Valley News – Upper Valley Chimney company has a modern take on dirty work

Randolph – It’s 7 o’clock in the morning and it’s time for roll call.

A room full of men all dressed in black gather for their daily early morning staff meeting. More than two dozen of them, many with beards, hold take-out coffee cups, sit in chairs around a conference table, against the wall and deep in the room.

“Hey, Matt,” Russel Cook said across the room to team leader Matt Brown. “I met your brother last night at White River Junction.”

“Yeah?” Brown replied, suspicious.

“Yeah. My wife told me to tell you he’s even more handsome than you,” Cook quipped.

Boos and sniffles tear through the room.

So begins another day for the team of chimney sweeps from Chimney Savers, one of Vermont’s largest chimney sweeping and maintenance companies. It’s the busiest time of year for sweeps, as many work every available daylight hour to prepare fireplaces and wood-burning stoves for the coming winter.

Alan Albandia, the operations manager chairing the meeting, knocks on the table to signal that it’s time to get down to business.

He gets into the first business: reading emails from customers commenting on recent work done by chimney sweeps and chimney technicians crammed into the room.

“Another, short,” Albandia said as he read the second note. “He says, ‘Good job, keep it up.’ ”

The room erupts in applause for a second hoarse outburst. One or two heavy feet in boots trample the ground.

For generations, chimney sweeps were solo or two-person operations, often done on the side by roofers and masons, a trade passed down from father to son. The image of the soot-covered chimney sweep is ingrained in people’s minds by the 1964 Disney classic Mary Poppinsin which Dick Van Dyke leads a troupe of singing dance sweepers Not in time over the rooftops of Edwardian London, a scene that slightly watered down the image of a trade that was then infamous for exploiting children to fit them into narrow chimneys.

Such horrific practices are long gone, of course, and that’s not all that’s been brought into the modern age.

Today’s chimney sweeps, while still using much of the old-school equipment like rods and brushes to scrape creosote, now use digital cameras to look down the chimney, sending images via smartphone in the office to be viewed on flat screens.

Chimney Savers has taken the lead in updating the company by requiring all of its chimney sweeps and field technicians to be certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America, equipping employees with matching uniforms and providing service in almost the whole state. A three-person office staff works in front of dual-screen computers to estimate project costs and coordinate truck fleet and supply logistics for more than half a dozen multi-person crews spread across construction sites across the state.

Attack plan

After reading customer feedback, Albandia guides the room through the day’s job sites projecting photos of chimneys and flues against a screen on the wall while chimney sweeps and technicians offer tips and advice on the best way to approach the job.

“Just decipher this and make the connection,” Albandia orders with the tip of her pencil circling the spot in a flue from a siding installation project in Woodstock.

“It’s going to be a mess,” moaned a technician at the back of the room.

“You need a challenge,” Albandia replied evenly, like a senior officer.

And so on for the next 40 minutes as the men preview the sweeping and maintenance projects for the day ahead. At the end of the meeting, Albandia distributes metal boxes with color-coded files clipped to the covers one by one to the assigned teams.

“Let’s go,” he orders, like a roll call scene in a Hill Street Blues episode, as the men grab their black bags of personal safety equipment and walk towards a line of trucks in the parking lot.

Strong demand

Burning wood for warmth – or simply for comfort on a cold winter’s day – is as old as prehistoric man, but still widely used: today in Vermont, nearly 40% of all homes burn wood as a primary or secondary heat source, according to the state Department of Health.

And chimney fires are an ongoing danger: In 2017, the state’s Division of Fire Safety, based on reports from local fire departments to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, said there had been 186 chimney fires in Vermont and 243 in 2016.

It’s important to note that these numbers only apply to fires contained within the chimney and not necessarily those that have spread to the structure, according to Bruce Martin, deputy fire marshal for the state of Vermont. These would be classified as structural fires. Martin also noted that not all local fire departments report through the NFIRS, meaning the numbers are “probably low.”

The three months between Labor Day and Thanksgiving are the peak of chimney sweeping season in New England, as homeowners get their flues cleaned of dangerous creosote, a residue left over from burning wood. The oil in creosote is often a source of chimney fires, which is why fire safety professionals recommend sweeping chimneys annually.

“As soon as August 1 rolls around, that’s when we get the bulk of our calls,” said Ashley Bricker, manager of Top Hat Chimney Sweep’s office in West Fairlee, who has two sweeps doing currently about 45 jobs per week and plans to add a third scan soon.

But customers still hoping to tidy up their fireplace before Santa slips over it may be out of luck.

“We’re booking for January now,” Bricker said.

From September to the end of October, Chimney Savers will sweep more than 500 chimneys, according to Chimney Savers co-owner Paul Bianco (the cost of a basic sweep and inspection starts at $229). Although the company urges customers to have their chimneys swept in the spring to avoid the rush of the fourth quarter, most are putting it off until the fall.

“It’s just human nature,” Bianco explained.

Unequal numbers

Chimney sweeps, despite the importance of the work to structural safety, nevertheless do not require a license to operate in Vermont or New Hampshire, as is the case almost everywhere else in the country.

“We are largely an unregulated industry,” said Zach Zagar, spokesperson for the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a nonprofit that provides educational resources for chimney sweeps and offers multiple levels of certification. “There are a few municipalities that regulate — one in Rhode Island, I think.”

Because the trade is unregulated, no one keeps official numbers on the number of chimney sweeps in Vermont and New Hampshire, but Steven Scally, owner of Fireside Sweeps in Fremont, NH, and president of the trade group Northeast Association of Chimney & Hearth Professionals, estimates there are probably around 100 scans in each of the twin states.

If so, only about half of them are certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) according to data from the organization, which reports 53 certified sweeps in Vermont and 50 in New Hampshire, according to Zagar. The CSIA has a total membership of about 1,800, an all-time high that has stood for two years, he said.

“There are between 5,000 and 8,000 sweeps in the country,” Zagar said, although the majority are not certified by AMSC, which requires members to take online courses and exams.

Under the soot

Chimney Savers was founded in 1989 by New Jersey native Gene Bianco, who worked as a chimney sweep before starting his own business. For a while Gene Bianco focused on masonry work, but after his son Paul Bianco joined the business a few years after graduating from Randolph Union High School in 2006, they began to expand. in the sweeping, maintenance, repair and restoration of chimneys.

Paul Bianco, who attended the University of Hawaii for a year before returning home to Vermont to join the family business – “I thought I might want to own a restaurant, then I saw that it It was 24 hours a day, but it turns out I do it anyway,” he explained – he is now co-owner with his father and oversees day-to-day operations.

The Biancos made a good impression on Mike Bedor, of Roxbury, Vt., who has been with the company for 18 months.

Bedor previously worked as a Harley-Davidson mechanic and then for a furniture maker in Randolph before the business closed. He responded to an ad Chimney Savers had posted for workers on Craigslist and went to interview the Biancos, even though he had no previous experience in the trade.

“I liked what they and the company stood for,” Bedor said.

Blank slate

On Thursday, Bedor was at the historic 1795 home of Meg and Paul Musselwhite on Great Brook Road in Lebanon to brush the flue of the Woodstock Soapstone wood-burning stove and investigate the source of a drop of water in the chimney.

Donning slippers, orange plastic gloves and a face mask to prevent dust inhalation, Bedor looked more like an operating theater attendant than a chimney sweep. He spent an hour at home, powering a brush deployed from a stiff wire line 25 feet from the stove’s chimney flue.

After scooping creosote from the flue and ashes from the stove and sucking up the remains, Bedor rose to his hands and knees, his forehead smeared with soot streaks like Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar.

“It’s not too bad, there’s not a lot of creosote buildup in the flue,” he told Meg Musselwhite. “At the rate you use it, you probably only need to brush it every two years.”

Then, after descending from the roof to inspect the source of the chimney leak, Bedor reported to Musselwhite that he had discovered the problem: cracks in both the slate chimney cap and the “chimney washout.” sand”, which seals the edges of the chimney. high, caused water to seep into the chimney when it rained.

He took photos of the outside of the fireplace with a digital camera to send back to the office, so Chimney Savers could work out a repair estimate and follow-up visit. “Then we can go out and fix it,” he said.

Bedor said the job of a chimney sweep is physically demanding – he had to climb to the roof on a ladder while carrying a second wooden one to place as a foot brace while he inspected the chimney – but he has rewards .

The trade dates back centuries, and since jobs are unlikely to be lost to the internet or outsourcing, it has the added benefit of secure employment.

“You meet new people, travel around the state, solve problems,” Bedor said of his craft. “Every day presents a new challenge, and that’s what makes it interesting.”

John Lippman can be reached at [email protected]

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