WETT Inspections & Fire Facts
Call me crazy, but there’s just something about cutting, chopping, and hauling firewood that I love - and the enjoyment and warmth felt sitting next to a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night is second to none! There is great beauty in fire – but it can be dangerous if proper care is not taken. With the number of wood-related fires on the rise, insurance companies are insisting that homeowners ensure their fireplace, furnace, or stove is code compliant.
I’ve been a Certified WETT Inspector for just over five years now (SITE Basic Inspection – Level 1). A WETT Inspection is the examination of a solid-fuel-burning system, performed by a WETT-certified professional. This also includes pellet and corn stoves. Appliances themselves are not certified by the inspector. The inspection is just a snapshot of the installation on the date and time of the inspection. Photos are taken, and an assessment is conducted of the readily accessible components of your solid-fuel fireplace, stove, or furnace, and the exterior of the chimney. For most insurance and real estate inspections, this level is adequate. I issue the report based on the current conditions of the unit – stating what areas are, or are not, compliant. If there is concern during the inspection, I will recommend a higher level of examination.
The list below will help you determine the level of inspector that you need.
SITE Basic Inspector: These are individuals who can perform a level-1 inspection of solid fuel appliances.
Technician: These are individuals who can install or perform maintenance on solid fuel appliances. They can also perform a level-1 inspection.
Chimney Sweep: These are individuals who can clean and maintain your solid fuel burning system, including sweeping the chimney. They can also perform a level-1 inspection.
SITE Comprehensive Inspector: These are individuals who can perform level-1, -2, or -3 inspections. They are also technicians and/or sweeps.
The written report details the areas in which the installation meets, or does not meet, the requirements of the manufacturer’s installation instructions. This is often found on the back of the stove or fireplace insert, showing clearances, etc. – usually in the form of a data plate. Manufacturers have certified the stove, based on testing in accordance with a listed agency, such as CSA (Canadian Standards Association), ULC (Underwriters Laboratory of Canada), WH (Warnock Hersey), and OTL (OMNI Test Laboratories). It’s especially helpful if the homeowner has a manual to go with the stove. The more info, the better!
After investigating and measuring clearances, an installation is stated by the inspector to be either code compliant or not – there is no pass or fail. It is then up to the insurance agency to decide whether to grant the homeowner insurance, based upon the findings of the inspector – and what it considers to be the risk associated with that particular appliance.
I am most often called in when a house changes hands, or when a homeowner has been asked by their insurance company to have an inspection done. Owners have been known to grumble, stating they’ve been burning wood for over 30 years and they don’t understand why they suddenly have to have an inspection now. Once I begin the inspection, it’s pretty evident why it was necessary. In fact, in some cases, it’s a wonder the house didn’t burn to the ground years ago! The fact is that codes have changed greatly over the years – especially recently.
If you're looking for a WETT Inspector, and want to ensure his or her certification is up to date, go to www.wettinc.ca and use the search feature for WETT Certified Professionals in your area, or call the WETT National office at 1-800-358-9388. All WETT Inspectors are issued photo ID cards with a sticker noting the current year – ask to see it, if you have doubt.
Prices can vary among individual inspectors. It depends on the distance travelled, level of inspection required, inclusion of other services, etc. – there is no set rate for this service. I offer WETT inspections for my home inspection clients at less than half the regular price, if done the same day/time, to lighten the burden of the combined cost of these two necessary services.
Some of the most common problems I see during WETT inspections are:
- Improper clearances to combustibles has to be number one!
I’m not talking just about papers stored nearby or firewood piled next to a stove. This can also be a wood beam installed as a mantle, or the front of a fireplace that is completely constructed of wood or other flammable materials.
- Improper shielding which can lead to pyrolysis (see below). I’ve seen some “creative”, but scary shields!
“Pyrolysis is derived from the Greek words pyro (fire) and lysis (separating). It is a process where the chemical composition in organic material changes when exposed to prolonged heat. When this happens it lowers the flash point required for wood to burn.
Woodstoves located too close to combustible materials can cause a phenomenon called pyrolysis. Over time, the heat from the stove causes a chemical change in the wood, lowering the temperature required to make it burn. For instance, a normal piece of 2”X4” will spontaneously ignite above 660F/350C.
If the woodstove or flue pipe is too close to the wood it will draw the moisture out from the 2”X4”. When this happens repeatedly, the piece of wood can spontaneously ignite as low as 390-570F/200-300C. Generally this happens in 3-5 years. The woodstove can be used for years without a problem, then suddenly there is a fire. The process of pyrolysis has been known for centuries and is still used today to produce charcoal.” ~ Mark Visser, building inspector – Burlington, ON
- Uncertified woodstoves – this means that you have to take clearances to the max, since there are no recommendations that can be found on a data plate or in a manual associated with the installation.
- No smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors in the home – or not in working condition.
Working smoke alarms must be present in every home, especially in or near bedrooms. Photoelectric smoke detectors reduce the chance of “nuisance” alarms near kitchens and bathrooms, and will activate quicker than the old ionization technology in smoky conditions. Ionization alarms have been equated to an airbag that deploys fifteen minutes after an accident – not much use to anybody! Place smoke alarms on each level of your home, on or near the ceiling. Lithium-ion batteries are best, since they will last for up to ten years. Don’t purchase combination smoke/CO detectors. They are different technologies that can fail at different times.
Proper venting of your stove or fireplace or furnace will reduce the chance of carbon monoxide emissions. CO detectors must be present outside sleeping areas, and I suggest you have one on each level of your home. Place CO detectors close to the floor. Again, lithium-ion batteries are best and will last for years.
- Spalling brick on the chimney, which can be a sign of, or lead to, deterioration of the chimney liner.
- Missing rain cap or spark arrestor and deteriorating chimney cap.
- Chimney too short above roof – or too high and needs bracing.
- Improper material or coverage for ember pad or inadequate hearth extension.
- Dirty stove pipes or chimneys, as evidenced by a well-used appliance (and there’s no history of cleaning available), which can quickly lead to a chimney fire if not cleaned.
Creosote can build up over time – a chemical mass of unburned fuel that forms in the interior of the flue or chimney when wood is burned. It can restrict the airflow of your chimney, preventing proper circulation and lowering efficiency – and is toxic to breathe. Creosote can catch fire and burn quickly out of control. This is often what happens when you have a chimney fire. It’s best to call a chimney sweep for an annual cleaning and inspection. If you burn wood daily, your chimney might need cleaning two or three times per year. Keep in mind that burning only dry, seasoned wood will help to keep your chimney cleaner.
That’s it for now! There’s much, much more involved in WETT inspections. Too much detail to go over here, but feel free to give me a call anytime if you have questions about your wood-burning appliances.
And remember, don’t leave a fire burning (even candles) if you’re leaving the house or heading to bed, have proper guards/screens in place, and have the proper type and adequate number of working smoke and CO detectors. These two detectors/alarms can gain you the few extra minutes that could save your life.
It’s not a bad idea to have an escape plan for your family either. Do your kids know what to do, where to go, and how to get out of the house if there’s a fire? And don’t go around gathering what you think are important/valuable items. Toxic fumes and smoke can overtake you before you know it. It’s just stuff – grab your family and get out! In the end, that’s all that matters.