Chimney sweeps in France are reporting a 30% rise in business this year as people turn to wood and pellet burners to heat their homes.
At the same time a lack of qualified sweeps means that trying to get hold of one is difficult, with some giving appointments three months in advance.
“It is very, very busy, both with our existing list of clients and with new ones,” said a spokeswoman for Actuel Ramonage in Viuz-en-Sallaz (Haute-Savoie).
“Here most people heat with wood and our boss is out every day working – we have tried to find people to do the extra work, but it is nearly impossible to do so.”
Most newer French homes are heated with electricity, but the rise in price of 4% in regulated tariffs, and warnings that there might be power cuts this year, have caused more people to have their chimneys swept so they can use them if necessary.
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When must I hire a chimney sweep in France?
It is compulsory in France to have your chimney swept by a professional called a ramoneur once a year for gas-fired apparatus and twice a year for coal, wood and oil-fired apparatus. The ramoneur gives clients a certificate once the job is done.
There are no controls on homeowners to ensure they have certificates, but insurance companies warn that their usual fire damage pay-outs are reduced if there is a suspicion that the fire was due to an unswept chimney.
Of course, in a bad fire, it is likely that the certificate will be burnt, along with everything else.
Insurance company Matmut, explains that the fine for not having a certificate is up to €450, but that more importantly, if there is third party damage due to a fire caused by a chimney without a certificate, the owner or renter of the property will be held liable.
For fire insurance, if the client is not able to provide a certificat de ramonage (also sometimes called a certificat d’entretien if associated with boiler maintenance) and there is a claim, an insurance company can call in an expert to determine if the chimney had anything to do with the fire.
If it is suspected that it had, the amount paid out will be reduced – possibly as much as by 30%.
Professional sweeps should have records of their visit for insurance purposes – or certificates can be stored in the ‘digital vault’ services offered by most banks, for a fee.
As well as the risk of fires, health ministry figures show that each winter around 100 people die in France from carbon monoxide poisoning, and poorly maintained chimneys are one of the risk factors for this.
The obligatory certificate rule does not stop homeowners from cleaning their own chimneys, and kits to do so are sold in most hardware or DIY stores in France.
But even if you do clean your own, you still need to have a professional clean your chimney once a year.
For people who have oil or gas boilers, the chimney sweep is included in the annual maintenance required, which has to be carried out by a qualified plumber or heating appliance installer.
The certificates are backed by the professional insurance of the artisan.
How do sweeping services work?
For wood fires in homes, the sweeping business has gradually become more professional and the number of itinerant sweeps, turning up unannounced, which used to be a feature of many rural areas, has reduced.
Now most wood stove installers offer annual sweeps as part of their service, and if they install stoves benefiting from government grants like MaPrimeRenov, they need to be certified with a RGE (reconnu garant de l’environnement) Qualibois listing.
This certification, which the artisans pay for, also gives companies the authority to issue valid certificats de ramonage.
Such is demand at the moment that it can be difficult to find sweeps, especially for old chimneys which do not meet the new standards of having a metal tube running up the conduit.
These, which can be fixed or flexible, are cleaned easily with nylon brushes – metal brushes can cause damage, especially with flexible tubes.
They are also relatively easy to clean from the top – the sweep climbs onto the roof and pushes the brush down, something which is often easier than trying to clean a chimney from the fireplace.
Firewood merchants now sometimes offer sweeps as part of their service.
Prices for a basic sweep vary from place to place – internet searches say between €60 and €100.
Examples from the long established firewood merchants Bois Cousin, in Angoulême are typical.
They charge €72 for a sweep from the bottom, or €83 for a sweep from the top, for a chimney between zero and eight metres high. Most bungalows will come into this category, and for higher chimneys, there is a €4 a metre supplement.
For wood pellet burners, their price is €165 which includes cleaning and maintaining the burner.
More complicated sweeps, called débistrage, involve removing hard tar, and build-ups of other carbon material which cannot be removed by a simple sweep.
Prices from Bois Cousin for débistrage are not fixed and start from €135, depending on the complexity of the job.
Débistrage is carried out using metal tools which are rotated, usually by hand, although mechanical tools are sometimes employed.
A professional will usually be able to tell if débistrage is needed before starting the job, but if they are not satisfied with the results of a ramonage, they might insist that a débistrage is needed before issuing a certificate.
They will usually be happy to shine a torch up the chimney to highlight problem areas and explain to you what needs to be done.
You are within your rights to just pay for the ramonage and ask for new estimates for the débistrage, although in practice there is unlikely to be much difference in price from one professional to another.
Débistrage is often needed when chimneys have not been swept for years, but can also sometimes be needed if a batch of wet wood has been burnt, leading to more tar than normal in the smoke.
Another chimney service offered by Bois Cousin is a test of a chimney’s seals for €86.
This involves setting off a special smoke bomb and checking that no smoke starts leaking out where it should not, something which is usually done when people move into an old house and where they want to check the chimney is in good condition.
Professional sweeps always take away the soot for disposal with them.
Although it has traditionally been used as a soil improver by gardeners, scientists are now worried that it contains toxic substances.
In order to issue certificates, professional sweeps have to have insurance backing their work.
For most professionals their business insurance package will do this.
In order to tackle the labour problem a specific sweep qualification has been developed in France.
Based on a two year apprenticeship it leads to a certificat technique des métiers (CTM) qualification, and is taught at a number of Chambre de Métiers training sites.