Chimney sweeps do far more than routine maintenance
Scott Downes doesn’t wear a threadbare cap, red scarf and vest.
Nor are his cheeks camouflaged with soot.
And he certainly doesn’t dance around humming “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
“But I did have one customer on 21st who, every time I arrived, would be playing the song from ‘Mary Poppins.’ ”
Downes is a chimney sweep, a profession romanticized by Dick Van Dyke in the 1964 Disney classic. (“Saving Mr. Banks,” a new Tom Hanks film about the making of “Mary Poppins,” is scheduled for release just in time for Christmas.)
Downes has two busy seasons: From October until the snow flies, he and his crew clean chimneys; as soon as spring arrives, they repair them.
He discussed his company, Mr. Chimney, and offered some advice to homeowners during a recent interview.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Downes: In Spokane. I went to Mead, and then studied business and sociology at Whitworth from ’85 to ’89. I also played soccer at Whitworth and coached the women’s team for a season.
S-R: What drew you to this career?
Downes: In college, my girlfriend’s dad had a chimney business. One day he asked me to help him with a job. It was the hardest I’d ever worked in my life, but it was fun. A couple of years later, I attended a workshop offered by the National Chimney Sweep Guild, got some masonry training and started my own company.
S-R: What did the guild workshop stress?
Downes: Mainly how to identify safety issues with chimneys, fireplaces and wood stoves. It doesn’t take long to learn how to clean a chimney, but it takes a while to recognize safety issues.
S-R: How did that business do?
Downes: It took four years to really get cooking – to know what things cost, how much to charge and find good people. And once you hire good people, you have to keep them busy or they’ll find another job.
S-R: You took a career break at some point, didn’t you?
Downes: Yeah, I closed that company in 2003, and started Mr. Chimney three years ago.
S-R: How’s business?
Downes: Great. People don’t burn as much as they did in the past, but a lot of chimneys in Spokane are falling apart. And chimneys don’t just vent fireplaces or stoves. They also vent natural-gas appliances and oil furnaces. Some people think that if they have their furnace serviced, their chimney must be OK. But a furnace service doesn’t include inspecting the chimney.
S-R: Did the recession affect your business?
Downes: I wasn’t doing this when the recession started, but I know three major stove shops in town went out of business.
S-R: Few new homes have traditional masonry chimneys. What impact is that likely to have on business down the road?
Downes: The majority of our work is masonry repair, and not just on old houses. A lot of higher-end houses built on the North Side in the ’70s and ’80s have masonry chimneys made of used brick. And old bricks are terrible for chimneys above the roofline, because they can start falling apart in just a few years unless the mason makes a nice concrete crown to protect the chimney.
S-R: What’s the solution?
Downes: We recommend replacing everything above the roofline with newly fired bricks that look old.
S-R: What’s the key to keeping a chimney clean?
Downes: Creosote builds up when a fire doesn’t have enough oxygen. Sometimes people will damper a stove or insert because it’s putting out more heat than they need, or they want the fire to last through the night. Less oxygen means less efficient combustion and more smoke – unburned energy. That’s what coats the insides of chimneys.
S-R: Does the type of wood also affect efficiency?
Downes: Yes. Around here, seasoned tamarack, birch and red fir are the best woods to burn. And any of your fruit woods, like apple, are good. But I also believe in burning what’s local and available, which for us includes pine. It burns faster, but it’s decent.
S-R: What should you not burn in your fireplace or wood-burning stove?
Downes: Wood that hasn’t cured. Painted wood is not good. Garbage.
S-R: How do you know it’s time to have your chimney cleaned?
Downes: The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends having your chimney checked annually if you burn wood. One-quarter-inch buildup of creosote in any part of the chimney is considered a fire hazard. Often times, smoke will reside in some areas of the chimney longer than others, so just looking down from the top of the chimney isn’t always a good indication of whether or not it needs cleaning.
S-R: Do you offer inspections?
Downes: Yes. If it turns out a chimney doesn’t need cleaning, we charge $89 for the inspection. And every chimney we clean gets an inspection at no additional charge.
S-R: What are typical problems you encounter with chimneys?
Downes: We find that a lot of masonry problems are caused by a poorly made crown, which leaves the chimney vulnerable to the freeze-thaw cycle. Also, chimney fires can crack the liner and cause problems.
S-R: Could you have a chimney fire and not know it?
Downes: Oh, yeah. Most chimney fires that you aren’t aware of are related either to a fireplace insert or wood stove – something that can be dampered down. The ones you see shooting out the top like a Roman candle are fireplaces with a really good supply of oxygen.
S-R: What’s the potential consequence of a chimney fire?
Downes: It can crack the liner, or the radiating heat can catch surrounding timbers on fire. That’s what cleaning is trying to avoid – chimney fires.
S-R: How dirty can chimneys get?
Downes: Occasionally they’re completely plugged. And if they have that glassy creosote, which is the most combustible kind, it won’t brush out. You have to treat it chemically or mechanically.
S-R: What’s the strangest thing you’ve found in a chimney?
Downes: I used to have a Mexican mason and his Croatian helper, neither of whom spoke much English. One time they called in a panic. When I arrived at the house, their eyes were all big and they were both flapping their arms to explain the situation. It turned out there were bats in the chimney. Another time, we were repairing a Rockwood Boulevard chimney and discovered a stack of money inside an interior wall. It turned out to be fake Confederate bills.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Downes: I get to see lots of different houses and meet nice people. And each repair is a little different challenge.
S-R: What do you like least?
Downes: Creosote is carcinogenic. Earlier this year, I bought tools that had belonged to a guy who cleaned chimneys for 25 years and died of cancer. It made me think. Even though I wear a respirator, it doesn’t stop everything.
S-R: What’s your biggest challenge?
Downes: It takes a lot of care to rebuild a chimney and not leave a mess, because of all the rubble and walking around. People are surprised at how well we minimize our mess.
S-R: How much does it cost to have a chimney rebuilt?
Downes: That depends on the damage, how tall the chimney is and how steep the roof is – whether we have to set up scaffolding to provide a platform from which to work safely. A teardown and rebuild can cost anywhere from $900 to $10,000 – even more if it’s a historic home.
S-R: Do you have a favorite chimney in town?
Downes: My favorites are on the Pietsch House – three very beautiful chimneys we restored in the early 2000s. We had to go to the library to find historic photos. (Editor’s note: Pietsch House, 1647 W. Main, was built in 1892 by German bricklayer Franz Pietsch and is the oldest brick single-family home in Peaceful Valley.)
S-R: Do you have a fireplace?
Downes: Yes. We heat our house with a fireplace insert.
S-R: What wood do you burn?
Downes: I’m driving around all the time, so I find a lot of it. Last year a lady gave me about two cords of birch. My uncle has apple trees. I got some cherry wood from a customer. And I bought a cord of red fir. It’s fun to start up the fire with a little cedar, then put a little red fir on there, stick a little apple wood on, some birch, and a little cherry on top.
S-R: What’s the future of this business?
Downes: We’ll never run out of work because so many chimneys need repair. And people will always burn wood. Back in the ’90s, there was a big push by Avista to get people to switch to natural gas, so a lot of people installed gas logs in their fireplace. Later, they switched back to wood because they miss the snap, crackle and pop. It’s mesmerizing to stare at a wood fire.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.