When someone says chimney sweep, the image that comes to mind is one of smudged-black cheeks and Victorian England.
Or perhaps it’s Dick Van Dyke, the most famous chimney sweep of all.
“Chim-chimney, chim-chimney, chim chim cheree,” he sang, in the 1964 musical “Mary Poppins.”
With improvements in worker safety, the days of climbing into chimneys and being covered in soot are long over. That doesn’t mean the industry is fazing out. In fact, South Whidbey’s chimney sweeps are up to their necks in business.
“All I can say is I have more work than I can handle,” said Billy Leffley, owner of Protec Chimney Services on East Harbor Road. “Chimney sweeps are still around and I’m probably busier than I’ve ever been.”
His is one of two chimney sweep businesses on South Whidbey. The other, All Serv Chimney Services, is also congested with business. The two have managed to bring in consistent work over the years, despite fewer people seeming to burn wood in their homes, according to Leffler. Many new homes aren’t initially built with fire places or wood stoves, but that doesn’t seem to cut into business, as Leffler points out that many people will add a wood burning apparatus.
Although chimney use is less common that it once was, the old chimney sweep image continues to stick.
“There’s a big vision from the public of what chimney sweeping looks like,” Rick Hixon, owner of All Serv Chimney Services said. “They’ve watched too much Mary Poppins.”
Although the job doesn’t normally entail climbing into chimneys, cleaning methods are more or less the same. A brush remains the primary tool, although it’s used in concert with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuum. Each chimney sweep claims to have their own method of cleaning, and many keep their process close to the chest. Various methods have been employed over the years, some more creative and some more questionable than others.
“There’s a lot of interesting chimney sweep folklore,” Hixon said. “Orphan boys used to climb up the chimneys in Victoria-era England since they could fit. At some point, some sweeps used geese. They would light a fire under the goose and it would fly up through the chimney and clean the dust as it flapped its wings.”
Regardless of the method, South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer says chimney maintenance is essential. The smoldering fire of a fireplace or wood stove builds up creosote over time, which is what Palmer says catches fire. Even after a summer of non-use, a chimney can still catch fire if the creosote from the previous winter hasn’t been swept.
There were eight chimney fires on South Whidbey in 2016, and two that have happened in the current calendar year.
“Chimneys should be cleaned once a year; the creosote may still be there even if you haven’t used it all summer,” Palmer said. “Chimney fires are not a common occurrence, but its something that is 100 percent preventable.”
The chimney sweep industry has had its ups and downs over the years. Hixon says when natural gas prices rise, people typically scramble to utilize the pile of chopped wood in their backyards. The energy crunch of the ’70s and early ’80s brought the heyday of wood stoves, when Hixon said wood stove sales increased about 600 percent while gas prices soared. Business was also good during Y2K; people were in survival mode and ready to rely on wood for warmth, he said.
Comparatively, business is plentiful on Whidbey. Leffler says most of his customers prefer the drier radiant heat emitted from wood as opposed to convection heat. And although a tree must come down to supply the wood, it’s biomass fuel. Hixon says that means most of his customers are eco-conscious, and he doesn’t see that trend changing anytime soon.
“A lot of my customers are pretty green,” Hixon said. “People like not having to be connected to a power grid or an energy company. That off-the-grid mentality leaves us with a good amount of business.”