Summer School: How to sweep a chimney
Ian Conway and I are driving in his van, loaded with brushes, vacuums and tools, on our way to clean a wood stove in Putney. Conway is a chimney sweep. He’s run his business, called The Chimney Doctor, for 35 years, servicing heating systems around southern Vermont and New Hampshire.
As we drive down a dirt road, Conway tells me he fell into this business by chance. His neighbor was the original Chimney Doctor. In the late 80’s, Conway was running an organic farm in the area but was getting frustrated with the work. That’s when he heard his neighbor might be getting out of the chimney sweeping business, so he gave him a call.
“I just called him up and I said, ‘Steve, what are you doing with the Chimney Doctor business?’ He says, ‘I don't know. Let's talk,’” Conway recalls. “Here I am now.”
Chimneys and wood stoves probably conjure up images of cold winter nights, not sunny summer mornings like this. But with hundreds of customers, Conway says he works almost year round.
“I am busy with routine cleanings starting in March, and I don't stop,” Conway says.
So, here we are on a July morning, pulling up to a house in Putney for a routine chimney cleaning. We walk up to the front door and Conway yells in through the screen door. No one answers, but the door’s open. Conway’s arranged with the owner to come by while she’s away. We walk in and see the subject of today’s work: An iron wood stove in the living and dining room area.
How do you sweep a chimney? First things first, Conway says, know that it can get messy.
“Cleaning, say, an open fireplace in the living room is like doing a muffler job inside somebody's house,” Conway says. “It's a challenge.”
This woodstove is more contained than a fireplace, so there’s less potential for soot and ash to spread around the room. Still, the first step Conway takes is to put down a dropcloth.
“Step two is [to] just kind of look things over,” Conway says.
Conway checks out the quality of the chimney, and the condition of the stove. He says it's in good shape, though he notices there’s a crack in the top of the wood stove.
“Is that an immediate problem? No, but it's something I'm going to note and really should be addressed.”
Next, Conway takes the door off the front of the wood stove and sets it on the dropcloth, then sprays the door’s glass with cleaner. Then, he starts up his vacuum, using it to clean some of the soot and ash out of the stove. Then, with the vacuum running, he brings out his key piece of equipment: A metal brush attached to a four foot long rod. That’s then attached to an electric drill and stuck up the chimney.
As the brush stirs up soot and ash inside the chimney and the vacuum pulls it away, Conway
attaches another rod, extending the brush further up. He adds on another rod and another, until it reaches the top of the chimney. Then he brings the whole device back down, and the chimney is clean. Conway says the technology in this business has improved a lot since he started.
“It used to be with a chimney like this, when I first started out, we'd be going up to the roof, sweeping the chimney, coming back down, taking the stove apart, accessing what we needed to access to get it clean,” Conway recalls. “That's a lot more work. A lot more danger actually.”
Conway doesn’t get up on many roofs anymore. Instead, when he finishes cleaning, he looks up the chimney using a mirror and flashlight, then heads outside to take a look at the top of the chimney using a pair of binoculars. It’s all about verification, he says.
“It's one thing to sweep it, [but] how do you verify
you did a good job? Because if you don't verify you did a good job, you don't know you did a good job, you just think you did a good job.”
Conway estimates he has about 600 customers a year. That’s allowed him to make a good living running this small business for over three decades. But even though his services are in high demand, at 65 years old, Conway says he’s running out of steam. To illustrate, he recites the message he’s put on his business’ website and answering machine.
“‘Thank you for calling The Chimney Doctor. We're sorry, but we're not currently taking on new patients due to lack of staffing and aging infrastructure.’ You’re looking at the infrastructure,” Conway says with a laugh.
He’s tried to pass on the business in the last few years. He says he’s brought on at least six different employees in recent years, in hopes of training them to be the next chimney doctor. It hasn’t worked out.
“Either they weren't nice. You can't do his job if you’re not nice,” Conway says. “They didn't have the right skill set, or they didn't have the right commitment.”
Now, he’s more or less given up on finding a successor. And that’s a disappointment, Conway says. As he’s packing up, he tells me he sees a huge need - and opportunity - for young people to get into many different trades, not just chimney sweeping.
“The trades in general, to me, are the greatest gold mine that we have in this country right now. And it's countrywide, certainly here in Vermont,” he says.
There’s data to back this up: A 2020 report from the state labor department lists a variety of trades as “high demand occupations”: Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, masons. All are expected to need more workers in the coming years, though not all those professions have the same cultural lore as chimney sweeps, Conway says.
“We chimney sweep, we have the romance,” he says. “We have Dick Van Dyke, we have Mary Poppins, to sort of account for aspects of the job that might seem distasteful, like, you know, tall roofs and dirty clothes and stuff like that.”
No such romance for plumbers, though that’s a cool job too, Conway says. So, why should young people go into these professions?
“Control of their own destiny. In a word, freedom. If you're willing to work hard, you can have freedom,” he says.
With a business like his, you can set your own hours, take as many jobs as you want. Plus, the money’s good. For the hour or so of work he did on this day, Conway charges a flat rate of $248 dollars. Still, he’s looking toward the exit. He has a new career he wants to pursue next.
“Three years ago, I got trained as a hypnotist,” Conway laughs.
In two years or so, he says, he’ll hang up his chimney sweep brushes and start his next venture.
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