Cleaning out chimneys keeps Olathe man on top of things

Though we’ve had a relatively mild winter, many people still enjoy the charm of lighting a fire in their fireplace. Using those chimneys is what keeps Robert Berry and his wife, Mary Jo, busy. They own Full Service Chimney, which specializes in maintaining and cleaning chimneys.

The Berrys’ office is based out of their southern Olathe home, but you won’t find Robert Berry home during the day. That’s when he is down clients’ chimneys, cleaning them and checking their structural safety.

“Seventy-five percent of our time is spent diagnosing and repairing structural problems,” Berry said. “A lot of that is because Kansas City’s homes are getting older. Many features in a home are easy to keep an eye on, but a chimney isn’t so easy to see. … Our goal is to catch problems before there is a fire episode.”

Berry and his five other employees who inspect chimneys are looking for a variety of problems, including creosote build up.

“We look for voids that can cause fumes to build up or heat up and become combustible,” he said. “Most home fires that start in a chimney aren’t because they are dirty. … We want to make sure a chimney will contain exhaust and the fire inside it.”

Q: How did you get into the chimney cleaning business?

Berry first entered the chimney business while living in Tulsa, Okla. He bought a home, and its chimney needed cleaning.

“I thought, ‘I can buy some tools I don’t have and clean it myself and save some money,’” Berry said. “Next thing I knew I was cleaning my neighbors’ chimneys too. … Then one day I got mad at my day-job boss and decided to quit and go into chimney cleaning full time.”

Q: How did you finance your business?

“I did it on the cheap,” said Berry of his self-finance approach. “I put a classified ad in the paper and had the calls ring to my home. I used our station wagon for transportation.”

When the couple moved in 1989 to the Kansas City area, Berry brought his business with him. Today, Full Service has eight employees, six of whom go out in two-person teams to work on chimneys. The other two team members work in the office.

“There’s a tremendous amount of paperwork involved,” he said.

Q: What are the tools of the trade?

Berry and his sweeps use a variety of rotary brushes, vacuums, ladders and cameras.

“We put a camera inside the chimney looking for voids or cracks that can cause fires,” he said. “It’s the tool we rely on the most in our business.”

Each of Full Service’s four vehicles has a camera for chimney inspects. In the beginning, Berry said the cameras were about the size of a shoebox; today the cameras Berry’s team uses are the size of a shot glass.

The sweeps wear protective clothing to shield them from the dust and soot inside the chimney. Once it’s inspected for problems, the chimney is cleaned, and the sweeps give the homeowner a full report, including any recommendations for repairs.

Q: How did you determine pricing?

Basic pricing is $325 per standard chimney, a price derived by looking at several factors. Berry looks at his fixed costs including the gasoline used for employees to travel to clients’ homes.

“A certain portion of every payment is to stay in business,” Berry said. “Then we have to calculate with the slow months in mind.”

Full Service gives a price break for additional flues at one customer’s residence.

Q: What about competition in your business?

“I don’t see things that way,” Berry said. “There are about 30 people cleaning chimneys here, about the same as when I started.”

One aspect Berry said could set his company apart is its certification by the Chimney Safety Institute. Full Service’s sweeps take a test on various aspects of business. Once the test is passed, employees become certified chimney, sweeps meeting high standards.

“It’s the benchmark in our industry that you know that we take our business seriously and are concerned about safety,” Berry said.

According to Berry, his chimney cleaning business is at it peak mid-September through New Year’s Day.

Q: How do you handle the slow months?

“Smoothing out the business year is a challenge,” Berry said. “Although I have been doing this for 27 years, it’s a hustle to keep our crews busy. … We concentrate on leak repairs and animal removal” during the slow months.

He’s found a variety of critters in chimneys — raccoons, squirrels, even ducks.

“Once I had a chimney with 14 squirrels in it,” Berry said. “Once in a while a see a snake skin, but I’ve never found a live snake.”

Berry also uses the slower time train employees on the tools of the trade and safety procedures, particularly with ladders. He carries both worker’s compensation and liability insurance.

While Berry’s work often has him dealing with the outside elements, he enjoys being a chimney sweep.

“I like being self employed and the camaraderie of my employees,” he said.

Original Article from the Kansas City Star