Life of a chimney sweep: It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it

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Bert the Chimney Sweep had a spring in his step, even when the soot was flowing.
Bert the Chimney Sweep had a spring in his step, even when the soot was flowing.

MANCHESTER, NH – By the time winter rolls around, John Ceaser is up to his elbows in soot. The calls for chimney cleaning and repair are constant.

Screen Shot 2017 12 06 at 6.33.14 PMHe prefers to do the routine cleanings in the off-season, as this time of year he’s swamped with calls for service. But generally speaking, the public doesn’t think so much about their chimneys as Ceaser does – until it’s time to crank up the heat.

January and February are the busiest months, for sure – not only for chimney sweeps like Ceaser, but for fire crews who are often dispatched to house fires, many of them due to chimney or fireplace malfunction. According to the National Fire Safety Administration, chimney fires account for about 84 percent of house fires nationally.

The most common culprit is creosote build-up, says Ceaser.

Before (top) and after a chimney fire. After this one was cleaned, chimney sweep John Ceaser found a crack on the left side of the chimney.

Creosote is the “gunk” found inside a chimney, a byproduct of burning wood. There are different grades, says Ceaser, depending on how often a chimney is used and the grade of wood being burned.

“I come across many people who cut wood from their backyard, and so the type of wood matters that you’re burning, but also the age,” says Ceaser. “You want it to dry out for at least a year before you burn it. I see a lot of people who cut wood in the summer and then burn it in the fall – you get a more dangerous creosote that way.”

The other problem is that when it ignites, creosote expands until is completely blocks a chimney, which is often how trouble is first detected.

Something homeowners are often surprised to learn is that the national fire code calls for chimneys to be inspected at least once every year.

“Really, anything connected to heating apparatus should be checked. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be cleaned, but in my experience, the average home owners have no idea that for safety reasons, chimneys should be inspected every year. I have a lot of people say when I come out to their homes that it’s been four or five years since they had it looked at –  and I cringe. It’s just one of those things people don’t know, or don’t think about.”

John Ceaser of Ceaser Chimney Service LLC sweeping a chimney.
John Ceaser of Ceaser Chimney Service LLC sweeping a chimney.

Aside from creosote build-up, many New Hampshire chimneys suffer from water damage – the annual freezing temperatures take a toll.

“Actually, water damage is worse at destroying chimneys than anything. People think of  brick as strong and durable, but between rain water, snow and ice, over time, they can ruin a chimney,” Ceaser says.

Although Ceaser has been cleaning chimneys since 2009, he only launched his business, Ceaser Chimney Service LLC, about three years ago.

“I was in the military, and got a job with a sweep as a summer job and just fell in love with it. I never intended on this being a career, but one thing led to another,” says Ceaser. “It’s an interesting business to be in. It’s such a traditional business, and such an important service up here in New Hampshire, where almost every house heats through the chimney – whether they know it or not.”

Many customers are also surprised to know that even though they don’t use a wood or pellet stove, their oil or gas house heating system or water heater are vented through their chimney.

“Even furnaces and water heaters need to be inspected regularly. Those gases are toxic and acidic and eat away at a chimney,” Ceaser says. “I’ve been out to clean a fireplace for someone and have to tell them, ‘Oh, by the way – half your chimney is eaten away.’ They have no idea that masonry damage is just as much a problem as a dirty chimney.”

A final word of caution from Ceaser is that homeowners should make sure any sweep they call is trained and certified through the Chimney Safety Institute of America. You can find a list of local sweeps there.

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Creosote expands when it ignites, and can completely block a chimney or flue.

“Too many guys with brushes and ladders are running around taking advantage of people without the proper training,” Ceaser says.

Facts about home heating fires from the U.S. Fire Administration

  • From 2010-2012, an average of 45,200 home heating fires occurred in the United States each year and resulted in an annual average of approximately 155 deaths, 625 injuries and $351 million in property loss.
  • Heating was the second leading cause of home fires following cooking.
  • Home heating fires peaked in the early evening hours between 5 and 9 p.m. with the highest peak between 6 and 8 p.m. This four-hour period accounted for 30 percent of all home heating fires.
  • Home heating fires peaked in January (21 percent) and declined to the lowest point during the summer months from June to August.
  • Confined fires, those fires confined to chimneys, flues or fuel burners, accounted for 84 percent of home heating fires.
  • Twenty-nine percent of the non-confined home heating fires occurred because the heat source was too close to things that can burn.

About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!