Opening Up Walls Can Cause Less Damage Than You Think

Opening Up Walls Can Cause Less Damage Than You Think


The Volunteers Corner

We have become so brainwashed about causing excessive damage when opening up walls and concealed spaces that we sometimes fail to evaluate the cost of repairs in relation to the certainty of extinguishing the fire.

Naturally, no fire fighter wishes to rip out more than is absolutely necessary, but on the other hand, every fire fighter tries to knock down a fire as quickly as possible and make certain that there is no spark left for a rekindle.

Let’s take a look at fires in walls and partitions, which cause much of the confusion about how much structural material should be removed. In last month’s column, we described the use of a bayonet, or piercing, applicator on a 1 1/2-inch line to extinguish fire inside walls. The hole made by an applicator in dry wall construction is small enough to be repaired with a paste filler—a simple job. In a plaster wall, the applicator may break out a larger area and the repair work will be a little more extensive. However, the damage will still be minimal.

Larger holes: If the wall or partition cools off rapidly and smoke no longer comes out small holes, you can conclude that the fire has been extinguished. But what if you still suspect fire in the wall? Then you must open up a larger hole to inspect the area inside the wall. This means a hole that is too large to be repaired easily, and this is where evaluation of damage can be helpful.

Once a hole in a dry wall is too large to be filled with paste, the practical way to repair the wall is to replace the damaged sheet, which is usually 4 x 8 feet or longer. Homeowners will insist on this if they know anything about the problem. So how does this affect the fire fighter searching for hidden fire? Logically, once he has made a nonrepairable hole in a dry-wall sheet, the fire fighter has no reason for any qualms about taking out the entire sheet if necessary to make certain that all fire has been extinguished.

While the repair work on a plaster wall is different if a sizable hole has been made, similar cost evaluation is applicable. In this case, the emphasis is on labor time. If the hole is just large enough to need work by a plasterer, the contractor will charge at least half a day’s pay for the plasterer (and possibly a helper) for each visit. Thus, a larger hole needed to spot clean wood in a partition fire won’t add anything to the repair cost (except possibly a bit of material) as long as it’s less than half a day’s job for each plaster coat.

Paneled walls: Another type of wall that is frequently encountered is the paneled wall—made with either 4-footwide plywood or 6 to 12-inch boards. If the plywood is prefinished, as most of it is these days, and relatively new, the owner might be satisfied by replacement of the damaged panel. But if the panel is old enough for the tone to be slightly different from that of a replacement panel, the chances are that damage to any one panel will result in replacing all the paneling on the wall.

Boards that have been stained present a similar problem in that it is difficult, if not impossible, to replace a board on a wall without the difference in stain tone being unduly noticeable. Again, the owner invariably insists on replacing the entire wall.

From this, you can see that you should not hesitate to rip out enough boards, or plywood panels, to be absolutely certain that there is no fire left in the wall.

When you have fire in a paneled partition, it pays to see what’s on the other side. The chances are that the other side is dry wall or plaster and it is both easier and more economical to open up the partition from this side. With the outside walls of a room, of course, you have no choice but to remove the paneling.

Removing molding: Concealed spaces around windows and doors have to be opened up when fire is suspected in these areas. The problem is how to remove the molding, and even a baseboard, without damaging it unduly.

When time is available, use a nail set to drive the finishing nails all the way through the molding. It takes a little time to spot the nails because they are concealed beneath putty and paint. However, once the nails have been driven through, the molding can then be pried loose from the adhering paint with a ripping chisel, sometimes called a floor chisel.

When time is short, start prying up molding by gently tapping the blade of ripping chisel beneath the molding, preferably near a nail at one end of the strip. Continue doing this until you reach the other end. If the molding cannot be removed by prying with the ripping chisel, you can continue prying with an 18 or 24-inch ripping bar, which has sharper bends than the chisel and affords greater leverage. With luck, some of the molding can be salvaged.

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