Fireplaces add warmth and value to any home, but they must be maintained if you don't want to get burned. As Alan Herring, better known around town as Al the Chimney Sweep, puts it, "A house full of warmth is wonderful. A house full of smoke — not so much."
A professional chimney sweep for more than 30 years, he's treated hundreds of fireplaces, and has pretty much seen it all.
"There are some calls I'm so happy I took," he says, "because the homeowner either had no idea how to properly start a fire, or there was so much buildup the person very likely would have died from smoke inhalation."
So what does a typical job for a professional chimney sweep entail? The title itself conjures up Dickensian-era images of young boys with grimy faces being forced to work for pennies in cramped, sooty spaces. Herring laughs at the comparison: "Everything changes with time, including how we do our jobs."
In other words, you won't find Herring or any of his crew climbing down your chimney Santa-style. Most jobs these days are done from inside the home at the base of the fireplace. The surrounding area is covered carefully with drop cloths, then vacuums, hoses, rods and brushes are brought in.
"We clean from the bottom to the top," explains Herring. "Most chimneys these days have what is known as a smoke shelf, and that catches most of the debris. We'll vacuum that up first, then work our way up. Very rarely will we have to go from the top down, but if we have to, that's what we do." Older homes often have a fireplace insert — a glorified woodstove pushed into and vented through the fireplace. While more efficient — Herring says this type of device created 10 times the heat of a regular fireplace — with that extra heat comes extra creosote, the sticky residue left over from burning wood. If a fire burns hot enough, creosote will build up inside the chimney. Left untreated, it can turn into a tar-like substance, and that's when things get smelly, even dangerous. Too much soot in the chimney is likely to cause a chimney fire.
"A fire in the chimney, if it's hot enough, can crack the liners and then they'll have to be replaced," says Herring. "That's thousands of dollars alone. If the fire burns too long the entire side of the chimney could catch, and then we're talking a real house fire."
And for those of us who use the tried-and-true method of rolling up the newspaper to get the flames going, understand that while this is effective, it also creates a lot of debris to float up and clog the chimney.
"You'd be surprised what you'll find when something seems to be blocking the space," laughs Herring. "It could be that the homeowners simply didn't know to open the damper [to allow the smoke out] or it could be that something is stuck in there. Once I found half of a duck. Seems a raccoon had got him, had a snack, and left him there. The homeowner obviously complained of the smoke coming in but also of the smell."
So what are Herring's top tips for us 'smore-making, fireplace-loving homeowners? First, burn seasoned wood, aged at least six to eight months, as sap from fresh-cut wood burns upward and sticks to the chimney. Next, split the wood into small pieces that can ignite quickly. "I've seen some people with chunks of wood so big you'd need a flamethrower to start 'em," says Herring.
And the most common mistake? Not opening the damper to release the smoke.
A once-a-year treatment, Herring says, is all you need to ensure an odor-free, safe family fireplace. An average visit will run homeowners around $100, depending on the labor required, and of course, the price goes up per chimney. That's a small price to pay for peace of mind, not to mention toasty toes, when the weather outside is frightful.