Home for the Holidays; "Chim Chiminey, Chim Chiminey, Chim Chim Cher-ee!"
Whether you want to add a little romance to your life, or warmth and cheer to your holiday gatherings, more and more Americans are lighting up the home fires. With crude oil prices topping out at $50 a barrel, cranking up the fireplace and woodstoves when the weather outside is frightful can be an extra heat source for cold winter days and a great savings in energy and fuel costs.
There are more than 22 million fireplaces in the United States and millions of wood-burning stoves. Here in Annapolis, many an older home has a traditional masonry fireplace serving as the focal point. New home owners often opt for newly designed gas fireplace units that simulate the look of burning wood logs, foregoing the wood stacking, crumpled newspapers and ash clean-up requirements of wood burning fireplaces. However you take the chill off the winter this season, as you make your lists and check them twice, a chimney sweep should be at the top of your "To Do" list.
Dana Winter, owner of Ye Olde Chimney Sweeps, likes to land at the top. Although his occupation can be dirty and dangerous, he's a guy enchanted by his trade. "I like getting up on the roof, meeting new people and seeing the kids, the whole Mary Poppins thing."
And while the legendary lore of the luck of the chimney sweep keeps him smiling, Winter takes his job seriously. Fireplaces are fires waiting to happen according to Winter. The biggest mistake homeowners make is assuming their fireplaces are maintenance free. "You should get your chimney cleaned every time you've burned a cord or a cord and a half of wood (that's a stack 4 feet wide by 4 feet high by 8 feet long) or if you have fires three to four times a week during the season. For some people that means a sweep every year, for others who use their fireplaces only a few times during the holiday season that may mean every two to three years."
Chimney inspection is one of the most overlooked aspects of operating a wood stove or fireplace but it's a vital part of home safety. Even owners of vented gas fireplaces need chimney checkups to reduce the risk of fumes venting improperly into the house due to an obstructed or damaged chimney, he says. "Furnace flues are also often neglected but they too need proper cleaning to function properly and safely."
Winter cleans over 1,000 chimneys a year. Typically, his busiest season is fall when homeowners start cleaning out closets for winter clothes and think about the upcoming blistery nights. "We're swamped in the fall, but the best time to inspect and clean out chimneys is actually in the spring, right after the burning season, or early summer."
So what exactly do chimney sweeps clean and how do they do it?
The sweep business is more than 300 years old. Steel wire brushes, not that different from the ones used hundreds of years ago, are still the mainstay of the trade. Flexible extension rods, high powered vacuums and closed circuit camera systems to inspect the entire chimney system; the flashing, joints, flue lining, and chimney cap: these make it easier for many sweeps to do their job. Brushing from the top, however, is still the most effective way to clean creosote, the most potentially hazardous substance in any chimney.
Creosote is a by product of burning wood. This highly flammable tar-like substance is what builds up and leads to many chimney fires. Winter cautions that although all wood burned gives off creosote, the harder the wood and the more seasoned it is, the less creosote it produces. Homeowners can periodically check the buildup themselves by shining a flashlight just above the damper. If they can identify a quarter of an inch buildup of black or brown residue, crusty or shiny, it's time to call a chimney sweep.
Bob Fleer, the owner of Complete Chimneys, Inc. in Severna Park, first got into the sweep business 25 years ago. "I had a degree in hotel and restaurant management and then the recession hit." In his dream to own his own business he happened upon a book about chimney sweeping. "I started out learning the profession through books and then testing what I'd learned by cleaning my friends' chimneys as a present for the holidays. You could say I traded hamburgers for chimneys but I haven't looked back since."
Back in the day, Fleer was a top hat and tails sweep wearing the traditional black garb, but he quit the tails when one too many steps backwards onto a ladder at 60 feet almost sent him sailing. Today he runs seven sweeping and repair service vehicles averaging six jobs a day five days a week. Fleer's advice to homeowners who want to safely enjoy the fire's glow is simple:
Clear all combustibles from around
Crack open a window, especially in newer homes that are air tight.
Open and preheat the damper by holding a wad of burning paper up close to the damper to start the upwards draft.
Use four or five pieces of kindling or a starter block to light a fire. Never gas.
Aim for building a hot fire with low flames, not smoldering and not blazing.
"Fireplaces are not recycling bins," explains Fleer. "Gift wrap and trimmings don't belong in the fireplace. Neither do the take-out pizza boxes from Monday night football. They're full of grease and can cause real damage, real quick." He adds that even those with gas fireplaces and ventless gas logs need to be on holiday alert this time of year. "Especially when you're having a party, make sure there's a screen across the front and that it's secured so people can't open it. The last thing you want is for some guest, thinking it's a wood burning fireplace, to throw a paper plate or napkin onto the logs."
As for the sweep mystique, both Winter and Fleer love the legends of the lucky sweeps and sometimes play into it. "I don't do any dancing up there, unless someone asks me to," Winter laughs. "But I do play the fiddle. And I have thought about bringing it up there and playing a tune, like that Fiddler on the Roof."