BALTIMORE — Chimney sweeps say that their image today is more like something out of "Star Wars" than "Mary Poppins."
"We go into a home in top hat and tails and we get the Mary Poppins stuff, but then we put on a full-face respirator and white paper coveralls, and suddenly it's Darth Vader," said Mary Ann Beaufait, a veteran chimney sweep from Lawrenceville, Ga. "It's the 18th Century to Buck Rogers."
The 10th annual convention of the National Chimney Sweep Guild in Baltimore tried to update that image recently, with efforts to convince householders that today's sweep is more than a soot-covered stranger with a long-handled brush.
Beaufait, in black silk dress and pearls, described the modern sweep as a technical expert on solid-fuel heating systems, fireplace ventilation and fire prevention.
"People see you in top hat and tails, and they don't take you seriously," Beaufait said. But the job of the sweep is a deadly serious one of saving lives by making sure that heating systems are installed properly and safely.
Old Chimneys Overtaxed
Hugh Maine, chairman of the board of the National Chimney Sweep Guild from Belleville, Ill., cited statistics showing that in 1983 and 1984, at least 130,000 home fires were caused by improperly installed or operated solid-fuel stoves.
After the cost of oil went up, "people went out and bought wood stoves and stuffed them up in any and every chimney without knowing what they were doing," said Maine, a graduate of the Black Magic School for chimney sweeps in Stowe, Vt.
Many century-old chimneys could not accommodate the heat given off by a powerful new stove, and tragic fires resulted, he said.
"The appliances have made tremendous leaps and bounds, but our chimneys are built the way they were when wigwams were made," Maine said.
The role of the chimney sweep now, he said, is to reconcile that discrepancy between modern, powerful alternative energy sources and 19th-Century chimneys.
Maine said there are about 6,000 active sweeps nationwide who are available to go into a home and evaluate its heating system according to National Fire Protection Assn. codes.
Sweeps Make Inspections
"A certified chimney sweep is able to walk into the home, look over the installation of the fireplace or stove and find if it does meet requirements for safe installation," he said. "A certified sweep is able to advise the homeowner. It's not just getting the soot out of the chimney, but eliminating the danger of fire."
Maine cautioned, however, that before allowing a sweep to check a heating system, a customer should ask if he or she is certified and has insurance.
"Anyone with a broom and a ladder can call themselves a chimney sweep," he said. "Consumers should ask for certification."
Will Morris, spokesman for the guild and a California sweep, said that summer is the best time to have the chimney cleaned and heating systems inspected.
Morris said that after a winter's use, soot and creosote are built up inside a chimney, and these, when mixed with rain, form acids that can eat away at chimneys and stove pipes.
Morris also said that refurbishing a chimney could take several weeks, so it makes sense to have the work done while indoor heat is not required.