As places to gather ’round and just watch from a respectful distance go, a nice oak fire is right up there with the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. Personally, I’d have a hard time choosing. Lessee, dancing flames as opposed to dancing men dressed up in sparkly red high-heeled shoes. Depends on a person’s mood, I guess. Most chilly days, I’d go with the fire.
Because of my job, though, I am of two minds about fires. In my life as a regular American, I’m strongly in favor of fires, and I support the notion of having them often. If a whole lot of expensive furnace heat gets sucked out the chimney with the oak smoke, so what? Be bold. Live a little. But, in the job world, where I’m a professional home inspector, I make customers repeat after me: “Jowers said never build a fire.”
Why is this? Well, shoot, lawyers walk among us.
A few weeks ago, you might have heard about an unfortunate apartment dweller who took a burning log out of his fireplace and set it out on his wood deck, and next thing anybody knew, the whole building was burning like a sheepherder’s shack in cattle country. Mark my words: When the litigation starts (and you know it will), that fire will be the fault of every insured soul who ever saw or touched that fireplace; every person living or dead who ever had knowledge or possession of the guilty log from the time it was a seed; and everybody who ever hinted to the unwary log owner that fires were a good thing. Court papers will swirl until somebody’s insurance company caves in and buys some bucket-head lawyer one of those new James-Bond Beemers.
So what do I tell my customers, regular Americans for the most part, who just want to cuddle up around the fireplace? I start with the obvious: “You’re talking about building an actual fire, inside your house. This is high-risk behavior from the get-go. Bad things could happen, including death and destruction.”
The usual reply is, “We always had fires at our old place.”
Then I say, “I’m not saying you can’t have ’em here. I’m just saying I’m not going to be the one to give you the go-ahead.”
Fireplaces can foul up lots of ways. For instance, there’s the old horror-story standby, the chimney fire, in which folks too cheap or unknowing to get their chimney cleaned set alight the creosote in the chimney. The result is a screaming banshee of a fire, loud and furious as any tornado, that breaks the chimney into flying red-hot pieces. Net result: House flat to the foundation in minutes.
How about gas logs, you say? Well, it’s entirely possible to turn on the gas and walk away without lighting it. Even if the logs are equipped with a “safety” pilot, the thing could go out. Either way, the house could fill up with flambustious fumes that would ignite as soon as somebody walked in and flipped a light switch.
You could forget to open the damper, or get some backdrafting down the flue on a windy night, and the house could fill up with carbon monoxide. The repercussions could range from a throbbing headache to waking up dead.
How about those ventless gas logs, you say? Read the warnings. They say not to use them in any room where people sleep. I don’t know about you, but I have slept in each and every room of my house, and I’ll do it again. Besides, the whole thing about carbon monoxide is that it puts you to sleep.
My advice: Don’t even consider having a fire unless you have your fireplace and flue checked regularly by a qualified chimney sweep, using state-of-the-art video equipment lowered down from the top of the flue. If your fireplace is old, even a day old, it cannot be considered safe by modern standards. Build a fire, or light your gas logs, at your own risk, and only if you are fully insured, stone sober, and have a fire escape plan. Also, before I’ll OK your fire, you must indemnify, in a document initialed by each and every U.S. Supreme Court Justice, the whole human race, past, present and future, against any damages you or anybody else might suffer for any reason, including the sun going red giant and enveloping the solar system all the way out to the asteroid belt.
Walter Jowers can be reached at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com.