Sunday, August 13, 2006

Keeping it clean: Today's chimney sweeps defy soot-soaked stereotype

By Liz Garone
Special to Sunday Jobs

After a typical day of cleaning four or five chimneys, Ron Rabun can still walk away from the job in a spotless white T-shirt and crisp blue jeans. How does the veteran chimney sweep do it? He dresses himself in head-to-toe coveralls and dons a full-face, forced-air respirator. "I don't like to get dirty," says Rabun, owner of California Chimney Sweep. "Plus, my customers are so impressed that I'm so clean when I'm done."

In addition to keeping himself clean, Rabun also keeps his customers' homes spotless. "You have to use cover-up sheets for the couches and the furniture," he says. "It's all about preparation and control."

Work as a chimney sweep involves much more than keeping things clean. As part of the cleaning service he provides, Rabun also does a safety inspection to make sure that the fireplace and chimney are in good enough condition to be used.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the job for Rabun is making customers' homes safer for them. "If I can keep systems clean and can catch any fire hazards, I feel good about my work," he says.

Chimney sweep Rob Thompson agrees. "It's rewarding to help people," he says. "I know I've saved houses from burning down." Thompson, the owner of Turlock Chimney Sweeps, has been in the business 20 years. "This job has been really satisfying for me, because I love what I do and I like being appreciated."

In order to be a successful chimney sweep, you can't have any fear of heights as you'll often find yourself 40 feet up on a home's roof peering into the chimney, says Rabun. Thompson got an express initiation. "When I started, I was petrified of heights," he says. "I got over that quickly."

There is also a lot of physical strength required. Many fireplaces come with weighty inserts, up to 400 pounds, that need to be pulled out in order to do a thorough cleaning. For repair work, you have to mix mortar and carry it in buckets on to the roof or up the chimney. "It's not easy work," Rabun says. "But I love it, and I couldn't imagine doing anything else."

Rabun estimates that he has cleaned 25,000 chimneys in his 21-year career. For new sweeps, he recommends joining both the National Chimney Sweep Guild and California's Golden State Chimney Sweep Guild. Both organizations offer workshops and seminars in the field and the opportunity to network with more seasoned sweeps. Rabun and Thompson both recommend shadowing someone who has been in the business for awhile and knows what he or she is doing. "The best way to do it is be an apprentice," Rabun says. "There is just so much to learn." Adds Thompson: "After 20 years, I'm still learning."

Typically, sweep apprentices make about $10 an hour. Most chimney sweeps are self-employed as liability costs are too high to cover employees. For a single-story cleaning and inspection, Rabun charges customers $110; Thompson charges $125. Both say the money comes slowly at first but can grow to a decent salary over time.

The profession tends to be cyclical. As soon as the first rains start, usually mid-October, the phone starts ringing, Rabun says. The crunch doesn't usually let up until the end of January or February except for a short break around Christmas.

Many sweeps take on other work during the spring and summer months. Thompson is one of them. For the busy winter months, he makes his home and his living as a sweep in Turlock. During the rest of the year, he lives in Southern Oregon, fixing up property he bought there. Recently, he started making funnel cakes and selling them at fairs in California and Oregon to supplement his income. "That's what I love about being a sweep," he says, "the freedom and the flexibility."

Taking on other work is not the case for Rabun. He is one of the few valley sweeps qualified to do fireplace inspections for homes that are on the market or have recently sold. "I'm as busy as ever," he says. "Inspections happen all year round."

Additional resources:

National Chimney Sweep Guild:

Golden State Chimney Sweep Guild:

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