Wayne Walker talks about being a chimney sweep in Middle Georgia.
Q: A chimney sweep isn’t a career that pops into mind in the south. Is there really a call for it?
A: There are more fireplaces in Middle Georgia than you’d think. People have them for ambiance as well as just for heat or using them to supplement how they heat. There are a lot of fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, inserts — what we used to always call Buck stoves. Even gas fireplaces need cleaning. All these should be cleaned and have serious dangers associated with them so, yeah, it can be a bit seasonal but there’s a need. We also do dryer vents. With all the lint, they can be highly combustible.
Q: So how did you become a chimney sweep?
A: I’m from Georgia, Columbus, and got out of the Air Force after 22 years and was stationed at Robins Air Force Base. I’d been in Germany and elsewhere before that. I wanted to stay in the area and work for myself so I looked around for a career. Seemed like there were plenty of electricians and plumbers so I kept looking for something that wouldn’t be a fly-by-night sort of thing, something that could be a real profession. On my wife’s side, we had a relative who did this sort of thing up north and he showed me the ropes. I thought, “OK, that’s it, there aren’t many chimney sweeps at all but if I do it I want to do it really well.”
Q: When did you start the business?
A: 1994. It’s called Middle Georgia Chimney Sweeps (www.middlegeorgiachimney.com).
Q: What had you done in the Air Force?
A: I was an aircraft electrician. I was on an aircraft battle-damage team and went to Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I had been at Robins just a short period when the Gulf War kicked off. I keep my aircraft power plant maintenance license up-to-date to this day.
Q: For many, the chimney sweep stereotype is the old English setting from Marry Poppins with Dick Van Dyke dancing around row-house rooftops. What do you think of that?
A: No, it’s not like that — no dancing. And no dropping small children down chimneys. They once did that but it was outlawed long ago. My son does work with me and has helped since he was 12, but we never dropped him down a chimney. We do go with wearing black — that just makes sense — and I have a chimney sweep’s top hat and tailcoat I used to wear when I’d first meet customers. But that seemed too theatrical and folks thought, “Are you serious?” I have the hat and am proud to be part of such a long tradition but now it’s ball caps and of course the technology is way different.
Q: How so?
A: We do use brushes and rods but there’s so much more to it. The equipment and filtration we use is first rate. We go into average homes, mobile homes and million dollar homes plus we do a lot of work in historic homes. We are absolutely thorough but you can’t make or leave any kind of mess whatsoever so we take all kinds of measures, use drop cloths, use venting technology and have industrial cleaning and filtration systems. We filter down to half a micron so nothing is discharged into the home. We use video scanning and document everything and keep a record in our database for years to come. We sweep out the crumbs, clear the buildup that all fires create and also look for red flags, the dangers. We have the training, the certification, the expertise and the experience to do the job well and ID any hazards. That’s really important.
Q: We just had a cold snap, does that increase business?
A: That, and you’d be surprised how many calls we get from people who say they just had to have the fire department out, could we come check things out? Plus, there’s just wise maintenance and keeping things working right for fireplaces and inserts and all.
Q: What are some of the dangers? Why be concerned about fireplaces?
A: Before I got into it, I thought like everybody else that you just let smoke out. That’s it. But there are a lot of things going on, especially considering there’s a liquid tar that goes up, too, and collects on your chimney interior. It can choke your chimney, cause damage and cause a fire. Creosote burns at 2,000 to 3,000 degrees. It cracks brick and mortar. The Chimney Safety Institute of America says you should inspect annually and the standard we go by for fire protection states you should brush annually, too. We’ve been certified by the CSIA since we first started 25 years ago and keep up with training every year. We’re also trained and certified for roof access and on the specialized equipment we use — all state of the art. We deal with cleaning, safety, repairs, chimney parts, chimney relining and with leaks. Leaks can be a big deal and so can animal and bird intrusion. We work to be the best. I’ve tried to get The Telegraph to add a chimney sweep category to The Best of The Best awards because it doesn’t really fit under normal cleaning, but no lick yet. I think we’d win for sure.
Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at email@example.com.