. If you climbed onto your roof and looked at the chimney, you would see an open hole, the flue, at the top. It is over the flue, or flues, if your chimney has more than one, that the chimney cap is placed.

Fake Chimneys

When Quality Pools in Westhampton arrived at my house it was a revelation — about how much I didn’t know. Prefabricated chimneys are usually installed in homes built during the mid-1980s or later. Made of metal and framed in wood, they are sometimes called “fake chimneys” to distinguish them from traditional brick and mortar chimneys. It’s advisable to use a cap manufactured by the chimney maker to ensure the best fit and performance, the guys told me.

I really liked the company that built my house (it was new when I bought it) and I was friendly with the carpenter. But he did a lousy job on the cap, which it turns out was not fitted properly; at least I was told that. Who knew?

Caps aren’t expensive, at least not in most parts of the civilized world. But here in the Hamptons, be prepared to pay more. The pecking order goes from galvanized metal (around $200 installed), steel ($500), to copper, to custom made.

The key thing, though, is to get a service contract, experts say, because nipping a problem in the bud can save a lot of expenses later on down the road.

Chimney caps are designed to prevent animals, debris, and water from entering the chimney and wreaking havoc. They also help prevent roof fires and downdrafts.

“If your chimney doesn’t have a cap, or the existing one is in disrepair, then it is paramount that you have a new one installed right away to avoid costly repairs down the road,” says Costowl.com.

Of course, chimney maintenance only begins up top. As with anything in the house that uses flames or electricity, things can go wrong.

The average annual number of U.S. home fires caused by fireplace, chimney, and chimney connectors between 2003 and 2005 was 25,100, and the average cost in damages from those fires was $126.1 million, based on the most recent statistics from the Chimney Safety Institute of America. That’s roughly $5024 in damage per home. Annual chimney maintenance removes flammable creosote, the major cause of chimney fires, and identifies other performance problems.

Never Say Never

The Chimney Safety Institute of America says that a properly maintained fireplace will never cause a fire — but that means, in industry-speak, annual inspections.

“If the chimney is properly maintained, you’ll never have a chimney fire,” says Ashley Eldridge, the education director of the CSIA. A Level One inspection, basically a visual examination, will flush out minor problems like a bird’s nest or other object stuck in the flue. (If you burn more than three cords of wood annually, get your chimney cleaned twice a year.)

To burn a fire safely, build it slowly, adding a bit at a time, and make sure your wood is aged and dry.

Consider a level-two inspection if you’ve experienced a dramatic weather event, like a tornado or hurricane, if you’ve made a major change to your fireplace, or added a wood-burning stove.

A level three inspection can resemble a demolition job. It may involve tearing down and rebuilding walls and your chimney, and is usually done after a chimney fire. The cost will vary widely, depending on the damage, according to the CSIA.

Wood-burning stoves are another matter altogether. They often are not installed in the fireplace. They are referred to as “freestanding” and can be vented using stovepipe that either gets cut “through the wall” into an existing chimney or out through the roof.

But if they do vent through the fireplace, a popular installation method is called a hearth-stove installation. This requires a properly sized liner to be put into the chimney.

Fireplaces and heating stoves are the most common and serious causes for carbon monoxide build up and have been reported to account for up to 20 percent of activated CO alarms. When fireplaces and wood stoves do not have the proper venting, the CO remains inside the house instead of being safely expelled outside. Venting problems can include blocked chimney flues, or inadequate venting as a result of poor installation or poor maintenance.

rmurphy@indyeastend.com