When someone says chimney sweep, the image that comes to mind is stained black cheeks and Victorian England.
Or maybe it’s Dick Van Dyke, the most famous chimney sweep of them all.
“Chim-chimney, chem-chimney, chem-chim dear “, he sang in the 1964 musical “Mary Poppins.”
Thanks to improved worker safety, the days of climbing up chimneys and being covered in soot are long gone. This does not mean the industry is collapsing. In fact, South Whidbey’s chimney sweeps are up to their necks in business.
“All I can say is that I have more work than I can handle,” said Billy Leffley, owner of Protec Chimney Services on East Harbor Road. “The chimney sweeps are still here and I’m probably busier than I’ve ever been.”
It is one of two sweeping companies in 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 be burning wood in their homes, according to Leffler. Many new homes aren’t initially built with fireplaces or wood-burning stoves, but that doesn’t seem to reduce business, as Leffler points out that many people will add a wood-burning appliance.
Although the use of the chimney is less common than it once was, the old image of the chimney sweep persists.
“The public has a big picture of what chimney sweeping looks like,” said Rick Hixon, owner of All Serv Chimney Services. “They watched too much Mary Poppins.”
Although the job does not normally involve climbing chimneys, the cleaning methods are more or less the same. A brush remains the primary tool, although it is used in conjunction with a high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) vacuum. Every 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 folklore about chimney sweeps,” Hixon said. “Orphan boys used to climb the chimneys of Victorian England because they could adapt. At one time, some sweeps used geese. They would light a fire under the goose and she would fly up the chimney and clean the dust by flapping her wings.
Either way, Rusty Palmer, South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief, says chimney maintenance is key. The smoldering fire of a fireplace or woodstove builds up creosote over time, which Palmer says catches fire. Even after a summer of non-use, a chimney can still catch fire if the creosote from the previous winter has not been swept.
There were eight chimney fires in South Whidbey in 2016 and two in the current calendar year.
“Chimneys should be cleaned once a year; creosote can still be there even if you haven’t used it all summer,” Palmer said. “Chimney fires are not common, but it is something that is 100% preventable.”
The chimney sweeping industry has had its ups and downs over the years. Hixon says when natural gas prices rise, people typically scramble to use the pile of cut wood in their backyard. The energy crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s marked the height of woodstoves, when Hixon said that woodstove sales rose about 600% while gasoline prices soared. arrow. Business was also good during 2000; people were in survival mode and ready to rely on wood for heating, he said.
Comparatively, business is plentiful on Whidbey. Leffler says most of his customers prefer the drier radiant heat emitted by wood as opposed to convection heat. And although a tree must come down to provide the wood, it is biomass. Hixon says that means most of his customers are environmentally conscious, and he doesn’t see that trend changing anytime soon.
“A lot of my clients are pretty green,” Hixon said. “People like not having to be connected to a power grid or an energy company. This off-grid mentality leaves us with a fair amount of business.