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December 14, 2013

No black cloud over this chimney sweep

By Cathy B. Koplen Contributing Writer
The Daily Star

---- — John LaFever, owner of Black Cloud Chimney Sweeps, loves his job.

“Helping people and saving lives, putting smiles on people’s faces, it is a very gratifying job,” LaFever said.

Wearing a black cap and gloves, and a union suit, LaFever had a ready smile and a twinkle in his eyes as he talked about his business. There is a likeness to Bert, the dancing chimney sweep who beguiled Mary Poppins.

LaFever paused while loading his truck Thursday to explain his vocation. Cleaning chimneys on a regular basis is considered ordinary maintenance in upstate New York, he said.

“It is really important to clean your chimney”, LaFever said. “It can save your life. Fires start in chimneys that have not been cleaned. It is dangerous to neglect your chimney.”

Depending upon the buildup and use, chimneys should be cleaned at least once a year — and if they’re the primary source of heating residences, more often than that.

“I’d say, to be safe, you would want to clean your chimney every time you burn a cord of wood,” LaFever said.

Black Cloud employs two sweeps and stays booked in the winter. They clean many different types of chimneys, including those that are used to vent modern, efficient oil, propane and natural gas heating elements. They also clean dryer vents.

“We do a lot of fuel oil chimneys,” LaFever said. “In the newer, higher efficiency, heating elements you can get sulfuric acid. There is a lot of condensation in those units. We also do pellets stoves and wood stoves.”

LaFever also does a fair amount of business in chimney restoration.

“There is a bulk of my business that is restoring chimneys,” LaFever said. “All chimneys should be lined with stainless steel. Some of them are lined with clay, and some of the older houses still have chimneys that are not lined at all. That is pretty dangerous.”

When LaFever goes on a call to clean a chimney, he takes precautions to be as neat as possible using drop cloths and a double-filtered vacuum cleaner. Depending upon the chimney, he may clean it from the top, standing on the roof of a house and using a wire brush to push the soot and ash down into a covered fireplace.

Some chimneys can only be cleaned from the bottom up.

When cleaning a chimney, LaFever and his employees wear masks to protect themselves from creosote and the cancerous properties of soot and ash.

In addition to the cancerous properties of the job, LaFever has run into several difficult situations over the years.

There have been bats in a chimney that startled and flew out when disturbed, as well as birds, squirrels and other mammals – both dead and alive.

LaFever bought Black Cloud from Willard Dan about 20 years ago after apprenticing in the business. Before Dan, Black Cloud Chimney Sweeps was run on a part-time basis by two school teachers in the early 1950s, LaFever said.

In addition to maintenance, Black Cloud sells fireplace doors, wood stoves and fireplace inserts.

The showroom is currently located at 1186 Covered Bridge Road in Unadilla. Black Cloud is schedule to open a new storefront at 49 Main St., Unadilla, in the near future.