It’s been warm this year – did you notice?! Established chimney sweeps will tell you that the first frost brings a flood of telephone calls, and the threat, or first fall, of snow sets them ringing once more. This year has been an interesting one though. The inclement weather has meant that a lot of our customers feel that they did not use their chimneys much last winter and some have decided to ‘risk’ not having their chimneys swept until next year.
A recent spate of chimney fires across the country has had regional fire services a little concerned that people haven’t had their chimneys attended to and might be putting their properties, and worse, their lives, at risk.
Now this might sound like a bid for more business. We’re busy all year round and, whilst it has been a bit less manic than normal, we’ve still been sweeping chimneys across the UK… What got me thinking, however, was a particular call from a very nice lady who simply asked whether she needed to have her chimney swept this year. I was able to tell her the date of her last sweep. I was also able to remind her about the problem we’d identified with a tarred up chimney at that time. It had been 18 months since we’d last visited. She swore blind it was this year. This is not uncommon (I can imagine chimney sweeps everywhere with a wry smile as they’ve had these calls too) but of greater concern is that she thought she hadn’t used it much – what did I think?
The weather has been kind but people were using their fires into March and April this year. Since the weather wasn’t desperately cold but the winter seemed to drag on, many chose to use their fire rather than keep the heating on, perhaps. The problem is, for us, the answer has always got to be – have your chimney swept once a year as a minimum – ‘weather or not’, since many people cannot remember how much they used it and when it was last swept. There may be a flue blockage (the Jackdaws, too, have been enjoying the weather!) and at least you’ll know before there are any problems. The only way we can tell if it needs sweeping…is by sweeping it!
My feeling is that it is a risk to ‘pass’ on this year’s sweep. And it’s not a risk we’re prepared to recommend. In the words of the good old Scout motto –Be Prepared. The weather may throw us a curved ball giving us Spring temperatures in October but it is just as likely to give us snow on Christmas Day – and your sweep will be tucking into his or her turkey by then…
Always buy the best you can, or ensure that you ‘season (the drying process) the wood. HAPPY (and safe) BURNING SEASON!
There’s a great little poem to guide you:
Beech wood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year.
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for long it’s laid away.
Birch and fir logs burn too fast,
Blaze up bright and do not last.
It is by the Irish said,
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like a churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold.
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke.
Apple wood will scent your room
With an incense like perfume.
Oak and maple, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter cold.
But Ash wood wet or Ash wood dry,
A king shall warm his slippers by.
Note: birch bark is extremely flammable even when wet; it makes an excellent fire starter if you have lots lying around.
The 8th to 14th September 2014 is National Chimney Fire Safety Week and fire services across the UK have been challenged to engage with the community on keeping safe in their homes.
This has me thinking.
We live in an area with a lot of thatched property (West Berkshire) and the owners of these much coveted properties are tasked by their insurers to provide a certificate of sweeping at least annually. And I wonder why all household insurance policies don’t carry this stipulation directly when there is a ‘live chimney’ (a chimney in use, or a woodburner flue) perhaps with an option to simply provide a ‘not used’ disclaimer each year. (They do typically have a ‘must maintain the property’ clause though…this is a catch all in the event of a claim but not useful for preventative action!)
I have asked this question of any insurance brokers who I meet but don’t yet have the ear of any of the UK insurers to pose this thought to them. I’d be delighted if you pass this on!
I am not an advocate of the ‘big brother state’ where the public are forced down the route of more bureaucracy in for matters of safety – both lives and property – surely this would serve as a low cost and efficient way for householders to be reminded that chimney sweeping is a critical part of house maintenance.
I think the problem is visible in another way. Our local fire safety officer has told me tales of fire crews arriving at a property where the smoke alarm has been disabled because it’s ‘irritating’ the householder. And yet the average person will undoubtedly tell you how mad this action is …and go ahead anyway because they regularly burn the toast and the smoke alarm is ‘very annoying’. My personal feeling is that it would be far more ‘annoying’ to have your house burn down.
Image courtesy of federico stevanin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
So, my contribution to the forthcoming chimney fire safety week is to simply spread the word and that’s what I’m challenging you to do, too, as you’re reading this. It doesn’t cost much to have your chimney swept annually. It may cost lives if you are using the fire regularly and DON’T have it swept.
And if you happen to be an insurer and think this is a good idea, please take it. Have it. Claim it as your own. We don’t want the credit. We’d just like people please to have their chimneys swept by a reputable, qualified chimney sweep at least annually and then get on with the safe enjoyment of their fire or woodburner.
(Louise Harris, Wilkins Chimney Sweep, Newbury)
Late last year we visited a lovely couple who had just bought their first home together. They were very excited that it had two lovely woodburning stoves – one of which delivered hot water to the house. Cautiously, they called us in to check the flues as the previous owner was unable to provide a certificate of sweeping since he ‘swept them himself’.
It was a difficult discussion with the customer. The ‘standard’ woodburner flue pipe entered an extremely flimsy register plate that fell out as a brush was introduced to the hole that the flue pipe went through. This exposed the brick chimney, which was filthy and obviously had not been swept properly for many years. After sweeping off as much soot as possible the sweep advised the customer to have the woodburner re-installed by a HETAS Approved Installer (he is a HETAS Approved Chimney Sweep). It has now been removed completely and the fireplace returned to ‘open fire’ use.
The boiler flue however was an absolute horror. The first major problem was that it was blocked with a nest. And the nest could not be removed as the flue was completely inaccessible. As a result, the couple had no hot water and, worse than that had been using a potential carbon monoxide poisoning hazard (a neighbour later told them that the previous lady of the house had complained of headaches…almost certainly a result of the poor ventilation) and a real fire hazard.
The cost to the customer was a new boiler, the removal of the woodburners and the comparatively minor cost of having a bird guard fitted once we’d removed the nest.
The picture here is the last bag of wet, previously burnt debris from the chimney – it had taken nearly three hours to clear. Luckily the room had not been redecorated and was in a state of ‘work in progress’ because removing nests is a messy job and this was particularly bad as the rain had soaked everything in the flue.
My subsequent plea has to be this: if you’re buying a house with a woodburner, open fire, Rayburn, Aga or similar, ask for a certificate of sweeping from a competent person or request that a qualified reputable chimney sweep attend as part of your survey. The worst that will happen is you will know in advance what to expect – the best is that it may save your life…or be OK anyway!
We would be delighted if reputable estate agents guided vendors and purchasers to take this seriously (as they would gas safety checks), and that property surveyors (RICS take note, please!) guide purchasers in the same manner – even in a basic house buyers report. This isn’t a drive for more business…it’s a really sound safety recommendation. With HETAS reporting 176,000 woodburners installed last year alone, the prevalence means that all those in the property world should be on their game.
Having written about Jackdaws throughout April, I suppose I was only marginally surprised to read this article:
What did surprise me is that having lost part of a building to a fire due to a Jackdaw nest, nobody thought to provide a decent bird guard to prevent it happening again. Even on a listed building there are ways to prevent bird ingress. The fitter may not have a complete range to hand but should be able to source something that will suit both pocket and style.
Wilkins Chimney Sweep fit from ladders where possible but I spied the scaffolding at this property – that’s the perfect time to make sure that the chimneys are protected – either capped if not in use or guarded against bird ingress with a cowl some form of wire cage.
The right cowl can also prevent rain ingress – great if you have a woodburner since these rust if rain is allowed to enter the flue.
It would be so great to hear that chimney fires are a thing of the past! Regular cleaning and protection from birds and rain will go a long way to make this happen.