‘Chimney sweeps’: it’s a phrase that conjures up images of Victorian London, the Edwardian era, of malnourished little boys, exploited for child labour, of Bert the Sweep from Mary Poppins all covered with soot, of thick pea-souper fogs that provided the perfect cover for Jack the Ripper and other historical images. Some of you might start humming the show tune of chim-chimney, chim-chimney, chim-chim-cheroo. Aren’t those London ash and soot cleaners thing of the past, gone the way of the crinoline and smartly uniformed housemaids that make up coal fires in every room, probably because there are no longer maids who make up coal fires in the rooms?
The Modern Old Chimney Factor
Well, not if you are one of the many people who have (re)discovered the benefits of having a wood stove or Aga burner for cooking, heating water and heating the home. Fires, both wood and coal, still play their role in keeping us warm, even in these days when we’re more conscious of carbon footprints and sustainability. After all, there’s nothing quite as comforting as the glow and flicker of a fireplace (and they work during power cuts!).
Wood fires are more sustainable than you think, in spite of how they release smoke from chimneys. Modern stove, chimney and burner designs have been developed to burn as efficiently as possible, meaning that less smoke gets into the atmosphere. However, even the best fireplace doesn’t burn all the fuel perfectly – but this is where they help act as carbon sinks. The unburnt ash and soot is more or less straight carbon, and it can be buried, meaning that it doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gases anymore, except very indirectly after having been taken up by a plant and put back into the great natural cycle. In fact, burning wood encourages more forests to be planted and managed sustainably as woodlots to produce the fuel – and that’s another bonus for the environment as a whole.
However, notice that bit about soot? That is why chimneys still need sweeping.
Why Chimneys Need Cleaning and Maintenance?
When wood or coal (or briquettes made from old paper) burn, not all of it turns to heat and light energy. Some carbon rises along with the smoke and is deposited on the inside of the chimney. The actual amount of soot produced by a fire depends on a lot of factors: the type of fuel (wood versus coal, and the different types of wood used for fuel), how fast or hot the fire is burning, how damp the wood is and how much resin is in the wood. However, fast or slow, the soot will build up inside your chimney and it will need to be removed, just like you have to remove the ash.
Why do you need to bother about getting the chimney swept if you can’t see the soot and it’s not bothering you? Firstly and most importantly, you have to remember that the soot coating the inside of the chimney is more or less pure carbon, and this is flammable. . This was a risk back in the Middle Ages and it’s still a risk today. At minimum, you need to get your chimneys swept at least every two years and possibly even more often, depending on how often you use your fireplace or log burner.
The second reason you need to have your chimneys nice and clean applies to all landlords who rent out houses and flats with a fireplace or a wood burning stove to tenants. Every letting agent and landlord in London (and the whole of the UK for that matter) have a duty of care to provide and maintain a safe property and keeping chimneys clean before, during and after the tenancy. There are companies who can offer chimney sweeping as an add-on or a recommendation when you book their end of tenancy cleaning service. Be smart, don’t risk a thing. It is not worth it.
The third reason why you need to keep your chimney clean is that this will help your fire burn more efficiently and do its job of heating your home, providing a romantic atmosphere and cooking your dinner if it can draw properly. Fires need plentiful oxygen to burn nice and hot, and to do this, a good airflow needs to be created, and the chimney is a key part of this process. If the airflow out of the chimney is blocked by soot, this will choke the process. The result of this is a fire that won’t burn as efficiently or as hotly, which is very frustrating (especially if you feel cold or are trying to cook things on the Aga).
What’s more, if your chimney is choked with soot and the airflow up it is hindered, this will create yet another problem (and yet another reason why you need to get your chimneys swept regularly). If the air and the smoke can’t get up the chimney freely, it will find an easier way to get out, especially if the air in the chimney is cold. That easier way is usually out into your living room or kitchen, filling the air with smoke, giving you a coughing fit, setting off your smoke alarms unnecessarily and forcing you to open all the windows on a freezing cold day. However, when the chimney is clean, the smoke will go where it’s supposed to.
If you only use your fireplace during the winter, there is yet another reason why you probably need to get your fireplace before the colder weather starts. This is because birds often find chimneys to be convenient and safe places to build nests. While soot chokes chimneys pretty badly, birds’ nests are much worse. In the worst case, the nest can block the chimney completely, filling it with a highly flammable material. This is bad for you and if it’s a particularly chilly summer or spring, it’s bad for the birds if they are still in the nest – which gets quite upsetting for you, especially if a bird tries to get out of the chimney the wrong way by flying down into the firebox with the fire going. This really does happen and it’s not nice. Be kind to the birds – get your chimney swept before you light it if you haven’t lit your fire for a while.
Modern Professional Chimney Sweeps
Trying to clean your own chimney is possible but it’s a fiddly and time-consuming job that can go wrong very easily if you don’t have the right equipment. Modern chimney sweeps don’t walk the streets all covered with soot from head to foot with a broom over their shoulder like Bert in the movie. They still have the brooms and the ladders, but they also have vans and vacuum cleaners – very powerful vacuum cleaners that are much more powerful than the one sitting in your cupboards.
A good professional chimney sweep will also have a good collection of dust sheets to cover furniture and carpets, as excess can get out even with the help of a chimney cleaning vacuum. What’s more, he or she will also have a lot of experience and know-how with fires and chimneys, meaning that he or she can inspect your chimney and let you know if there are any problems, especially if you have an old-style brick chimney. Some modern London chimney sweeps are experienced in chimney repairs, and can carry these out if necessary. If a chimney is badly damaged, they can let you know about this so you can arrange for repairs or even replacements.
DIY Chimney Sweeping Methods And Tips – And Some Don’ts
If you’re interested in cleaning your own chimney, then you need to take a few tips from the professionals:
Preparing For The Clean – Get All Tooled Up
Cover everything with dust sheets (an old sheet is best for this – it can take some time for lots of carbon and soot to wash out) and get one of the proper brooms if you can get hold of one (a few hardware stores may sell these or you can try your luck online). You will also need rubber gloves, overalls and a facemask. Soot goes everywhere! Have your vacuum cleaner handy, but don’t try doing what the professionals do and put the vacuum up the chimney – not if you hope to use the vacuum on the carpets later.
If you can’t get hold of a proper flue brush, then you can try improvising with a bundle of thorns tied in the middle of a very long rope. You need two people to do this, one of whom will take the risk of climbing up onto the roof while the second gets a face of soot. One person holds the top of the rope, the other person holds the bottom and you take turns pulling the bundle of thorns up and down the chimney, sweeping it clean. It’s messy but it does work – but don’t try this if you have a very steep or high roof because of the risk.
Go For It and Have a Blast. Literally
With very stubborn soot deposits in chimneys, it is possible to loosen these by firing a shotgun up the chimney (massive old-fashioned fireplaces only!). You may have read the scene in one of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries where someone does this. Don’t try this! For one thing, it only works on big old fireplaces and wide chimneys and can’t be done on, say, Agas. Secondly, the neighbours get a bit jumpy about gunshots and explosions these days and you may end up having to explain yourself down at the local police station.
Never, ever try clearing a chimney by pouring flammable liquid in and setting a match to it as described by John Seymour in his self-sufficiency manuals. Don’t. Ever. Under no circumstances. Seymour put his description in as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong.
Honestly, it really is easier to call in a professional!