Happiness is a Warm (And Safe) Hearth

by | Nov 1, 2012 | Features

It’s a cold winter evening. You don’t need the weatherman to tell you snow is in the forecast. The gunmetal gray clouds tell you. The frigid north wind carries a taste of the arctic front barreling south. Every grocery store in the state is crammed with shoppers. Milk, bread, and eggs are fast becoming scarce.
The first flakes of what will be a two-day winter storm are drifting through the cold air as you finally reach home. Milk, bread, and eggs in hand, you step from your vehicle and the spicy smell of hickory smoke permeates the air. An instinctive sense of comfort overcomes you as wisps of smoke curl from the chimney. A glance at the woodshed brings a sigh of reassurance. It’s stacked high with seasoned hardwood, more than enough to make it through a River Valley winter. And then you step inside the house. Cozy doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Maybe you already own a woodstove and need an inspection for the coming winter. Maybe you want to own a wood stove. You crave the heavenly feeling of backing up to the stove until your backside is toasty and then plopping into the recliner. Whatever the case may be, if the above scenario makes you itch for that first cold blast of winter air then you need to an introduction to Larry Simmons. Larry is one of only a handful of folks that do what could be described as one of the dirtiest, most overlooked, but vitally important jobs for homeowners that enjoy a wood fire. Larry is a chimneysweep.

It all started 32 years ago as Larry’s wife, Joy explains. “We started in fall of 1980. I decided to stay home with my kids. We had two incomes coming in, so we had to look for something else. We saw something about chimney sweeps in Mother Earth News and I said Larry, you can do that.”
Larry didn’t know much about woodstoves installation or chimney sweeping when he first started. “I was very green when I started, even now there’s a lot to learn, a lot of new things. Stoves don’t stay the same.”
For starters, there are two different types of wood stoves; traditional wood burning stoves that burn pieces of wood and pellet stoves that, as the name implies, burn pellets. Pellet stoves offer less mess and aren’t as labor intensive.
“The pellets are recycled wood waste, like sawdust or chips,” says Larry. “You get a forty pound bag and the stoves have a hopper that you load and then it has an auger in the stove. Load the hopper, set he thermostat, and the auger will drop pellets when the thermostat tells it too. The burn time on some of the pellet stoves are long, I think some of them are 50 hours.”
The pellet stoves burn very clean as well, with minimum smoke. But, for some folks the pleasing aroma is half the point of burning wood. They don’t mind a few pieces of bark on the floor when the wood is hauled indoors. For these people a tradition wood burning stove is the only stove to have. The Simmons family uses traditional wood burning stoves to heat their home and a little bark on the floor is of no concern for Joy. “When I get my electric bill and see all the money I’ve saved with wood heat, I don’t mind running my vacuum cleaner.”

“If the power goes out, we’ve cooked on our woodstove, and even in it. I feel that being self-sufficient is important. The stove is a way to save money and be a little more independent.”
Cook on a woodstove? Yes indeed you can. It wasn’t that many generations ago that all stoves –including the kitchen stoves — used wood as fuel for heat.
“We have people that ask all the time if they can we cook on it. When we had the ice storm come through a few years ago, we may not have had TV—which was not a bad thing— but we could heat and we could eat. You can put some stew on top of the stove. I even put a turkey in there, wrapped up a hen in foil and put it in the coals.”
Simmons Chimney Sweep installs stoves of all types, but perhaps their most important service is chimney inspection and cleaning. It can be the difference between life and death. “This is something that needs to be looked at every year,” says Larry? “What happens is that when winter comes bearing down, the power is flickering and there’s ice and snow, that’s when things go wrong.”
Joy agrees. “I get at least twenty calls a season from people that have had a chimney fire.”

The problem is creosote buildup. Creosote is a byproduct of wood burning. It happens when gases given off from burning wood condense and their temperature drops below 250 degrees. They liquefy and then solidify, coating the chimney with a highly combustible material. Creosote is the main reason Chimney sweeps came to be. Larry has seen the problem many times.
“Creosote is a byproduct of incomplete combustion. If you have perfect wood burning habits, a perfect installation, and a perfect stove, you shouldn’t have any buildup. But, that’s not likely. When you have smoldering fires, which last winter had a lot of, the chimney looks like somebody poured a bucket of tar down it all the way to the bottom. That’s your fuel for a chimney fire. Some people don’t even know they’ve had a chimney fire until I tell them. I call it a controlled burnout. Now the ones that have fire shooting out the chimney, they say it sounds like a train on the roof.”
After three decades in the business, Joy knows that using a professional is the only way to go when it comes to protecting your home and family. “We offer a free inspection; people need to take advantage of that. Don’t rely on products you’re not sure about. We’ve even had people say they had birds in the chimney during the summer and their wings cleaned it out. People really need to use the free inspection.”

Larry mentions several folk remedies for cleaning out a chimney. “People used to say that potato peels, tin cans, salt would work.”
But, Joy quickly points out the faults in those remedies. “Then you drive around the rural places and see the old houses that have burnt down and the chimney is the only thing that’s still standing.”
Larry offers some tips for a cleaner burning stove. “Some people use their stove or fireplace as what I call an Arkansas Shredder. They burn old papers and that’s

ok, I just wouldn’t make it a habit. It burns, goes up the chimney and it will clog your chimney cap. And use seasoned, covered hardwood for fires. Seasoned for six months to a year and kept covered to stay dry.”
Not many things in life can compare to the comfort of a warm stove on a cold winters evening. The crackling flames, the radiant warmth that central heat and air just can’t touch, and the security of knowing that if the power goes out you and yours will be warm and fed. And then there’s the peace of mind in knowing that your heat system is safe. Cozy doesn’t even begin to describe it.


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