Do You Like Exposed Brick? It can be Deadly

by Ivan Mose

A couple of weeks after last Christmas I received a phone call from a young man who told me he had a terrible smell in his apartment and could I come over as soon as possible and take a look. I am a building inspector so smells usually mean drains, mouldy basements and the odd rat or two. A little questioning and I started to build a case. Last summer Dany, his wife Lauren and baby moved into a newly renovated condominium apartment in the plateau Montreal area, their dream home. Everything about the place was perfect; or so it had seemed, until the start of the heating season when this odd acrid smell took over the apartment, getting worse by the day. It eventually got so bad that they had to flee and move in with some friends. This sounded like an interesting problem so I invited one of my inspectors to join me.

Here are the facts:

The building was originally a triplex built around 1910 and converted into three condominium apartments. Theirs was the middle unit. The lower unit was heated with a gas fired boiler in the crawl space, using the original chimney to exhaust the flue gases. During renovations some of the interior of the masonry structure had been exposed, including the chimney breast, as is the current fashion with in these older buildings. The exposed chimney appeared wet.

Exposed Bricks the key

Any ideas yet what the problem might be?

boiler-fluePaul and I headed for the crawl space to check out the boiler. We found a 60 year old boiler that had been converted from oil to gas about 25 years ago. We checked the flue clean out and found it to be completely clogged with plant debris, and removed at least a garbage bag full of rotting birds and squirrels nests. With mirror and flashlight we found there was no liner in the chimney. All we saw was bricks.

That’s the problem! The flue gases were migrating through the bricks of the chimney, and since the plaster had been removed on the inside, were entering the apartment. Flue gasses contain a lot of water vapour, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and few other compounds. Carbon monoxide being the most deadly of them all. Dany did the right thing in moving out it may have saved his and his families lives. We went outside and saw this huge moisture stain on the outside of the building. As one can see in the picture it extends from the ground up three stories to the top of the building.

Next step was to turn off the boiler and call the gas company. They came the next day and installed a liner. Since then the smell is going away and Dany, Lauren and baby we able to return home.