- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Jimmy Mayo is the very model of a modern chimney sweep someone as economically astute as he is physically agile. Like many others in his profession, he is quick to defend the practical as well as the romantic use of fireplaces and wood stoves but warns that neglect of flues and chimneys has financial consequences as well as potentially fatal ones.

Chimney cleaning, which costs $80 to $100, is a fairly straightforward process that may take no longer than 20 minutes, depending on the construction of the chimney and whether any problems are revealed. The tools are simple, consisting mostly of a ladder to reach the roof, when necessary, and a long metal pole with extensions below a stiff 14-inch-wide brush. The chimney cap is removed, and the brush is inserted from above.

More cleaning is done from below, in the area known as the firebox. An electric vacuum finishes the job. Typically, a sweep uses a metal wire brush for masonry and a plastic one for a metal chimney.

Proper care, Mr. Mayo warns, is far more complicated than simply checking periodically for the hazardous residue called creosote, the unburned substance from a wood-fueled fire that builds up inside the walls. Left untended, creosote, which is highly flammable, can cause chimney fires.

The founder of Jimney's Chimneys Inc. in Silver Spring regards his job almost as a science. He knows numbers as well as tools. His business card bears the insignia of an old-fashioned sweep a tiny figure in a black stovepipe hat bearing an umbrella atop a chimney but in person, he is the embodiment of an efficiency expert spouting advice and counsel at every turn.

Contemporary chimney sweeps like him rely on cell phones and Web sites to get their message across. They use brushes of plastic and wire rather than straw. They know all about building codes and insurance policies and consider themselves as essential to a homeowner's peace of mind as the plumber and electrician.

Just ask Sherry and John vander Zwet, a Silver Spring couple who recently called on Mr. Mayo to clean and inspect their main fireplace chimney and give them guidance on installing a wood stove in a second fireplace in another part of the house. They were concerned about local weather forecasters' predictions of a cold winter ahead, but even more, they worried about what would happen if they lost power in a storm.

"We were going to get a wood stove to save on heating bills but also because we fear what happens if the electricity goes out," Mrs. vander Zwet says. "Two years ago, a lot of people in the neighborhood didn't have heat or electricity for 12 hours. Of course, we kept the fireplace going. The living room will get the wood stove because we use that room more. Jimmy will connect the wood stove we select to a stainless-steel liner and put the liner inside the chimney."

The first order of the day was checking the furnace/boiler flue to determine wheth -er it vents into one of the chimneys. A flue is a duct that allows smoke to escape up the chimney.

"Moreand more homes are venting gas in masonry chimneys," Mr. Mayo says. "When a home is converting from oil to gas, new codes call for metal tubes to be put in the chimney to replace the tiles. A lot of time, if the tiles in the chimney walls are collapsing, you will get carbon monoxide from those appliances coming back into the house."

Another possible problem arises when wood stoves are installed improperly, he says. "Wood stoves are the number one cause of chimney fires. If they are just shoved inside a fireplace with only a 6-inch vent, that results in the hot air cooling down quickly and condensing. That condensation causes the smoke to stick, which is basically creosote."

The vander Zwet family already had a metal top-closing damper that sits atop a chimney and is essential to ensure that a fireplace actually produces heat and doesn't send most of its warmth up the chimney, Mr. Mayo says. Although the damper's $325 price sounds high, he estimates that the device can save as much as $250 a year in heating and cooling costs. The stainless-steel cap, which covers the opening of the flue with a rain cover and a mesh animal guard, has a lifetime guarantee.

"I'll sell [400 to 500] of them a year," he says. "Basically, the product sells itself."

A normal fireplace takes more heat out of a room than it puts in, he concedes. "You open most flues, and you lose heat because the cast-iron throat damper isn't well positioned. This one has a stainless-steel cable that operates off a handle mounted inside the fireplace, and you can regulate how open or closed it is. With a damper at the top instead of at the bottom the way most dampers are made, you get a full draft area and twice the amount of draft.

"It also will help a fireplace that doesn't burn very well. And it makes it worth burning a fire because it can seal in heat in the winter and keep cool air inside in summer. In winter, it turns your fireplace into a wood stove, getting as close to the efficiency of a wood stove as you can possibly get. Most wood stoves, when correctly installed, give up 70 percent more heat than a fireplace."

How often does a chimney need to be cleaned and inspected?

"The National Chimney Sweep Guild recommends annual inspections, but I'll be honest with you. A cord of wood constitutes a quarter-inch of [creosote] buildup, which indicates a need for cleaning," Mr. Mayo says.

Homeowners should not use green unseasoned wood or Christmas trees in a fireplace because neither burns cleanly, he warns. "I burn oak and poplar in my fireplace, and I burn four or five cords a year. I keep it going all the time," he adds.

Another frequently asked question is about the qualifications of people who set themselves up in business, because no one needs a license for chimney cleaning and few homeowners know much about the inside of chimneys and the technical matters involved. Two resources to visit are the Web sites for the National Chimney Sweep Guild (www.ncsg.org) and the Chimney Safety Institute of America (www.csia.org), which offer tips on fireplaces and fireplace safety.

Mr. Mayo's wife, Erika, who works with him on the business end, says membership in the guild, which is essentially a trade association, is "nice for the business but not necessarily for the homeowner."

Although Mr. Mayo is a member of the guild, she says she regards possession of a license from the Maryland State Home Improvement Commission along with certification of insurance both of which their company has as a better guarantee for the customer.

The license involves an exam for people who do repairs on homes. The couple also freely distribute informative institute-produced pamphlets with titles such as "The Importance of Flue Lining in Your Masonry Chimney" and "Facts About Chimney Fires: Causes & Cures."

Just when the homeowner thinks he has taken care of all safety factors, he will be told about the danger of chimney swifts nesting atop a chimney if no proper cover is in place to keep them out.

The species is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918. Neither the birds nor their nests can be touched, and nests can't be removed until the birds fly off usually in August or September, which, fortunately, comes before the fall and winter chill.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide