When home heating costs began to rise signficantly in the 1970s and 1980s, many homeowners turned to wood as a cheaper source of energy. Along with this renewed interest in firewood came a boom in the wood-burning stove market. While homeowners did enjoy a reduced dependency on expensive natural gas and electricity, wood-burning stoves brought back many of the problems homeowners faced a hundred years ago. Over time, the accumulation of soot, creosote and other by-products created a fire hazard which could only be eliminated by a professional chimney sweep. This created a new cottage industry of independent chimney cleaning companies and fireplace safety inspectors.
Before hiring a chimney sweep to clean out your fireplace flue or chimney, you should ask yourself a few questions. First of all, can you perform the same tasks yourself without going through the expense of hiring a professional? A chimney cleaner probably won't volunteer to clean out your collection of ashes or clean the visible portions of your stove or fireplace. Those tasks can be very messy and time-consuming, but a diligent homeowner can probably do just as well as a professional with the right cleaning equipment. If your needs are largely cosmetic, you shouldn't need to call in a cleaner.
If you've been burning wood for several months, especially oily firewoods such as pine, you'll need a professional chimney sweep to remove build-up of a natural substance called creosote. Creosote is released while the firewood burns and naturally clings to the inner walls of the flue or chimney. Unlike soot, creosote cannot be removed with a wire brush alone. If the accumulated creosote and soot become hot enough, the result is often a chimney fire. If you regularly burn oily firewoods and suspect a build-up of creosote, definitely call a professional cleaner. He or she may use chemicals in addition to brushes to break up the hardened creosote.
Before hiring a chimney sweep, you may want to ask for the company's credentials or the sweep's level of training. Chimney cleaning companies often belong to national trade associations with strict guidelines concerning training and services. Independent chimney sweeps may also receive certification from recognized fire safety training centers. Unfortunately, the increased demand for chimney cleaning services has lead to a number of fly-by-night operations. A trained chimney sweep should do more than run a wire brush through the chimney several times and leave. Word-of-mouth advertising from neighbors with wood-burning stoves should provide solid leads.
Another consideration is availability. A chimney sweep has his or her own busy season, much like a tax preparer. Most customers try to hire one during the fall or winter months in order to prepare for cold weather. It might be easier to schedule an appointment for late spring or summer for anything other than an emergency. Some homes with a heavy dependency on woodburning stoves may need three or four cleanings throughout the coldest months. Ask about availability -- you may have to wait several months for an opening.
If there are budgetary concerns, try to find a chimney sweep who only performs cleanings and inspections, not repairs. Sweeps who work for larger maintenance companies may suddenly discover several other problems during a cleaning session, leaving the owner vulnerable to additional service plans. A good sweep should have state-of-the-art inspection equipment and cleaning tools, but should not use the cleaning session as a launching point for upgrades and general repairs. It's not improper for a chimney cleaner to point out potential hazards during an inspection, but homeowners should be able to hire other contractors for those repairs.