Several weeks ago we recommended that a reader hire a licensed chimney sweep. Boy, were we surprised to find out that there’s no such thing — at least in California.

A San Francisco reader graciously pointed this out:

"I can find no requirement that a chimney sweep have a state contractor’s license. If he or she does repairs, then yes, a masonry or other license is required. But, pushing a broom down a chimney does not require a license in California.

"There are several companies that are certified by a professional organization, but I’ve searched the contractor’s licensing website, and it is silent on chimney sweeps."

It’s true. Any Tom, Dick or Harriet can get a set of chimney brushes and call themselves a sweep. In most states, chimney sweeping is not regulated. That means let the buyer beware.

Regular chimney inspection and maintenance is a critical life safety issue. In Idaho, where Kevin lives, not a winter goes by without chimney fires destroying a house or two. Occasionally lives are lost. These tragedies can be prevented just by paying attention. Bottom line: Regular chimney inspection and maintenance saves lives.

Although unlicensed, sweeps can be certified by a number of organizations. We strongly recommend you hire a sweep who has taken the time and expended the effort to be certified. This is a strong indication that he or she takes the craft seriously and will do the job right.

The gold standard certification seems to be the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a national organization that offers in-depth training and a certification program. For more about the organization, go to

Michaele Dempsey, president of the Golden State Chimney Sweep Guild, said it’s vital to hire a certified sweep. "It’s the only way you can be sure that the job is being done safely and properly."

Dempsey also pointed out that anyone providing contracting work with a value of more than $500 must be licensed by the California Contractors State License Board. Although there is not a license specifically for chimney sweeping, Dempsey carries a limited specialty classification license that allows her to install new fireplace flues and other equipment.

Other prerequisites when hiring a sweep are proof of a bond, workers’ compensation insurance and liability insurance. Ask for references and check them out. Try to get two or three estimates.

With these preliminaries in place it’s time to question potential candidates about the work. The goal is to receive a thorough and clean sweep and an inspection that points out any potential safety issues.

First, tell the sweep your expectations. Point out any anomalies you may have noticed in fireplace operation. Does the fireplace smell when not in use? Does it leak smoke into the room? Is there a bird’s nest on top of the chimney? Is there a draft when the fireplace is not in use? Is the damper broken, or worse, is there no damper? Does water collect in the firebox when it rains? Is there a chimney cap?

After the initial meet and greet, ask questions. Ask about training and experience. Use this list to guide your interview:

  • Do you specialize in the type of work I’ve described?
  • How long have you been in business? (Now’s the time to get proof of certification, bonding and insurance.)
  • Will you provide a written estimate/contract?
  • When can you begin and how long will it take?
  • Do you use vacuums or tarps, or take other protective measures to avoid large messes?
  • Do you guarantee your work?
  • Can you tell me how often I should have my fireplace or chimney serviced?
  • Do you perform fire safety inspections? (If the answer is no, find another sweep.)
  • Do you use a chimney camera? As one company points out, inspecting a chimney with a flashlight is like a doctor trying to diagnose a broken rib by shining a flashlight down your throat.

Get the answers to these questions and you’ll have a pretty good idea if a sweep is the one for you. If you want to put your mind more at ease, you can check to see if the candidate is accredited with the Better Business Bureau.

As a last thought, spring is not a bad time to have the fireplace inspected. Fireplace season is about over and sweeps should be at a down time.

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