When most people think of chimney sweeps, they conjure an image of a soot-covered child in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Chimney sweeping is an ancient profession. Records of people earning their living by clean chimneys go back as far as the 16th century.
However, in a world in which modern conveniences such as central heating have largely replaced the once ubiquitous coal and wood fires used to heat homes, one could easily assume that chimney sweeps no longer exist. This would, however, be a false assumption: chimney sweeps are not the anachronisms most people presume them to be, but thoroughly modern professional tradesmen. If you are one of the growing number of people who have a functioning coal or wood fire in your home, it might well be in your interests to acquaint yourself with a modern day chimney sweep.
Old-fashioned fireplaces are becoming increasingly coveted, and for good reason: a well restored fireplace can add great character to a room, and, if it is well-maintained, can be an excellent source of heat during the cold winter months. However, the benefits of having a real coal or wood fire in your home must be balanced by dedicating a little time and money to ensuring that your fireplace functions both safely and efficiently.
The National Association of Chimney Sweeps defines the primary role of the modern chimney sweep as "to aid in the prevention of chimney fires and reduce the risk of dangerous fume emissions from blocked heating appliances, flueways and chimneys." This article seeks to address some frequently asked questions, and to explain how a chimney sweep could help you to maintain a safer, more efficient fireplace.
How a fireplace works
As a fire burns in a fireplace, the air from the room goes through the grate and fuels the fire. As the fire burns, it releases numerous gases which rise, as they are lighter than the surrounding air. These gases then escape up the chimney and are released into the atmosphere. As these substances pass through the chimney, a substance commonly referred to as soot begins to accumulate on the walls. This includes a flammable substance called creosote. Over time, these deposits can begin to obstruct - and eventually completely block – the chimney.
Such an obstruction can lead to an inefficient, and potentially unsafe, fireplace. This can be explained by the fact that a well-functioning chimney is necessary not only to allow potentially harmful gases to escape from the room, but also to ensure that the fire burns efficiently.
As hot air ascends in the chimney, the fire sucks in more air from the room through the grate, in order to fill the space that has been left. Without this continuous supply of air, the fire would burn itself out. Deposits of flammable substances such as creosote also have the potential to cause chimney fires. Thus, a clean chimney is also a safer, more efficient chimney.
Can't I clean my chimney myself?
If you have a day to devote to the task, lots of patience and the necessary equipment, it is possible to clean your chimney yourself. Bear in mind, however, that chimney sweeping can be a somewhat messy process! Make sure that you cover the fireplace and carpet with plastic or a dust sheet before you begin.
It is now possible to rent a vacuum cleaner specifically designed for cleaning chimneys from most DIY stores. This may be adequate if the chimney is in reasonably good condition, but it is unlikely to be of much use if the chimney has been neglected for a prolonged period or if there is a lot of impacted soot. If you cannot see far enough up the chimney to discern whether or not this is the case, or are unsure, it would probably be better to consult a professional chimney sweep than to risk overlooking an obstruction that might be a safety hazard.
It is also possible to purchase chemicals which can be put onto the fire before it is lit. When these chemicals burn, they produce a gas which breaks down most of the substances commonly deposited inside chimneys. It is worth remembering that it is inevitable that loosened soot will end up crashing down into your fireplace, so be prepared for a fairly time-consuming clean-up!
If you would prefer not to attempt either of these more modern methods, you could always hire some brushes. This takes a lot of patience and can be physically tiring. You will also need a sturdy ladder and quality footwear if you want to examine your chimney from the roof.
If you choose to maintain your own chimney, it is worth remembering that keeping the chimney clean will not be your only task; routine maintenance tasks ought not to be overlooked. For example, firebacks will inevitably become damaged by the heat of the fire, and cracks may begin to appear. It is possible to do a patch-up job on smaller cracks, but in the event of larger cracks appearing, it is best to install a replacement. Whilst it is also possible to do both of these jobs yourself with the aid of a good DIY manual, it might be more convenient to consider hiring a professional.