It's hard to beat a chimney sweep

Q. Is it true that colored newsprint is toxic when burning? Is there a safe creosote remover that can be used, thus eliminating the occasional need to hire a chimney sweep? A reader

A. According to our best information, we understand it is unsafe to burn colored newsprint.

Now about a creosote remover that will eliminate the need for a chimney sweep:

We wrote to R. J. Stabel -- and guess what? It turns out that the chimney sweep is a she, Roberta Stable of Tubac, Ariz., just down the road a piece from where I'm writing this column.

"I do not know of a safe and effective chemical cleaner for fireplace or wood-stove chimneys," she says. Chemicals, while removing soot, cause it to burn -- and this can be hazardous.

"Safety aside, chemical cleaners do not do a complete cleaning job.

"In a dirty fireplace the smoke-shelf area behind the damper has a pile of soot, which should be removed either by hand or with a specially designed vacuum cleaner."

A chimney sweep -- doing a thriving business, by the way -- still scrubs flues with hard-bristle brushes -- a large one for the flue costing about $20 and a smaller one for the rest of the job which lists for $5. The flue is cleaned by weighting the larger brush with 15 or 20 pounds and lowering it several times with a rope. Cleaning the firebox, chamber area, and smoke chamber is done with the smaller brush.

Last, the soot is scooped out of the fireplace from behind the damper.

"It is a nasty job," Ms. Stabel says.

"Chimney cleaning usually is not necessary in the average home, but should it become necessary, vacuuming by a commercial cleaning firm is the best and cleanest method," says Bulletin No. 1889, "Fireplaces and Chimneys," put out by the US Department of Agriculture.

Still want to be your own chimney sweep?

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