Your Guide to Smoke and Fire Damage to HVAC Systems

Explore our interactive smoke and fire claims guide to learn about common types of smoke and fire damage HVAC components are susceptible to, find out which components may ignite a fire, and discover more handy resources.

Adjusters should know as much as possible about how HVAC systems may be affected by smoke and fire to settle claims quickly and accurately. Refer to this guide and its complementary resources now and the next time you handle a smoke and fire claim.

Rethink Smoke and Fire Damages to HVAC Systems Webinar Recording

Some losses included in claims with HVAC systems may look like smoke and fire damages but aren’t. Know what to expect and which fire-related failures are common before settling another claim.

In the webinar Rethink Smoke and Fire Damages to HVAC Systems, Technical Education Manager Jay Dykstra discusses this peril’s effects on specific HVAC components and how to distinguish these damages from other causes of loss.

During the presentation, he’ll cover:

  • Reported versus actual cause of loss for HVAC systems in claims
  • HVAC components and system types frequently included in claims, such as condensing units, furnaces and air handlers, package units, and ductwork systems
  • Evidence of smoke, fire, and heat damages to residential and commercial HVAC systems
  • Real-life claim scenarios that show impacts caused by smoke and fire or other perils

Important: Pre-recorded webinars do not qualify for CE credit.

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Smoke and Fire Claim Case Study

Fire losses have been known to cause major damages to HVAC systems, both internally and externally. However, smoke and soot may not result in the same impacts. Before settling a claim with reported smoke and fire losses, it’s critical that adjusters verify that smoke or fire caused the HVAC system to malfunction and have an expert determine to what extent.

The HVAC system described in this claim assigned to HVACi was near an area that experienced a garage fire. The adjuster sought HVACi’s expert help to determine if the furnace and ductwork were affected and needed replacement.

Fill out the form to get your copy of the smoke and fire claim case study to see what the comprehensive assessment revealed and how we arrived at that conclusion.

Smoke and Fire Claim Case Study

Types of Fire Damages to Expect in HVAC Claims

Residential HVAC equipment is vulnerable to smoke and fire damage, but full replacement may not be necessary to return the HVAC system to pre-loss condition. Repairs may be sufficient for some components, and others may have sustained damage from a typically non-covered peril or may be non-damaged.

This guide details four common types of HVAC equipment damage reported in smoke and fire claims, as well as key signs of the damages.

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Smoke and Fire Damage to HVAC Systems Guide

Don’t Forget HVAC Repairs for Smoke & Fire Damage Claims

The following article, “Don’t forget HVAC repairs for smoke & fire damage claims” written by Jay Dykstra of HVACi and StrikeCheck, was originally published on Property Casualty 360.

Smoke and ash are just as damaging to HVAC systems as flames. Wildfires along Big Fall Creek Road, Lowell, Oregon. (Photo: Marcus Kauffman/CC BY 4.0)

After one California wildfire had subsided, the resulting smoke and ash took a toll on an HVAC system located in a home miles away. Soot had coated the condensing unit, the onsite inspection revealed, and it entered the indoor equipment and ductwork. While the diagnosis may seem like damage is extensive, adjusters should know this didn’t require a full system replacement — and neither will many of the claims with HVAC systems damaged by the onslaught of wildfires this year.

In 2019, approximately 48% of the HVAC systems that the insurance services company HVACi inspected for smoke and fire damage could be returned to pre-loss condition with a repair or were in proper working condition at the time of inspection.

In the aforementioned claim, the assessment found the electrical components weren’t affected, and the refrigerant pressures were aligned with manufacturer specifications. The split system could be returned to pre-loss condition by cleaning some components and switching out the furnace and ductwork. This is considered a major repair; however, not all wildfire-damaged HVAC systems will need this extent of work either.

Adjusters should know what to expect for claims with HVAC systems impacted by smoke and fire as well as be familiar with potential next steps to return the policyholder to pre-loss condition.


Ways HVAC systems can be affected

Wildfires — any fires — leave some telltale evidence if they are to blame for damages.


Direct fire

Direct fire causes major damage to components, as seen by this burned commercial furnace.

Direct contact with flames produces charring, burning, and melting. Outside components, including the condensing units for residential split systems and commercial packaged units, are most at risk for direct wildfire damage. Heat can also damage the refrigerant, which could require switching out indoor equipment in the refrigerant circuit, such as the line set and evaporator coil.

While direct fire causes more evident damage, adjusters still should assess for the scope of damage and verify if flames, heat or smoke affected the rest of the system.


Smoke, soot and ash

Regardless of where the fire is, internal and external HVAC components are at risk for damages from smoke, soot, and ash. These particles are pervasive because they’re transported through the air. A home that’s miles away from the nearest fire can still sustain major soot and ash damage.

Dirty filters are a common side effect of a nearby fire, but filters are easily replaceable without needing any other major repairs. 

HVAC systems can intensify damage by circulating smoke and the other elements throughout the property. Air filters can help trap larger particles, though policyholders will need to change filters more frequently. A clogged air filter can’t remove debris as well and makes the blower, which is also a target for smoke, work harder to pull needed air through the air handler. HVAC blowers that are forced to work harder could shorten the unit’s lifespan or increase utility bills over time. Similarly, the coils in the condensing unit can also become clogged and later lead to compressor motor problems.

Ductwork is also susceptible to smoke, soot and ash damage because these items stick to it.


High voltage surge

Another common peril related to wildfires is high voltage surge. This causes damage to the HVAC’s electrical components and has the potential to occur if there’s a power outage during or after a blaze. Surges don’t always result in visible damage and electrical components may need to be tested.

While wildfires may seem like an obvious cause of loss, it’s important adjusters confirm the damage is associated. Policyholders may think their HVAC systems aren’t working because a wildfire was nearby when in fact, the HVAC system sustained damage from age-related wear and tear, which is typically not a covered loss.


Repair options are available

One repair option may seem trivial, but it’s a viable one in some cases. When the ash is no longer hot, thorough equipment cleaning may resolve concerns.

Dirty coils don’t always need to be replaced and can sometimes be cleaned with solvents designed specifically for cleaning coils. 

Outdoor equipment is designed to get wet, so washing the cases and cabinets shouldn’t cause concern. Condenser coils can be washed with hoses, but pressure washers can actually cause damage and should be avoided. Specialty cleaning solvents are designed specifically for cleaning coils if it’s in good enough condition to be washed.

Some indoor equipment can also be cleaned, including supply and return registers or ductwork, depending on what it’s made of, where it is, and its condition before and after the fire. Flex duct is more fragile, and cleaning must be done without hard brushes or cleaners. Forced air and vacuuming equipment can loosen and remove the soot in cases of a light dry smoke loss, which is commonly seen from wildfires. Harder ducts can be cleaned with more invasive methods followed by forced air and vacuuming.

Evaporator coils and blowers are targets for smoke but can be more difficult to clean if they have to be removed for better access. Adjusters should consider if that still makes cleaning a cost-effective repair option for these components.

Adjusters will sometimes find it’s a better and more cost-effective solution to replace specific parts without requiring a full system replacement. Equipment compatibility, state and federal HVAC replacement regulations, and like kind and quality products priced at market value should all be considered.

Wildfires can cause massive devastation over a widespread area. Don’t assume fire-damaged HVAC systems are a total loss. A new condensing unit, while a major repair, is still less costly for your policyholder than a full system replacement.

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Fire Claim Case Study

Smoke and fire do have a way of impacting just about everything they come in contact with. But does that mean a full replacement of HVAC systems and ductwork is required?

The contractor for this commercial policyholder seemed to think so when submitting an estimate of nearly $100,000 in replacement costs. Had the adjuster taken it at face-value, the carrier would have sustained tens of thousands in dollars in claims leakage.

Fill out the form to read the case study that chronicles what our HVACi inspector saw when thoroughly inspecting the systems and what our team recommended the insurance carrier do to return the policyholder to pre-loss condition.

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Wildfire Claim Case Study

A major wildfire taking place close to a residence is a plausible reason for ductwork to become dirty and need replacement. But it’s important an adjuster takes the time to confirm cause of loss.

Fill out the form to receive your copy of the Wildfire Claim Case Study to read about the results of our inspection and recommendations. It will prove why adjusters should always call for an objective and knowledgeable second opinion to review complex equipment before they make settlement decisions.

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Smoke and Fire Damage to HVAC Systems Guide

Even taken literally, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” doesn’t always apply when talking about HVAC systems. If flames are across the room, smoke still has a way of traveling into places your policyholder may not notice. One of the prime locations is ductwork in commercial and residential HVAC systems, which could lead to additional concerns. And, though rarer, HVAC equipment could also ignite a fire.

Our guide covers both scenarios to ensure you have what you need to settle claims related to smoke and fire and HVAC systems. We outline six ways this peril could affect equipment, from the ductwork to the motors, and give a short overview of eight components that are most likely to start a fire and why.

Fill out the form to receive your guide for smoke and fire damage to HVAC systems to refer to when settling these kinds of claims.

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Smoke and Fire Damage to HVAC Systems

Smoke and fire damage can occur year round and be sparked by a variety of sources ranging from a lightning strike, an electrical malfunction, incident in the kitchen, or even a large-scale wildfire. Recent trends specifically demonstrate that wildfires are increasing in size and cost, which positions this peril as an increasingly complex risk. Additionally, smoke and fire damage can range vastly in severity and potentially spur additional damages such as mold or rust, making an HVAC claim even more complicated for adjusters to settle. Despite how complex these claims are, last year, 3 out of 4 smoke and fire damaged systems could be restored to pre-loss condition by way of repair. To help you further determine the variables that impact repair options for smoke and fire claims, we break down the multiple variables that can impact repair options and govern the severity of the damage in our HVAC Smoke and Fire Damage Adjuster Guide.

For additional information on the rising risk of wildfires on property claims, check out our blog.


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The Rising Wildfire Risk and Property Claims

Wildfire risk has been on the rise throughout the past decade. The first four months of 2017 have shown an increase of 20% in the number of wildfires compared to the beginning of 2016 (III), and 2015 set a new record of 68,151 wildfires burning 10,125,149 acres. Wildfires are a natural way for the ecosystem to remove dried brush, add nutrients to the soil, clear out invasive weeds, and allow sunlight to reach the floor of the forest, but climate changes and increased development have caused this natural phenomenon to become catastrophic with immense financial implications to the property and casualty insurance industry.

Packaged unit irreparably damaged by fire

One of the main reasons for increased wildfire is due to a change in climate in the United States.  According to the National Wildlife Federation, warming temperatures have led to an earlier seasonal snowmelt. Due to the earlier snowmelt, the ground and vegetation dry sooner, leading to a longer wildfire season. Additionally, the warmer temperatures have increased evaporation rates, which leads to drier conditions and more wildfires.

Another contributing factor to the increased wildfire risk is the expansion of urban development in wildland areas. According to Property Casualty 360, since 1990, 60% of all new housing units in the United States were constructed in wildland-urban interface zones. These zones are areas where people are inhabiting undeveloped natural lands, such as forests and grasslands. With more people living where wildfires naturally occur, wildfire risk management has become increasingly complex (US Department of Agriculture). Additionally, researchers at IBHS have discovered that windblown embers cause the most damage to homes during wildfires, particularly when homes are in clusters less than 15 feet apart.

2017 has already seen a large increase in wildfires. Long-term drought and high winds created a wildfire of epic proportions in parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Colorado in early March. It is estimated that the fires in Texas burned over 2 million acres (NOAA).

Wildfire Risk: Soot and Ash Clogged Condenser Coil

A condenser coil clogged with soot and ash following a wildfire 

This increased wildfire risk has immense financial implications for insurance carriers nationwide. Insurance Information Institute estimates insured wildfire losses at over $2 billion for 2015, and the wildfires that ravaged Gatlinburg, TN in the fall of 2016 caused over $500 million in property damages. In the Western United States alone, CoreLogic estimates almost 29 million properties are currently in a residential wildfire risk zone.

An important factor for insurance carriers to keep in mind, when attempting to control this increased wildfire risk, is that while wildfires can be potentially catastrophic for homes directly in the path, many HVAC systems that are subject to smoke damage from wildfires can easily be remedied by a simple repair.  For HVAC systems with claimed damage from wildfires in 2016, 94% of the systems could be returned to pre-loss condition with a repair, 4% were in proper working condition at the time of the onsite assessment, and only 2% required a full system replacement.

The most common repair action for losses reported due to wildfire is cleaning the condensing unit coil to remove ash and debris. The average cost for this repair in 2016 was $255. In some instances where the air handling unit was running during the wildfire, the ductwork and/or evaporator coil also required cleaning. The average cost for this repair in 2016 was $437. In extreme wildfire cases, where the fire actually reaches the home, individual components or the entire outdoor unit may need to be replaced. Finally, there are also instances where the fire compromises the entire system and either renders the system irreparable, or the repair cost exceeds that of the replacement. However, it is important to keep in mind that this scenario is very infrequent occurring only 2% of the time last year.

Soot and ash inside of a flex duct

Additionally, not all HVAC systems claimed as a wildfire loss are, in fact, related to Smoke/Fire damage. Out of the systems assessed by HVACi in 2016, 13% were found damaged due to age-related Wear & Tear, and 4% of the systems assessed for wildfire claims were found not to be damaged.

As this historical evidence shows, it is important for carriers to consider all options before simply settling for full system replacement on any claim, but particularly in the case of wildfires in the area.


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