Do it yourself, or hire a professional but get that chimney swept



  • Cory McGill, owner of Done Right Chimney Services in Williamsburg, takes a catalytic combustor, which increases the wood burning efficiency of a wood stove, out of a stove in his Route 9 showroom. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • McGill holds a catalytic combustor, which helps to burn excess gas and smoke in a wood stove. GAZETTE STAFF/ANDY CASTILLO

  • Susan Brown, 73, cleans the chimney of her home in Worthington. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Susan Brown, 73, climbs onto the roof of her home in Worthington to clean the chimney, a job she prefers to do herself. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

  • Brown says it takes her about two hours to do a thorough cleaning. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo

Thursday, June 07, 2018

As she has done every spring for the last 35 years, Susan Brown, 73, slid open her bedroom window one recent day and climbed onto the pitched roof of her two-story Worthington log home to clean the chimney.

Using a spiky metal brush and connecting rods, she spent about 15 minutes showing how she brushes clean the flue, which spans from the roof straight down to a cast iron wood stove on the first floor.

“At 73, this is a little bit more difficult than when I was younger,” Brown says when she’s safely back inside the house.

To do a thorough job, it takes her about two hours, including time she spends shoveling debris that’s been knocked down the chimney while brushing.

Over three decades of home ownership, Brown, who grew up in a suburb just north of New York City, has learned to complete basic maintenance tasks alone, including cleaning the chimney. As she heats her home with wood, it’s a job that must be done at least once a year, usually in the springtime after the winter burn season, to prevent a fire.

“It’s definitely a safety hazard if there’s more debris and build up in a chimney,” said Cory McGill, a captain on the Williamsburg Fire Department and also the owner of Done Right Chimney Services in Williamsburg. “Just like in your arteries, once a little bit gets stuck, it’s easier for more to catch on the way by.”

On average, McGill, who also sells wood stoves, wood pellets and grills at his shop on Route 9, estimates he sweeps about 675 chimneys, up to five per day, during the busy season, which lasts from around August through October. He opened his business in 2012 after sweeping chimneys for family and friends in high school,

While many homeowners wait until the fall to make sure their chimneys are swept — sometimes in case an animal builds a nest in it over the summer — McGill says there are advantages to chimney sweeping in the spring.

“Right when you’re done using it is the best time to sweep it, and get everything cleaned up,” he said. “That way, everything (is) out of the stove and the chimney, minimizing the smell if there are downdrafts.”

Doing it herself

Many homeowners, like Brown, like to tackle the jobs themselves.

When she purchased her Worthington home in 1984, she didn’t know much about maintaining a wood stove. She credits her knowledge to neighbors who patiently taught her the basics. Early on, she cleaned the chimney with help from her son, Noah Brown, who was stationed at the bottom of the chimney while she looked down from the roof. Together, they worked it as she pulled a brush up through the flue with a long rope.

To coordinate the effort, “I had to scream down the chimney, and we live in a quiet place,” Brown said. “He was not enchanted.”

Eventually, she gained confidence and began tackling the job by herself using a metal brush with long sections of screw-on handles to simplify the effort. As the brush is pushed down into the chimney, handle sections are added to extend its reach.

Brown can do that because she has a straight chimney. If you have a bend in yours, hiring a professional like McGill, who is certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America, might be a better idea.

Peace of mind and more

Soot, McGill says, can cause buildup around the curve and be difficult to remove completely.

He notes that some of his customers, who, like Brown, choose to clean their chimneys themselves, hire him every other year or every third year for a thorough cleaning. At a minimum, he says, homeowners should get their stoves and chimneys safety inspected for “a cheap peace of mind.” He charges $100 for a basic inspection, $160 for a single flue chimney sweep, with an additional $125 for each additional flue.

Consistent chimney maintenance not only addresses safety concerns, it prevents ash, which, he says, is “mildly corrosive,” from damaging the pipes. Cleaning also increases a wood stove’s efficiency allowing air to flow more easily, providing adequate oxygen for the fire. Without proper ventilation, a fire burns low, producing thick smoke that can quickly clog a chimney, ultimately costing more money for maintenance, McGill says.

Contributing factors

There are other factors that affect how often a chimney should be cleaned. Moisture in wood also can produce a smoky fire. Massachusetts has high humidity, McGill says, which affects the wetness of wood.

“We can’t get our wood drier than the air. All summer when wood is seasoning, even if it’s underneath a metal roof in a nice little wood shed with good air flow, as soon as it dries out to a certain point, it more or less becomes a sponge,” he said. To make sure the wood is as dry as possible before burn season, he recommends stacking the wood in a dry place and waiting a year or two before burning it.

Another variable, which can be controlled by homeowners in order to increase heating efficiency, is the size of the wood stove in comparison to the house. If a stove is too big, a homeowner might burn the fire low to maintain a comfortable living temperature, inadvertently creating a lot of smoke. But if the stove is the right size for the space, the fire can burn hotly and efficiently, minimizing the amount of smoke that’s produced, McGill says.

Modern wood stoves, many of which have a complex system of interior pipes that divert soot and gases back into the fire for a second burn, require special cleaning to ensure maximum heating efficiency, he says. But once they are cleaned properly, they tend to clog up less, and provide a much longer burn time with the same amount of wood, according to McGill.

Since opening Done Right Chimney Services in 2012, McGill has watched the market for wood stoves and wood heating fluctuate based on oil prices.

As green energy becomes more popular, he says, homeowners are turning to wood stoves as a way to cut down on their energy use.

“If you cut it on your own property, split it, stack it, season it, and burn it in your house, your heating is about as carbon-neutral as you can get,” he said. “It truly is a green heat. It’s America’s renewable resource.”

But while there are advantages to heating with wood, Brown said the labor it requires has become more and more of a challenge the older she gets. As such, she has put her house and six woodsy acres, which are connected to hundreds of acres of conservation land, up for sale. She intends to downsize to Florence.

Before leaving, however, she said, “the chimney cleaning was one way to say good bye.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.