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Before blazing, check chimney

Keeping your chimney clean is important as colder temperatures near. Area chimney sweeps are ready to help.

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002

TAMPA -- Flue season is upon us. That means it's time to protect yourself. Not against aches and pains, but against the risks of a chimney fire.

"Fireplaces need to be maintained," says James Rydill, owner of Coastal Chimney. "People use them, and they don't realize there's a heavy buildup of creosote."

Creosote is a highly flammable residue and can cause a fire that will bring a house down.

Although chemical chimney cleaners, such as chimney-cleaning logs, have come into vogue in recent years, the Chimney Safety Institute of America says such methods are inadequate on their own.

The institute's Web site advises, "Chimney maintenance is best achieved through annual inspections, and mechanical sweeping, by trained professional chimney sweeps as frequently as needed."

If your vision of a chimney sweep is a man dressed in black with a top hat and tails, you may be seeing Larry Ivey at your front door. He doesn't sing and dance when he's cleaning fireplaces. But he looks like he could.

When he shows up at a home to sweep a chimney, he arrives decked out in top hat, tails and a bright orange scarf, long wire brush in tow.

He looks like he just stepped off the set of Mary Poppins. The brush is essential to his work. The outfit is for show.

"People always asked me, 'Where's your hat and jacket?"' he says. Now he wears them. And when he's asked the inevitable, "Where's Mary Poppins?" question, "I tell them I stuck her up a chimney."

Ivey has found all kinds of things when cleaning out chimneys. Squirrels, raccoons, birds. Confederate money once. But no nannies.

Usually, he just removes lots of soot.

Most experts recommend having your fireplace inspected annually. Inspections reveal hidden structural damage that may increase chances of a fire. In Florida, where fireplaces aren't used nearly as often as in cooler climes, it's probably not necessary to have them swept every year.

"It's according to use, what kind of wood you use," Rydill says.

Never use pine, says Ivey. It releases a tarry substance that will quickly gum up a chimney. Ditto for paper logs, he says. They cause a buildup of wax residue that can clog a chimney to the point that carbon dioxide can't escape.

"I've seen an 8-inch pipe reduced to a 3-inch pipe. Then they call me because they don't know why smoke is coming in the house," Ivey says.

In Tampa, there are few chimney sweeps. The Yellow Pages lists fewer than 10 in Tampa, and they stay busy.

"If you wait until it gets cold, you might have to wait a few weeks for us to get to you," says Travis Allred, manager of Kugel Quality Fireplaces.

Horst Kugel has installed, restored and cleaned fireplaces for nearly 50 years. He says it's particularly important to have an inspection and cleaning if a fireplace is very old. If you move into an old house, he recommends not stoking up the fireplace until you have an inspection.

"A lot of old fireplaces don't have chimney caps or dampers, which allows water to come in and it causes a lot of damage over time," Kugel says.

Plus, he says, old fireplaces are often built with 4-inch bricks rather than 12-inch bricks, which are required by today's fire codes. Cracks in the mortar of an old 4-inch chimney can allow flames to fly into the attic or the wood structure of the house and cause a fire. Kugel says he can either rebuild those old chimneys or line them with stainless steel to make them fireproof.

Chimney sweeps appeared nearly 200 years ago, Ivey says, after chimney fires destroyed neighborhoods in England. Laws required that chimneys be cleaned every six months, he says. The chimneys were built with steps inside so that chimney sweeps, typically orphaned children, could easily work their way up the chimney while scrubbing off the soot. But the children started dying of lung disease from breathing toxic dust, and the practice was abolished.

The top-hat-and-tails tradition began because the first chimney sweeps were outcasts. They figured if they gussied up a bit, they'd be more accepted by the rest of society, Ivey says.

Legend has it that in Ireland it was common to lower a goose tied to a rope down the chimney and then pull it back up, Ivey says. When the goose panicked and flapped its wings, it would clean the chimney.

"They used to say the blacker the bird, the cleaner the chimney," Ivey says.

In the mid-1800s, brushes with flexible handles that could be lengthened with screw-on extensions were invented. Wire brushes are used for masonry chimneys. Nylon brushes are used for prefabricated chimneys, which are made from steel.

"The brushes haven't changed all that much," says Ivey. "We still have to use elbow grease."

He recently cleaned a masonry chimney in the Davis Islands home of William Terry. Terry bought his house, built in the mid-1940s, two years ago. He added prefabricated fireplaces in the master bedroom and living room. The masonry fireplace in the family room is part of the home's original construction.

"I don't think it's ever been cleaned," Terry says. "I figured it was getting cold, if I wanted to build a fire in there, I better get it cleaned out. I just wanted to make sure it didn't catch on fire when I use it this winter."

Chimneys can be cleaned from top to bottom or bottom to top. The soot removed from the chimney drops into the fireplace and then is scooped out. A high-powered vacuum sucks up the dust generated throughout the process.

"Dust control is a big part of the business," Rydill says.

The cost of a chimney cleaning depends on whether the home has one or two stories, but it's usually between $100 and $150. It takes less than two hours to complete the job.

Clean sweep

The Tampa Fire Department offers these tips to reduce the risk of chimney fires:

-- Have your chimney inspected annually and cleaned if necessary.

-- Keep a glass or metal screen in front of the fireplace opening to prevent embers or sparks from jumping out.

-- Do not use flammable liquids to start or accelerate a fire.

-- Never burn charcoal indoors, as it can give off lethal amounts of carbon monoxide.

-- Do not use excessive amounts of paper to build raging fires in fireplaces. It is possible to ignite creosote in the chimney by overbuilding the fire.

-- Never close your damper with hot ashes in the fireplace. This can cause the ashes to heat up again and force toxic carbon monoxide into the house.

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