Press Ent. Article

“Sweep finds luck in chimney’s”

The gas crisis of the mid-1970's put Lee Samsel's trucking company out of business, but the fuel shortage turned him on to cleaning fireplaces, a job that has sustained him for nearly 30 years.

With heating fuel in short supply, Samsel started using his home fireplace more, but he could not find anyone to clean it. Inspired by an ad in Mother Earth News magazine that claimed chimney sweeps could earn $700 per week, he fashioned brushes out of modified push brooms and went to a couple of seminars.

"Everybody was trying to find an alternative heating source", he recalled. So he figured, "I don't know anything about this, but I bet I could figure this out."

And when clients wanted Samsel to rebuild their chimneys or fit their homes with newer, more efficient fireplaces, he worked out those services, too.

"Next thing you know, you're out there building chimneys," he said.

He jumped aboard the effort to install stainless steel liners in chimneys and to fit efficient ceramic fireplaces inside the brick and stone originals.

His firm specializes in installing high-efficiency fireplaces. And he especially prides himself and his workers on their restoration of chimneys on historic and antique homes particularly in Bloomsburg and danville. The key to that sort of work takes patience, he says.

"Nobody wants to take the time," he said. "We're pretty good at it."

Fire Fixation

If he had stuck just sweeping chimneys, the business could have failed, he said.

But after 26 years, Samsel, 55, says his firm has always turned a profit, and he has never had what he would consider a bad year, he said.

He figures that stems from the enduring popularity of fireplaces.

"(People) love to watch a fire," he expalined. "When people buy a house, the first thing they want to know is if there's a fireplace."

It started out as a little gig he could run out of his van. At first, he split time between his startup company and delivering Wise potato chips to New York City. By 1981, he went into sweeping full-time.

In the mid-1980's, regulations made sweeps liable after shoddy work by some irresponsible cleaners. Samsel is passionate about keeping houses warm and safe, so he does not cut any corners, he said. If he did, he would worry about shoddy workmanship causing fires.

"I want to sleep at night as much as anyone else does," he said.

He would not say how much he makes from his business.

"We make a decent living," he said. "I'm not a millionare."

A tight squeeze

The chimney at Carol Roat's Old Berwick Road home in South Centre Township caught fire several times back in March, so she called on Samsel to put in what he calls the "Rolls Royce" of fireplaces.

Made by Sleepy Hollow Chimney Supply of Brentwood, N.Y., using German patents, the hearth is insulated with ceramic wool, sendin all the heat straight out from the fireplace, rather than using convection heating air pushed through side vents.

The model requires about half as much wood for a fire that will burn longer, Samsel says.

The hearth, or "firebox," must connect to a stainless steel tube that has to fit snugly inside Roat's 100-year-old brick chimney. On a recent morning, Samsel eyed the shiny tubesnaking through Roat's living room.

"if this goes up in there, things are going good," he says. "if not, then this turns into a misery job."

One employee, Anthony Pasquale, heads to the roof to pull the tube up with a cable, while Samsel and worker John Fox guide it from below. It's slow going, and the tight fit leaves doubt of success until the liner is almost all the way up the chimney.

But it does fit, and the trio connect the mouth of the tube to the firebox, sealing the connections with foil tape. They push the apparatus into place, and all their work disappears behind brick.

Later, they will fill the airy space that surrounds the hearth with pearlit, an insulant.

Clean for safety

But even with hi-tech advances in fireplaces and chimneys, the work of scrubbing them out remains a dirty, hands-on affair. Some sweeps have tried to dangle video cameras down stacks to spot problems with brick-work.

Samsel says the best way to find cracks and missing mortar is to shine a bright light, which brings the blemishes right out, he says.

His brushes are a bit fancier these days - fiberglass rods with plastic and metal heads - but they're still bristles on the ends of long poles, he said. He also cleans oil furnace chimneys, which can get even filthier than fireplace stacks.

He also uses a vacuum cleaner that resmbles a typical shop vac, but has three layers of bags - paper, nylon and moleskin - to filter soot. At the busiest times of year, he cleans and changes the bags every few days.

Cleaning is essential for maintaining the brick and stone structures, he said. Oil smoke leaves a residue of sulfur, and when that mixes with moisture, it produces sulfuric acid, which eats away at the terra cotta tile that lines most chimneys.

Creosote left by wood smokecan work itself into gaps in the liner tile, he said, and that creates a serious risk of fire.

"You might as well have a 5-gallon bucket of gasoline back there," he said.

People who clean their own chimneys often forget the nooks and crannies where the material builds up, Samsel said. And missing even one spot means the cleaning was a waste of time, he said.

Win with women

Samsel and his two full-time employees cover an area from Shamokin to Benton. The work comes steadily most of the year, with a bit of a lull in the heart of winter. That means 8-10 hour days in his five-day workweek.

As protection against harmful chemicals, he and his workers wear respirators, goggles and gloves when they clean.

Local competitors have come and gone, he said. And he would not want to be starting up now. Equipment and materials cost more than ever, he said.

One key to his success is his rapport with women. The women of the house tend to call for a chimnney sweep and to be home when the work is done, he said.

"If you can't deal with women," he said, "this is not the business to be in."

Samsel's whole idea of strating the business was to work for himself, and that remains one of his favorite parts of his career. He also likes working outside, and the former high-diver loves being up on roofs.

He and his wife Charlene have a modern fireplace at home and heat their house with a wood-burning stove.Samsel's children, Mark, 40, Jill Mowery, 38 and Chris Romig, 32, all live in the Berwick area, along with his 5 grandchildren.