Chimney sweeps are in hot demand as some turn to wood stoves with an expensive heating season

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Sarah Wilson keeps track of her heating costs on colorful paper taped to the inside of a secretary desk in her living room. She’s got records going back to 2017, and the price of her last oil delivery was the highest it’s ever been at $6.99 a gallon.

Sarah Wilson documents her oil prices and tapes them to the inside of a secretary desk, where her grandmother also kept records of heating prices. (Mara Holpamazian/NHPR)
Sarah Wilson documents her oil prices and tapes them to the inside of a secretary desk, where her grandmother also kept records of heating prices. (Mara Holpamazian/NHPR)

Wilson says her family can still afford that, but if they can heat without having to pay that much, they want to give it a go.

So instead of using their oil tank, they’re using two mini-splits, small devices powered by electricity that heat the front and back rooms of their long house. The wood stove they normally use as a fun comfort – a place to cozy up with their cat on a cold night – has been burning around the clock.

“I stay up late,” Wilson says. “So I'm the one that feeds it late into the night to get it on into the morning.”

A lot of Granite Staters are facing high heating costs this winter. Two in five New Hampshire residents use heating oil, which has hit a three decade high. Natural gaspropane, and electricity are also exceptionally expensive. New England is reliant on fossil fuels for power and heat, and those fossil fuel markets have been extremely volatile in the last few months.

To cope, some are turning to wood. Wood banks in the state, where you can pick up wood for free, have prepared for increased interest this winter.

The price of wood is also expensive right now – but it can be a relatively cheaper option, especially for those who have logs stockpiled. For the Wilsons that means using a cord they bought a couple summers ago, and an old maple tree they had to cut down in the backyard.

But in the six years the Wilsons have had their wood stove, they’d never gotten it cleaned. Now that they’re using it every day, they wanted to make sure it was ready for that much wood burning.

Enter: Christopher Britt, a chimney sweep with Black Moose Chimney and Stove. Britt’s job is to make sure stoves and chimneys are clean and safe. And he’s been out and about a lot more these days – with the high cost of energy, he says more people have wanted to burn wood, and make sure their stove is in working condition.

“There's been a lot more estimates and having to write out quotes for people,” he said. “I'm fully booked until the middle of February, which is pretty far out for this time of year.”

Christopher Britt cleans the Wilsons' chimney. (Mara Holpamazian/NHPR)
Christopher Britt cleans the Wilsons' chimney. (Mara Holpamazian/NHPR)

A chimney like the Wilsons’, which hasn’t had regular upkeep, can come with some surprises, Britt says.

“As soon as I read that note, I was like, ‘so it could be a doozy. We may find all sorts of things,’” he says.

Britt spent about two hours cleaning the Wilsons stove and chimney. He’s not exactly the picture of an old-school sweep – no top hat, no oversize pipe cleaner – but he does lean into the bit. He tells the homeowners that shaking a sweep’s dirty hand is good luck.

“Which is funny because not a lot of people want to shake my hand when it's dirty,” he says.

But modern sweeps, like Britt, have a new set of tools that allow them to check out a chimney more efficiently. The first thing Britt does at the Wilsons’ is set up a big drop cloth and a double-filtered vacuum in the living room, next to the stove. There’s three parts to this job: a cleaning, an inspection with a camera, and a check-up on the roof.

For the cleaning, he breaks out the rotary system. It kind of looks like a weed whacker. He uses it to knock down the gunk that’s built up over the years.

That gunk is called creosote, and it’s the reason you need a chimney sweep. In the Wilsons’ chimney, it’s there, but mostly harmless – fine, powdery, and some bits of hard, flaky soot. But if you’re burning wood with more moisture in it, not burning hot enough, or not getting your chimney cleaned, creosote can build up, and get sticky.

“That's the stuff that you really want to be wary of because it can ignite, combust, cause a chimney fire,” Britt says.

Heating is one of the leading causes of fires in New Hampshire, and December, January and February are peak times for heating-related fires, according to the state’s Fire Marshal. Chimney fires are one of the biggest threats.

That’s why after he cleans out the creosote, Britt does a few more inspections to make sure everything else about the chimney is safe.

Christopher Britt cleans a chimney from inside the house, but goes up to the roof to inspect it after he's finished. (Mara Holpamazian/NHPR)
Christopher Britt cleans a chimney from inside the house, but goes up to the roof to inspect it after he's finished. (Mara Holpamazian/NHPR)

He takes out a small screen and a cylindrical device called a “Chim Scan” – a rotating camera that resembles a jellyfish, which he puts in the chimney to make sure nothing is broken.

Once the Wilsons pass the camera test, it’s time for the roof. Britt leans a ladder against the house, and climbs up. He’s careful, but not shaky.

“I'm not scared of heights. I respect them. That's the way that I put that,” he says, squatting on the shingles.

Britt checks the masonry, looking for cracks or damage in the mortar or the brick. He also checks the inner liner, which holds all the soot and creosote.

“It's got a good bill of health,” he says, cautiously walking in circles around the chimney.

Once he’s off the roof, Britt collects his tools, packs up the van and gets ready to head to his next chimney. He’s got four more jobs scheduled for the day. He’s still relatively clean – just some smudging on his hands – but, he says, as a sweep, you have to be okay with going home dirty every day.

“Sometimes I am completely covered in soot from head to toe,” he says.

Now that her chimney is clean and safe, Sarah Wilson plans to load up the wood stove. She agrees to get her chimney a regular check up. And before Britt leaves, she makes sure to shake his hand.

This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio. 



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