What it's Like to be a Chimney Sweep
Most people don't realize chimney sweeping is still a modern day occupation. Jeremy Biswell shares about his experience as a Chimney Sweep.
photo courtesy of zach bauman
According to architectural historians, the first dwellings with chimneys were built in Italy in the early 1300s. It wasn’t until the 1700s in England, though, that chimney sweeping became an occupation. Now, 300 years later, chimney sweeps are still in demand. The profession might have gone high tech (think: chimney drones), but for Jeremy Biswell, a chimney sweep for almost two decades, it’s still a job that requires attention to detail and a respect for the power of a roaring log fire and its filthy creosote offspring.
►I had just graduated from nursing school, and I was looking to also open a business. A friend and I did some research on service companies, and we discovered chimney sweeping, which was a real niche market that was underserved. I went to chimney sweep school, invested in good equipment, and off I went. The business grew fast due to demand for good service and a knowledgeable company. A year later, I bought my partner’s share of the business investment out and went full time. That was nearly 20 years ago.
►The first time I found a dead animal in a chimney, I’ll admit to being scared. I was cleaning the chimney and had a vacuum running and a respirator on to keep debris out of my lungs. As I was cleaning the smoke shelf, a squirrel carcass fell right in front of my face onto my chest. I screamed like a teenage girl at a boy band concert and ran out of the house. I've grown a pretty good backbone since that experience. It takes quite a bit to startle me on the job nowadays.
►I used to find it funny that people would call my office line and ask, "Do people still get their chimneys swept?" It was funny because they called my business line. I always thought about answering: "Nope, gotcha! I just run this ad and have this number to fool people!” LOL.
►There is an actual chimney sweep association in the United States called the National Chimney Sweep Guild, and I have been on the board of directors for almost a decade. Through this association, I have represented American chimney sweeps and visited four different countries doing it. I've been to Germany, Italy, Finland, and this year I visited Romania, where I got to walk through Dracula's castle.
►We've found some interesting things. We even found Santa Claus once! Well, it was a plastic Santa that we determined someone put at the top of the chimney as a decoration and it must have slipped down the chimney and was forgotten about. I once found a golden Easter egg in the air intake of a fireplace. On a regular basis, we find wasps, spiders, birds (owls are always freaky to find), raccoons and squirrels. Pro tip: chimney caps keep the creatures out.
►Many sweeps are still old school, but our company has always embraced high tech. We use motorized spinning rods for cleaning. We use special cameras for scanning the inside of chimneys. We use iPads for report writing and picture taking for the customer. We are even trying to implement drones for inspection of previously out-of-reach and unsafe-to-access roofs and chimneys.
►I wish more people realized that chimneys are not maintenance-free. Nothing lasts forever. We all learned from the story of the three little pigs that a brick structure is the strong structure, but time and age cause deterioration of any structure. Any time you have a fire in your home, you want to have it in a functional environment. Most homes we visit are 20, 30, 50, even 90 years old and have never had service, maintenance or repairs done to the chimney fireplace, ever. Fireplaces are wonderful. The hearth has been part of a happy home for years — but don't take fire for granted.”