Did you happen to catch a familiar voice on the radio this past weekend?
If so, you might have heard CSIA Education Director Ashley Eldridge’s 7-minute interview on the syndicated Real Estate Today on a radio station in your state. Hosted by veteran journalist Gil Gross, the topic of the Oct. 4 show was “Think Like a Home Inspector.”
Among the experts interviewed was Ashley. Listen to his segment here.
In the interview, Ashley talks about his own experience as a chimney sweep, the mystique surrounding the Mary influenced chimney sweep profession, and do-it-yourself techniques that the homeowner can employ. We even explain what can be done safely, and what’s best left up to a qualified professional such as a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep. (And, you can locate roughly 1,500 of our professionals at csia.org/search).
Unless someone is willing to get on the roof and risk ‘dusting’ their house just about every part of it is better left to a professional. And frankly the mechanical act of sweeping of the chimney is not as difficult as the intellectual exercise of inspecting it. That’s where you really need a professional.
Q: OK, first off, I have to ask. You are a professional Chimney Sweep – correct?
A: I have trained chimney sweeps for the past 30 years and before that swept thousands of chimneys for 14 years with my own company, everything from the White House to the smallest of homes.
Q: And do you actually have that distinctive chimney sweep’s hat and uniform? Do you ever wear it on the job? Or is that just a Hollywood thing?
A: I did that in the late 1970s; early in my career I wore my top hat and tails; the tails got a little shaky climbing up and down the ladders. I know many of our sweeps do embrace the history of the chimney sweeping, but it does gets people’s attention and allow you to have a serious conversation with them.
Q: You mentioned the White House, what was that like? I take it that you aren’t just allowed to work and do whatever you want?
A: No; the Secret Service was there with us every step of the way. We wore booties. I went first when Ronald Reagan was president, we actually went into the Executive Manson, and up into the living quarters, as well as the West Wing. It was very interesting to see the history there.
Q: Let’s get to our houses though. Most of us with a fireplace know we’re going to have to get it inspected and cleaned sooner or later … but let’s start with stuff we can possibly do ourselves as homeowners. What steps we can take to check out our fire boxes and chimneys. What should we be looking for?
A: 1) Well the first thing you want to look for is any cracks or missing mortar or bricks in the fireplace itself — in the firebox of the fireplace. 2) Something else that would be indicative of a problem would be staining, some smoke stains above the fireplace opening; 3) You’d want to make sure that your damper opens fully and closes securely … in some cases there is mortar in the track, that means when you push on the handle it literally gets out of the track and gets very messed up in there, so it does not flip back and forth on that track. 4) We also recommend that if you use the grate should not be over 2/3rd the size of the fireplace opening, so if for example the fireplace is 36 inches wide the grate should be no more than 24 inches … we don’t want to put the largest possible grate in that fireplace, because then there’s the risk of over-firing it; 5) There shouldn’t be any gap between the inner and outer hearth. If the outer hearth is settling at all, then sparks can go down into that gap. If there are gaps between the fire brick and the brick facing, on that fireplace, smoke can actually use that as a secondary chimney. So you may see the smoke staining at the crown molding, you know, where the wall joins the ceiling, there, that would be an indication that smoke is moving into that space
Q: OK, how much cleaning of our fireplaces and chimneys can we do ourselves … and when’s the time to call in the pro like yourself?
A: Well, unless someone is willing to get on the roof and risk ‘dusting’ their house, just about every part of it is better left to a professional. And frankly, the mechanical act of sweeping of the chimney is not as difficult as the intellectual exercise of inspecting it. That’s where you really need a professional. I would expect that the average homeowner would be able to scoop up the ash and put it in a sealed metal container, but as you may be aware, every winter we hear about people setting their home on fire by putting those same ashes in a paper bag or plastic bucket and putting it on the deck out back. So you know a lot of stuff we take for granted, you have to be very careful with this, because the coals can nestle into that ash and stay live for days.
Q: For homeowners who do have fireplaces, how often should they get them inspected?
A: What we recommend, and what the National Fire Protection Association recommends, is that it be inspected annually. There are things other soot that can collect in the chimney.
Q: And, can the homeowner inspect the flue? It’s very hard to inspect, since it’s up the chimney a foot or so, where it’s dark, crusted with soot, and pretty dirty also. Can a homeowner even check the flue?
A: Sure. Well, actually what you do is open the damper … and shine a flashlight in through the throat of the fireplace, and take a yardstick or a poker and reach up in there as far as you can, and scrape the walls that you see. If you see a lot of crud falling off it then that’s a pretty good indication that the chimney needs to be swept. Professional chimney sweeps actually use a video camera so they can assess the interior condition of that chimney from top to bottom with a very close up view that you obviously wouldn’t get looking from the top or the bottom.
Q: Now, hardwoods are the best to burn – pine is the worst, I’ve heard that. But you can you explain why? And what each type of wood does to your chimney?
A: Really, it’s more a function of the moisture content (of the wood) than the species. Clearly, we favor seasoned wood. The BTUs being released in burning the wood are going to be used either to drive the moisture off, or to provide you with heat. So if you have wet wood more than 25% moisture content, not only is there a lot of moisture in the smoke, but it is more inclined to stick in the chimney. So the relative dryness of the wood is more important than the species itself. We recommend that the lighter woods like pine or poplar be used in the fall and in the spring when you don’t need a whole lot of heat, and save the hickory and locust and oak for the colder parts of the winter, when they tend to coal up and last much longer because of their relative density…. (Wood) should be cut to the size of your forearm, maybe 18 inches long, dried for at least 6 months and covered so that when it rains or snows, it doesn’t gather up more moisture.
Note: There was one question that Gil asked that did not air, but in which we filmed, about the difference between a jack-of-all trades person and a chimney sweep. Ashley replied, “We want to make sure the homeowner gets the best quality inspection from the best qualified person such as a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep.” You can watch his answer from a video upload to our Facebook page. Again, you can find a sweep using our zip-code locator at CSIA.ORG/search
Also check out our homeowner tips, including the most frequently asked questions.