If you can smell smoke, you are breathing it – a major reason why you should have your chimney swept regularly is for your health. Creosote (the black tarry stuff) if touched, can cause a rash or other skin infections. If your chimney isn’t cleaned regularly, soot will accumulate around the flue, preventing the smoke from drawing upwards, and the smoke will end up in your room – where you will not only breathe it, but it will leave black soot on the walls, furniture, and carpeting, and perhaps cause permanent staining around the chimney. Wood smoke contains ‘matter particulates’ which are tiny particles that can easily travel deep into your lungs when you breathe. Other pollutants are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which can cause cancer.
Carbon monoxide is a deadly presence in wood smoke. It has no smell and no colour, and if inhaled for too long it can kill you, initially causing nausea, headaches and dizziness, and can aggravate the health of people with cardiac issues. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found in wood smoke, some of which are said to cause cancer, and other toxic components in wood smoke, such as chlorinated dioxins and nitrogen oxides, can contribute to various lung problems.
Cleaning your chimney to prevent a chimney fire – this is another important reason to have your chimney swept. Creosote, soot and ash are all highly flammable, and removing these contaminants significantly reduces the chances of a chimney fire. Regular chimney cleaning also prevents corrosion of your chimney – not only are combustion byproducts flammable, they are also highly acidic and eat away at both masonry and metal.
Restricted airflow - if these contaminants are allowed to build, they can restrict the airflow in your chimney, reducing the warmth output of your fire. And once cleaned, inspect your chimney – there may be animal or bird nests, cracked masonry, loose flue tiles, etc. that need attending to. Without a proper chimney cleaning, you won’t be able to see these problems and address them.
Pellet stoves are very popular, and for good reason. They offer great supplemental heat, burn with very little ash or emissions, and have long burn times. Because they produce so little ash, you might think that the pellet stove chimney doesn’t need cleaning, but this is not true - any type of wood burner generates creosote, soot and other byproducts that needs to be removed, so annual pellet chimney cleaning is recommended. They can be great additions to your home and help significantly with home heating, but like any other combustion stove, the chimney still needs to be cleaned.
A professional chimney sweep uses a heavy metal bristled brush on a long rod to clean your chimney, with the bristles located at the very tip. They will also be outfitted in gloves, goggles and masks to protect themselves from the soot and ash, and often use a specialist ash vacuum with a HEPA filter.
In a dark chapter of history around 200 years ago, it was common in England to send small boys up chimneys in order to clean them, especially after the Great Fire of London in September of 1666. From 1773, a master chimney sweep would keep anywhere from 2-20 orphans or children from large families for this purpose, and for each child, he was paid £3-£4 by the government when the apprenticeship agreement was signed, but the children got nothing. These little lads would shimmy up the flue using his back, elbows, and knees, and use a brush overhead to knock soot loose, and once at the top, would slide down and collect the soot pile for his master, who would sell it. As the saying goes ‘where there’s muck – there’s money’ and it was a highly prized commodity used by the fertiliser industry, or for making dyes for wool, etc. The children were badly fed and often slept in poor conditions in basements, were rarely bathed and were frequently ill, sometimes with chimney-sweep cancer, also called soot wart, on the skin of the scrotum. Thankfully in 1834 this practice was outlawed, when Parliament became more concerned about the exploitation of child labour.