A Look Behind the Curtain
Most homeowners don’t know a whole lot about their chimneys. We come across some who’ve never once had their chimney cleaned or maintained and who take an if-it-isn’t-broke-don’t-fix-it type of attitude. They think, “I’ve used my chimney or fireplace fine for 18 years and never had a problem. It looks fine on the outside.”
Ignorance and misunderstanding are very prevalent in the chimney industry. The sad truth is that most chimney sweeps themselves are in the dark about how to properly clean a chimney. I didn’t realize that this was a problem starting out. Before I opened Fluesbrothers, my chimney sweeping company, I was a nurse. Thankfully, I met my wife in nursing school, but after that I started looking around for a part-time business that I could start where I could have some freedom and make some money. I looked at different businesses, like oil changing and window washing, and came across chimney sweeping. When I looked into the industry I found that there was only about 30 chimney sweep companies in the Kansas City area. Compared to heating and cooling and other industries, that’s a very, very small industry. I thought, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go in and clean a chimney, make some money, make a fool of myself. It can’t be that hard.”
Of course, it was harder than I thought it would be. I went and got a business loan, invested all of this money into it, bought some used equipment, went to Indianapolis to chimney training school, and met a mentor out of Wichita, Kansas. I found out two things really quickly. One, the chimney sweeping business isn’t just about dancing around making a few bucks—in and out of houses quickly; there’s a lot more to it. And two, it became evident that there’s a huge problem within the chimney industry: There’s a huge need for qualified individuals who know the trade, keep up with their education, and do a good, thorough job, and there are very few chimney sweeps who are meeting that need.
Despite that this industry is by all accounts all about safety and preventing loss, the majority of chimney sweeps across the country—Kansas City included—do very little to make chimneys safer. How do I know this? The numbers speak for themselves.
The Chimney Safety Institute of America is basically the only accredited certification agency for chimney sweeps. In Kansas City at any given time there are anywhere from 25 to 30 chimney sweep companies, employing an average of three people each. So we’re talking about 90 chimney sweeps in town. Of all those people, there are only about eight who are CSIA certified—and five of those are employees of mine. CSIA certification is the bare minimum education for chimney sweeps. It’s scary in any industry to not have qualified people, but especially in this one, when we’re tasked with preventing house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning and protecting families. And beyond the fact that you want someone who knows what they’re doing cleaning and repairing your chimney, you also want to feel confident about the people who are coming into your house.
To work in an industry that skates by with so few checks and balances—it came as a shock to me 15 years ago when I started Fluesbrothers. And it’s still very disappointing and embarrassing to me today. Almost every American household has some form of a venting system that needs to be checked and serviced. I’m in a metropolitan area of over two million people, and there are only roughly 90 chimney sweeps to service all two million people; still, the industry isn’t looked at as a professional service industry like heating and cooling or plumbing is. We’re still viewed as a novelty item, at least in the Kansas City metro area. The industry’s so small that we don’t have a big enough voice. So I’m trying to do my part by speaking out and clearing up some misnomers and misunderstandings about fireplaces and venting systems. The most important thing I can tell you is to only hire CSIA certified chimney sweeps. And make sure that your sweep can show you photographic or video evidence of your chimney’s condition before you agree to repairs.
So, that part-time business I had designs on starting—the one I thought would be as easy-peazy as Mary Poppins—has turned into a beyond-full-time job that’s a lot harder and more meaningful than I ever imagined. I don’t just want to clean your chimney. I want to make sure you know that not everyone in Kansas City is cleaning your chimney the same, and why it matters.