How Chimney Sweeps Identify Problems

As professional chimney sweeps our job is not just removing soot from chimneys, a big part of our work is customer support and looking after our customers, and their appliances, keeping both safe and happy.

Over the years I have discovered that there is no such thing as a straight forward chimney…or at least they’re very rare here in Yorkshire! Around 50% of the time I’d say there will be something or other that is not quite as it should be or never quite what it seems, and occasionally very, very dangerous. Only yesterday (this is just one day’s example of what horrors we come across daily) I visited a new customer who had thankfully realised they were being poisoned by carbon monoxide!
This was being caused by them happily using their stove (burning smokeless coal) connected to their old Victorian un-lined chimney downstairs… this was then leaking poisonous fumes in to the room used as an office above via the adjoining stack, with the two flues interlinking due to a breach somewhere in the midfeathers.

Thankfully my customer had suspected this, as he had been feeling quite unwell for some time, with terrible headaches and just not feeling right at all when working in that room, he had, thank goodness got himself a CO detector, it then sounded the alarm!

After any problems with the gas boiler had been ruled out they realised it must be from the stove and or the chimney… this was when they gave us a ring to have the chimney swept. From my visit, they received a warning notice and a dangerous appliance sticker along with some good information on remedial work needed. Thankfully this particular stack was on the end of a row of terrace houses with no neighbours to have to worry about as well, but I know it happens a lot, that one neighbour has been unknowingly poisoning their next-door neighbours by deadly carbon monoxide gases entering their neighbour’s home via an old leaky and very dangerous adjoining chimney stack.

This problem of interlinking flues is very common in many a York terrace property. So much so I now keep a preprinted standard diagram that I adjust to suit and leave with the customers, just so they can make sense and process the technical information been given. We certainly keep our local chimney engineer and relining specialist busy with our recommendations.

On this very same day I spotted from across the street, another of my customer’s neighbours chimney had a serious and dangerous fault. The issue was a pepper pot cowl (spigot cowl) placed on top of their chimney pot. These cowls are only designed for disused chimneys for capping off while still providing ventilation. I spotted this a mile off…well maybe a bit closer, but to the eye of a trained sweep, this stood out like a saw thumb as it had obviously been used with a solid fuel appliance due to all the soot staining. I asked my customer if they knew their neighbours at all and if they had a fire in that room?

‘’Yes’’ was her response, ‘’they use it all the time, it’s a wood burning stove fitted by a local builder!’’  Needless to say, when I had finished my sweeping there I popped across to let the neighbours know how dangerous it was! Unfortunately, they were not home so I left them a nice note along with a NACS safety information leaflet that clearly states that those cowls are only for disused chimneys.

On this very same day, I came across a stove with the vitreous flue pipe going direct through a plastered wall, all scorched around the connection… yet another warning notice issued. So that was a standard day really, of my 6 chimneys to sweep, 3 of those where issued with warning notices. Just another day of bad/old installations, old crumbly chimneys and trying to keep our customers …and their neighbours safe. With the peculiar weather of late downdrafts have seemingly been a big issue for some customers and their chimneys and flues…resulting in it then being an issue for us sweeps. From time to time we get a phone call from our customers shortly after we have swept their chimneys, to say they have used their stove a few times since it was swept with no problems at all and then all off a sudden it has smoked back and filled their homes with smoke when they have gone to light the fire! Of course, it has never ever done this before and therefore it must be happening because of something that ‘we’ the sweep has done!

This is a familiar tail to an experienced sweep. We know if we have recently swept the chimney and all was well at the time, then generally all the symptoms pin point to two main suspected things! ‘Down-drafting!’… A result of cold air been drawn down the chimney, instead of warm air drawing up the chimney, caused by negative air pressure… or ‘A Cold Air Plug’ caused by a sudden change in temperatures and the chimney flue being cold.

We always talk the customer through these scenarios over the phone … most of whom struggle with believing this could possibly be the case, so we normally then follow this up with a return visit just to keep everyone happy. On our callout, after doing a quick once over inspection to guarantee all is just so, we then light the fire… with absolutely no issues what so ever, only then do people tend to accept the information we had previously provided. If it is a downdraft issue, we can always tell by a few checks and then offer solutions to the problem. All good fun…and all free of charge, but I am certainly happier knowing there is definitely no issues linked to the recent sweeping.

Our work, although chimney focused, completely relies upon, and revolves around our customers. I believe if you always do your job to the very highest standard and best of your ability, leaving the customer and appliance safe and happy then you can’t go too far wrong.

In other Sweep news our little sweep team were all deeply saddened recently to hear that one of our regular sweep customers Sir Ken Morrison has died, very sad news, he was known for been a true Yorkshire gentlemen and we will miss going along to sweep the chimneys for him. Another well-known Yorkshire favourite is The Dalesman Magazine that we are lucky enough to be featured in next month, very honoured, and looking forward to some good public promotion for us Yorkshire sweeps.

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