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Thatch roof safety

Follow our simple tops tips for keeping your thatch property safe. Please download our handy booklet and keep it safe for future reference. It has more detailed information than these pages, so we strongly recommend taking a look.

Thatch Safety Booklet

Top tips for a safe thatch roof

Thatched roofing is enjoying a revival in the UK. Roofing was traditionally made from several materials depending on location and availability. Today, however, only three materials are widely used, long straw, combed wheat reed and water reed, all of which will burn rapidly in a fire.

Although thatch fires are not common, over 90% of thatch roof fires start as a result of a faulty flue or chimney. The thatch is designed to repel water which makes extinguishing such fires difficult.

Precautions

Open fires and wood burners

Many thatched homes were built with single skin brick chimneys that rise centrally through a deep layer of thatch. They were designed to cater for open fireplaces where flue gases do not reach sufficiently high temperatures to pose a threat to the thatch adjacent to the chimney.

Modern enclosed solid fuel appliances are designed to burn at a much increased temperature to promote a more efficient 'clean burn'. Solid fuel stoves can generate flue gas temperatures in excess of 300°C to 600°C. When fitted into elderly cimneys with only a four inch layer of brick between the flue, this can result in thatch vulnerability to heat transfer.

Modern chimney linings can prevent flue leaks but do not significantly reduce the temperature achieved by heat transfer within the thatch when the appliance is in constant or regular use. It has been shown in tests that the thatch adjacent to the chimney can reach 85% of the flue gas temperature after only one day of continuous use. The critical temperature of 200°C can be achieved and sustained with relative ease.

Faulty chimneys

  • Old or poorly maintained chimneys can deteriorate to the point where smoke and hot gases can escape from the chimney into the upper rooms, the roof space, or directly into the thatch.
  • Vital signs to look out for that may indicate a problem:
  • staining of the plasterwork or wallpaper around the chimney breast
  • black or brown localised deposits on the chimney or in the roof space
  • soot on cobwebs in the loft. Chimneys built pre-1960's (as is the case of most thatched homes) are likely to be single brick thickness and unlined.
  • The protective parging or roughcast plasterwork will crumble and disintegrate with age.
  • Due to the age of many thatched properties, built before the introduction of Building Regulations, the construction of chimneys can be highly unconventional.
  • Period homes often have timber lintels over the fireplace and timber joists built into chimney stacks. These can be exposed to scorching when the protective layer inside the chimney disintegrates. 
  • Recent research has shown the major cause of fires in thatched properties is heat transfer from the chimney into the thatch. The thatch then reaches its ignition temperature and a roof fire can develop.
  • It is important to insulate the chimney flue to prevent the heat from transferring into the thatch layer. This is especially important when a solid fuel or wood burner is installed
  • as they burn at higher temperatures than conventional open fires.
  • Have the chimney swept regularly by a qualified chimney sweep. A chimney in regular use should be swept twice a year.
  • Only burn seasoned wood.
  • Have the chimney inspected by a qualified chimney engineer.
  • If you have a spark arrestor fitted clean it regularly. This should be done every three months on chimneys in regular use and the arrestor should be taken down to clean.
  • Fit a bird guard to deter birds from building nests in chimneys.

Develop a fire plan for your home

  • Smoke alarms should be installed throughout your home. If you have a loft space then an interlinked smoke alarm should be installed which is linked to at least one other within your home.
  • Install a fire blanket in the kitchen.
  • Check the electrical system throughout your home.
  • Be careful when using blowtorches or heat guns (if plumbing or painting etc).
  • Restrict the use of bonfires near to your property.
  • Consider a system of heat sensors within the thatch around the chimney. This will give you an early warning of any overheating of the thatch.
  • Install an outside tap with enough hose to reach around the house including the roof.
  • This can be used to extinguish any fires at an early stage.
  • Residential sprinkler systems will greatly improve the fire precautions within your home.
  • Consider forming a fireproof barrier between the roof timbers and the thatch layer when renovating or undertaking re-roofing. A thatch fire will be mainly restricted to the thatch and damage to the rest of the house will be limited.
  • Before going to bed, ensure your fire is extinguished.

Useful links

English Heritage - Listed buildings/graded properties

www.english-heritage.org.uk

The National Society of Master Thatchers (NSMT)

www.nsmtltd.co.uk

 

British Flue and Chimney Manufacturers Association (BFCMA)

www.feta.co.uk

Heating Equipment Testing and Approval Scheme (HETAS)

www.hetas.co.uk

The Association of Professional Independent Chimney Sweeps

www.apics.org.uk

National Association of Chimney Engineers (NACE)

www.nace.org.uk

Thatch Advice Centre

www.thatchadvicecentre.co.uk

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