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Need a chimney inspection? Hire carefully

When it comes to having a chimney inspection or chimney repairs, I only recommend working with a Certified Chimney Sweep. This is a designation from the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) that has become an industry standard across the country. Just a few weeks ago I had a strange experience that helped to remind me of why I'm so specific when it comes to who I recommend for chimney inspections and repairs. Pull up a chair; it's story time.

Chimney Inspection #1

This story begins with a home inspection at a 1920s house in a nice south Minneapolis neighborhood. Tessa and I identified a typical amount of defects for an old house during our inspection of the exterior: rotted sill plates at the garage walls, a leaking flat roof below a deck, poor grading, etc. Pretty typical old house stuff. Unfortunately, it was a lot more than the buyer had expected, and the buyer was near her breaking point by the time we finished inspecting the exterior.

A CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep showed up just as we were beginning our inspection of the interior. The buyer had hired this chimney professional to perform a level II inspection of the chimney because there was a wood-burning fireplace present. Smart. We recommend a level II inspection on all masonry wood-burning fireplaces when a home is being purchased.

The chimney professional was someone I never met before, so I took some time to chat with him about this chimney, other chimneys, and other chimney companies in the Twin Cities. He didn't have many nice things to say about a lot of other chimney companies, complaining that many chimney companies call out minor and inconsequential defects with chimney liners, only to recommend  re-lining the chimneys so they can charge a boatload of money to do the work.

I hate hearing professionals bashing their colleagues, but I know these types of scams exist. Rossen Reports did a hidden camera story on this exact topic a few years ago in New York, exposing chimney contractors who were making recommendations for unneeded services and repairs. I hope there are no companies in the Twin Cities pulling similar scams.

So anyway, the chimney professional spent a while complaining about how most chimneys are just fine, but proceeded to deem this chimney unsafe for use, and recommended having it completely rebuilt. He said that a liner was out of the question for this chimney because the flue was far too small for a liner. I took a look down the chimney myself, and I certainly agreed with him -- that chimney was just nasty. A large portion of the clay flue liner was completely gone. The first photo below shows that the first three clay tiles are in good shape, although there is no mortar visible at the joints.

Deteriorated chimney interior

After the first three clay tiles, there is nothing. Just the chimney walls. This is a major problem, making the chimney unsafe for use.

Deteriorated chimney interior 2

After the buyer received this news about this chimney inspection, she was done. She ended the home inspection at that point and everyone left. A week later is when it got interesting.

Chimney Inspection #2

About a week after my initial inspection, I noticed that one of my inspectors was scheduled to inspect this same house again for a new buyer. The sellers had heard that part of the reason the previous buyers backed out of the deal was because of problems with the chimney, so they apparently hired their own chimney person to give an opinion. Here's an excerpt from an email sent out by the listing agent, giving us a heads-up that the chimney should be just fine:

"I have an invoice from (name omitted) Chimney Service verifying that the chimney is safe and in working order. I will send you that as soon as I get the receipt back."

This was quite the surprise. I immediately replied with an email saying that I had inspected this house a week ago and that I didn't agree with the chimney guy's findings. I asked to meet the chimney guy at the property, and he agreed.

I arrived at the property before the chimney guy and used my inspector's 28-foot ladder to climb the chimney for a look into the flue. It was in the same condition as a week ago. When the chimney guy arrived he had no ladder and no chimney camera. The buyers, their agent and I were all standing outside. It wasn't an appropriate time to ask the chimney guy where his equipment was. I just offered up my inspector's ladder and asked the chimney guy to take a look.

The chimney guy climbed up, looked down the flue for a while, then came down the ladder hemming and hawing about how they could drop a liner into this flue that was clearly too small for a liner. I finally asked him point-blank if the chimney was safe to use. The chimney guy grimaced and took a long pause. "No," he finally said. "This chimney isn't safe to use."

At this point, I had a lot of follow-up questions for the chimney guy, but they would have made the situation even more awkward. And besides, his answers really wouldn't have changed anything. I simply thanked the chimney guy for taking the time to meet with us, and he left right after that. I was actually somewhat relieved that he didn't try to say this chimney was safe.

The lesson to be learned is that not all chimney companies are the same. To find a chimney professional in your area who is a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep, use the locator feature right on the home page of the CSIA website:

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections


Understanding energy ratings and certifications for houses in Minnesota

This is a guest blog post by Ross Anderson at the Neighborhood Energy Connection.

Green building energy ratings and energy-efficiency certifications are becoming increasingly popular — for good reason. Not only are energy efficient homes more comfortable, durable and less expensive to operate, but they’ve been proven to resell for a higher price in cities around the country.

But if you’re not an industry professional, the landscape of green buildings can be a confusing alphabet soup of organizations and certifications. In today’s guest blog post, I’m hoping to demystify that landscape for the average prospective homebuyer by outlining some of the most common certifications in the Twin Cities market.

The Energy Code is the Baseline

Before we move on, we need to understand the importance of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).

The IECC is a set of minimum standards for a home’s energy system, including thresholds for insulation and mechanical equipment.  The IECC is developed every three years by a national nonprofit. It’s not binding, but it’s used as the starting point for local energy codes by most states and municipalities, including Minnesota. The current Minnesota Energy Code is based on the 2012 IECC.

HERS Ratings

The HERS Index is the most common comprehensive energy efficiency measure used for new homes in Minnesota.

Ratings are calculated at the end of the construction process by a certified third-party specialist using diagnostic equipment and performance modeling software. The rating takes into account variables such as a home’s airtightness, level of insulation and type of heating and cooling system.

According to the index’s developer, the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), the typical U.S resale home has a HERS rating of 130, while a home built to the standards of the 2006 IECC has a rating of 100. A home with a HERS rating of 70 is 30% more efficient than a home with a score of 100, a score of 50 is 50% more efficient and so on.

Older homes are unlikely to have a HERS rating. Newer homes built since 2006 are more likely to have one. In 2014-15, for instance, 8,493 newly constructed Minnesota homes received a HERS rating.

ENERGY STAR®/ Zero Energy Ready

Energy Star LogoENERGY STAR is a certification program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The name might be familiar to you from the ENERGY STAR rating found on many household appliances.

The EPA estimates an ENERGY STAR home uses up to 30% less energy than a typical new home. Besides costing less to operate, ENERGY STAR homes have fewer issues with mold, air quality and durability, due to comprehensive ventilation requirements.

If ENERGY STAR is the Prius of new home certifications — high performing and innovative, but not uncommon — the Department of Energy-certified Zero Energy Ready homes are the way-ahead-of-the-pack Tesla.

In addition to meeting ENERGY STAR standards, Zero Energy Ready Homes (formerly DOE Challenge Homes) must meet several other energy and environment-related criteria. These include receiving the EPA’s IndoorairPlus air quality certification and laying the necessary infrastructural groundwork to be “renewable ready.” The Department of Energy estimates that a Zero Energy Ready Home uses only 40-50% of the energy of a typical new home.

There are more than 67,000 ENERGY STAR single family homes and 14,000 Zero Energy Ready/Challenge Homes across the U.S.

Green Path

Green Path is a certification developed by the Twin Cities Builders Association and co-sponsored by Xcel Energy (full disclosure: I helped develop this certification).

Green Path emphasizes flexibility in meeting certification standards. The base measure is a HERS score and homes earn further points by choosing from a menu of point-earning compliance options in five different categories: Energy Efficiency, Indoor Air Quality, Resource Management, Water Management and Site/Development.

There are three types of Green Path-certified homes: Tested, Advanced and Master. A Tested home has been inspected by a RESNET-certified rater. Advanced and Master must score lower than a 55 and 50 on the HERS index, respectively, and must earn elective points from the five aforementioned categories.

The Green Path is probably most well-known for being an important part of the annual Parade of Homes. There are a total of 7,000 Green Path tested homes in Minnesota. In the spring 2016 Parade, 70% of all participating homes were Green Path tested.

Energy Fit Homessm

So far, we’ve mainly discussed certifications that apply to newer homes. Together with our partner, the Center for Energy and Environment, the Neighborhood Energy Connection offers the Energy Fit Homes certificate. Energy Fit Homes rates homes on a scale of 1-100 based on their attic insulation, wall insulation, lighting, ventilation, windows, heating equipment and combustion safety.

More than 300 homes across the Twin Cities metro have been certified as Energy Fit.

How can I find out if a home has a certification?

HERS ratings and some of the other certifications we discussed are listed on the Northstar Multiple Listing Service. If you’re in the market for a new home, ask your real estate agent to add this field to your search results. After all, your monthly utility bills are the largest cost of homeownership after your mortgage. Here's a press release with more information on that topic: MN/WI Buyers Can Now Find Energy Information when Home Shopping.


Ross Anderson is the Contractor Relations Manager at the Neighborhood Energy Connection, where he works with builders to improve the energy efficiency of their new construction. He has 15 years of wide-ranging building industry experience, including roles in construction project management and energy rating and consulting. Ross regularly trains builders and code officials around the state and is the current president of the Minnesota Building Performance Association

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