Chimneys have been around since the earliest civilizations. People needed a source of warmth and a place to cook, and chimneys helped to serve that purpose. Traditionally, the chimney sweep has been romanticized as the can-do person, the one who cheerfully braves ashes and soot to make our lives better, such as the dapper chimney sweep in the childhood musical Mary Poppins.
But what happens if fate showers you with sadness instead of joy, and the road to success is actually a dead end? Just ask Randall Spreadborough, 51, owner of Chimney Plus Service about left-hand turns in life and he'll tell you a story about rising up from the ashes of pain and disappointment. At the age of 44 he found himself a widower and the ladder of success he thought he was climbing was, in his words, " just propped up against the building." Stuck in a management position in a manufacturing firm, Spreadborough felt he had reached the end of his rope. After 20 years in the manufacturing industry, he was floundering. He was starting to fumble at work due to the devastation of losing his wife. The only thing he had left to go on, the only guarantee of what he could offer an employer, was the strength of his good name.
In desperation, he asked his dad what he should do with his life.
"I asked my dad how to make a left-hand turn," stated Spreadborough flatly, staring down at his hands. The elder Spreadborough, a success in his own right, helped his son find answers. The goal: a new career for Spreadborough requiring limited funds up front, that would fulfill an important community need. Together they discovered Copperfield Sooty Bob, a back-East operation that sells all-inclusive chimney sweep starter kits to budding sweepers.
"The kit gave me everything I needed to get launched," Randy said with a chuckle. "You receive the brushes, vacuum, all manuals, training materials, plus the white gloves, tuxedo tails, and top hat."
What's with the tradition of chimney sweeps wearing the dress-up garb? Spreadborough explained. In the 1700s and 1800s, sweeps, who were of the lower working class, marketed their services to the higher echelons of society. In order to appear "respectable" to this group, the sweep donned top hat, tails, and gloves, hence the tradition. In Norway, chimney sweeps are required by law to be licensed, taxed, and to wear uniforms. And, according to Spreadborough, back in the days of child labor, young children were used as chimney cleaners, dropped by their feet to clean the channel.
"Orphans were especially prized for this service," stated Spreadborough. "Their pay was getting fed. And tradition has it that getting kissed by a chimney sweep would bring the recipient good luck for the whole year."
So, chimney sweep kit in hand, Spreadborough started marketing his services, first by performing sweeps for friends and family, all while working full time in his management position. Word spread as did his reputation of offering a quality, reasonably priced service along with highly satisfied customers. One customer even agreed to trade services in exchange for designing Spreadborough's website (www.chimneyplus.com).
But for Spreadborough the work alone was not enough. He is an affable man with many talents, guitar playing among others. Three years ago his life took another left hand turn.
Enter Diana Palmer, 50, a pert, smiling lady with a warm, engaging personality and multiple talents. Palmer is an Arabian horse trainer, a potter, a craftsperson who does tile and finish work on houses, and mom to Stephanie, age 26. The next door neighbor to Spreadborough's Oregon-based brother, she noticed his RV parked outside and questioned why he was there.
"I told him not to expect his brother home for several hours," said Palmer with an impish grin. "A short while later I heard this beautiful guitar music coming from his rig and decided to come over." One month later she had packed up and moved to Seattle. They have been inseparable ever since.
"We had made a connection," stated Spreadborough quietly, looking at Diana with obvious love in his eyes. We were at the same point in life. We had both made left-hand turns. It was fate. My life would not be the same without Diana." Palmer nodded and smiled.
Doc Sturdes, a customer, once commented on how well the two worked together, sharing everything: tools, duties, and praise.
"We think alike and we are on the same wavelength," Spreadborough confided. While Spreadborough handles the roof work (Palmer is afraid of heights), his partner works from the front of the fireplace or stove, vacuuming up what Spreadborough discharges. Palmer adds a special touch to the work by creating designs in the inner mortar.
"Diana loves to play in the mud," joked Spreadborough, alluding to Palmer's talents as an artist and potter.
The number one concern of Spreadborough and Palmer is customer safety and education. To feel safe, customers need to know that their system is safe to burn appropriate materials and they don't have to worry about chimney fires, something that comes about from creosote buildup in the flue. To this end, the work begins before Spreadborough is even on the roof examining the chimney.
"I begin to evaluate as soon as I approach the house. I look at the roof, the crown, the masonry. I look for moss and the condition of structural elements. Then I get on the roof and examine things in much more detail while Diana does her own inspection from inside the house." Some roofs require two ladders and Spreadborough has to then stack them, a process he describes as "hair-raising."
Still, the view from the top of a chimney can't be beat, as Spreadborough will attest.
"There are some Victorian houses with chimneys I clean on Pill Hill (First Hill). One day a tour group was coming through and I waved to them from the top of the chimney," laughed Spreadborough. "When I stand on the top of a chimney I have the best view in the city. I feel God has really blessed me."
A common problem with chimneys is eliminating backdrafting when smoke from the fireplace or stove gets back into the house. Creosote buildup is a huge concern. Spreadborough noted that the back wall of the fireplace can get so hot it can disintegrate the brick.
"Oftentimes people don't know what to burn in a fireplace so they burn the wrong things," stated Spreadborough. "We go to houses where the people burn trash in the fireplace or woodstove - a huge mistake. They think that the fireplace is an incinerator, which it isn't. We'll find soup cans and all sorts of trash. But people don't know or haven't been taught. Sometimes it's just a lack of familiarity. In fact, we have had some clients who truly believe they have a wood-burning fireplace, but they don't."
Spreadborough recalled the case of the couple who called him and asked for an inspection.
"They pointed out that the fireplace already had logs in it and asked for a cleaning. Well, when Diana and I checked it out we discovered it was a gas fireplace with fake logs! We giggled the whole way home." Palmer and Spreadborough have even taught customers how to build fires. Still others are people from cultures who have no experience with fireplaces and simply need a lot of instruction to get started.
An eye for safety
The number one concern for Spreadborough and Palmer is safety. The two are both licensed, bonded, and fully trained and make their customers' safety their priority.
"We want our customers to be informed and if they are informed they'll feel safe and know it's safe to have a fire in their fireplace or stove," stated Spreadborough.
Chimney Plus provides a thorough inspection that is free with each chimney sweep. The team provides this inspection both before and after the sweep to insure the work is completely and thoroughly done. Prices range from $70-$140 with services tailored to the needs of the customer. While Chimney Plus encourages customers to have their systems cleaned every year to keep creosote deposits to a minimum, if the customer is a light user, the company won't sell their clients unnecessary services. They strive to treat everyone as individuals and this is certainly reflected in their services.
"We have some people who are on fixed incomes, and sometimes we won't charge them for the work or we'll keep it to an absolute minimum. It's good karma. We give lots of hugs to our customers and they do the same with us," stated Spreadborough with a smile. One customer, a guitar player, broke out into song when Chimney Plus visited the home and the company gave him a $20 "musical discount."
"We want every customer to be completely satisfied," said Spreadborough. "If my very best effort is not satisfactory to the customer then I won't charge them. This is a family operation run by real people who care about their customers."
Customers who use their services seem to trust them from the onset.
"They'll leave the keys under the mat to let us in but won't do so for the carpet cleaner," Palmer observed. "People know we are honest." In the seven years he's been in business, Spreadborough has been asked to show his license only two or three times.
"Our customers truly become our friends," Palmer said with a smile.
Chimney Plus Service is located in the Skyway neighborhood in southeast Seattle. The company does chimney sweeping and inspection services all over the greater Puget Sound area. They can be reached at 351-4063, or via email at email@example.com
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