Making a clean sweep: Up the chimney, down the street

In my home, there’s a fireplace. From the backyard, visible is a chimney (if you want to call it that). A vertical pipe would be more like it (galvanized steel, I think) projecting up out of the house’s back portion. Its purpose is to exhaust fireplace discharge, but, I’m having none of that – literally.

You see, since the time I moved into the home in 1996, not once has what would ordinarily be a particulate matter source ever been used and for good reason. Not only could it very well have had something to do with the gas insert that occupies the fireplace pit area with replica logs and all having not worked since day 1, that’s it exactly.

And, only on one occasion did I contact a local utility company representative to have such come out and take a look to try to assess the problem in the hopes of finding a fix. Baffled, the representative was. That was that and so the device has been relegated to non-use since.

I suppose I could’ve contacted a bona fide repair person that specializes in this sort of thing, but you can see how far that went too. So, the fireplace – gas insert or not – goes unused.

Now I can’t say the same for my neighbors’ fireplaces.

At times, around the holiday season especially, many are, if you’ll pardon the expression, fired up. And, I mean, big time. There is quite the concentration of the smell of burning wood wafting in the air around my home. If you were to hazard (funny, I can’t think of a more appropriate word to use here) a guess, you would not be wrong to conclude that upon getting a whiff, it would be a case of my darting back inside to an environment with far less tainted air, and shutting the door behind.

With all of that fireplace burning activity, you have to wonder what the inside surfaces of the chimneys must look like. Surely there is all of this black-colored crud stuck if not caked on. You have to wonder also how many residents burning wood in home fireplaces actually make the effort to have their chimneys swept. That’s right. Swept!

Of course, there are those who are in the chimney-sweeping business. But, honestly, I don’t recall ever seeing any vehicles of commercial enterprises doing this sort of work anywhere in town – ever – which tells me that not many are having this type of work done. Then again, not only could I be, but I hope I’m wrong.

For scrubbed, excuse me, swept and non-swept chimneys alike, for those that are used, from these, there is inevitably a certain amount of pollutant-emissions releases all as a result of the incomplete combustion of wood (and who knows what ever else is burned in fireplaces these days) that exit the chimneys, and, if you’ve ever wondered where that microscopic debris ends up, well, I, for one, have, and it’s enough to turn my stomach just thinking about it.

The air, on the ground, in the water, on plants and various outdoor surfaces, inside other people’s residences and in other buildings – habitats for living, working, etc., and anywhere else these specks can and do travel to and enter including noses, mouths, lungs, bloodstreams, you name it. Nothing is off limits, or so it would seem. And, to think, the whole nasty scene could be completely avoided.

And speaking of scenes, now for Scene II: Street sweeping. You’ll have to pardon, but this one I really don’t get, nor do I care to, if you understand my meaning.

In my neighborhood, the vehicle for sweeping streets makes its rounds on, of all days, the one before the home trash, recyclable and yard waste is picked up and dumped from the representative containers at curbside. But, why the day preceding and not the day following has me scratching my head in wonderment. A conundrum, I tell you! Come on, are these mobile devices really necessary or are they more fluff than stuff?

Well, I hate to admit it, but the street-sweeping machines really do make the street where the spinning street-sweeper brushes touch, well, spic-and-span. As for what this process does to the air, I’m leery. For those who have paid notice, there is that characteristic smell left behind in the sweeper’s wake. It’s akin to the presence of precipitation in the form of rain falling after a dry spell and the dirt and dust built up on various outside surfaces gets kicked up in the air as a result of the falling rain. And, inhaling said airborne dirt, dust and particles, can’t be healthy.

Even in the little sweeping that I do during times of my being engaged in yardwork chores, there is a considerable amount of dust that likewise gets disturbed. When I do this, I try as best I can to position myself upwind of this activity just to stay out of the way of airborne dust. Given prevailing and changing air currents, it’s all I can do to avoid getting a good dusting myself. But, alas, I try.

So, I must ask: Street sweepers, chimney sweeps: A clean sweep or much to be desired here?

In the case of the latter, I’m thinking for those who frequently use their fireplaces to burn wood, I am wondering if a thorough chimney sweeping isn’t from time to time a good habit to get into from the standpoint of limiting inside-the-chimney soot buildup.

As it pertains to sweeping streets, I’m conflicted. What may improve street appearance may be bad for air and, by extension, public health by those exposed to such. Or, maybe, I’m just making much ado about nothing, a mountain out of molehill, if you will, instead of my focusing my writing efforts on more important air quality matters. Like I said, conflicted.

Or, the whole thing could be scratched and instead put this way: Being that I have my way, I’ll keep my fireplace non-functional. And, as it has to do with near encounters of the street-sweeping type, even if it means staying inside and observing from afar behind closed windows and doors, then that suits me just fine.

– Alan Kandel

1 thought on “Making a clean sweep: Up the chimney, down the street”

  1. The following comments on “Chimney Sweeping” and “Street Sweeping” submitted by Earl Withycombe

    Chimney Sweeping

    Creosote and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are evaporated from firewood whenever fed to a fireplace, wood stove, or other wood-heating device. These carcinogenic compounds then return to the liquid phase in the cooler temperatures of the chimney and partially stick to the chimney walls. Unless periodically removed by chimney sweeping, this film can build up and ignite whenever the chimney exhaust temperature reaches about 600 [degrees] F[ahrenheit], such as when large loads of Christmas wrappings are burned in a fireplace. When this happens, the PAHs burn with substantial heat release, causing the chimney to begin huffing – a distinctive sound of air pressure fluctuations caused by the combustion of this fast-burning fuel supplied with a limited and inadequate supply of air. If left untended, a chimney fire will turn chimney walls red hot and cause adjacent wood framing members to heat and combust, resulting in the typical attic fire that accompanies an unimpeded chimney fire. Wood stove vendors sell a commercial flare that, when thrown into the fireplace or wood stove, releases a fire retardant that slows the combustion rate of PAHs to reduce fire danger until the fire department arrives. A chimney fire makes a characteristic huffing sound that alerts the experienced fireplace tender to the presence of this phenomenon.

    Street Sweeping

    Street sweepers were originally designed and operated by municipal public works departments to remove trash from street gutters. With the advent of particulate matter (PM) air quality standards, we began to understand that these units were a source of PM emissions in areas where substantial quantities of soil were deposited on street surfaces through high wind events (primarily in desert areas), track-on from active construction sites/unpaved driveways/unpaved parking areas, and soil hauling away from large earthmoving projects. In these situations, street sweepers emulate leaf blowers that are intended to move vegetative debris but become significant dust generators in the presence of accumulated soil particles on surfaces being cleaned. The street sweeping equipment industry has recognized this problem over the past three decades and re-engineered sweepers to either prevent dust entrainment through the use of water sprays and/or installed larger under-carriage intake ducts and air-moving blowers to suck up both trash and dust entrained from the pavement by under-carriage rotary brooms. The first dust emission standards for street sweepers were adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in 2000 ( These standards have been adopted by a number of air quality regulatory agencies in the Pacific Southwest, including the San Joaquin Valley APCD.

    SJVUAPCD Rule 8061, Section 5.1.2 ( requires public works agencies to purchase certified street sweepers unless (Section budget limitations prevent such purchases, as reviewed and approved by the District APCO and U.S. EPA. You might want to check with the city street maintenance staff to confirm that they are using certified sweepers. Unfortunately, so far as I know, there is no requirement for the performance of adequate maintenance on such units nor in-use testing to assure in-use sweepers continue to comply with manufacturer’s specifications.

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