Back from the USA (for the second time) here are his experiences from the first trip…
On a wet and cold morning in late April 2022, we were at Heathrow Airport, nice and early for our flight to the USA. It was at this point, it all started to get very real. Months of planning, emails and contact with the Chimney Safety Institute of America would see me sitting back in the classroom on Monday morning at 8am. As we waited to board, I wondered what I had let myself in for. How different would this be from the training I had already received? What level of experience would everyone have? Did I stand any chance of passing the 100-question closed book and 30 question building code and deployment exams?
The Chimney Safety Institute of America is in Plainfield, Indiana. Itís a purpose-built facility which trains chimney sweeps from all over the USA. The resources are considerable and impressive at the location. Flues and rigs set up with faults and issues, along with a stack purpose built to demonstrate a chimney fire. There is a library of reference material, retail shop, large classroom and laboratory.
Our study material for the week would be Chimney and Venting Essentials (a 270 page book written by the Chimney Safety Institute of America), The International Residential Code (a 1109 page document ñ no thatís not a typo!! that sets the standards for anything to do with residential building in the USA) and the NFPA 211 (a 68 page document which details the standards by which fireplaces and burning appliances should be deployed).
The tutors for the week were Matt Ellis, a full-time instructor for the Institute and someone of considerable knowledge and Jim Brewer, a former firefighter and retired owner of a very successful sweeping and installation business. He also helped write much of the codes and standards we would be studying and tested on over the next five and a half days.
Monday morning at 7.30am, and most of the 25+ participants were arriving at the training facility looking forward to a week of learning. As the introductions got underway, it was clear that existing and prospective sweeps had travelled in from all over the USA to take this course, with one participant driving over 15 hours to attend.
One instantly noticeable difference from the UK business model, was that most worked for medium size companies. Each company had invested in their staff to attend the course. Flights, accommodation, and expenses being met by the company for their staff to participate in this learning.
There was a lot to learn, the Institute supplied a hearty lunch and dinner during the day with different meals and snacks. Throughout the week there were no early finishes and little time to relax. After the first day and once back at the hotel, there was an online test to complete and a strong recommendation to go over the days learning.
Day two saw some practical exercises and more time spent with explanations of how the approval and sign off systems for stoves, fireplaces and heating systems worked in the USA. State, regional and local ìAuthorities Having Jurisdictionî could all be party to post installation inspection sign off of work. These bodies also had the ability to set their own standards, so sweeps and installers really needed to have a working knowledge of all codes and requirements in their local area. Those whose work took them into the next state or county were in for an interesting time.
The US chimney sweeping industry has a number of codes and standards which are important. These included Underwriters Laboratory (UL) standards ñ 14 individual standards, National Fire Protection Association ñ three codes (one of which is the equivalent of Document J), add in some standards from the American National Standards Inst,
and Fuel Gas codes and you have most of the ìstandardsî which would feature in our end of week exam.
Unlike the UK, more sweeping takes place from the top down. To this end, we were each presented with a top of the range safety hat. Which was ours to keep and use whilst on the course.
There was a heavy emphasis on safety. Ladder positioning best practice, roof access and fall arrest systems. The course also dived into the removal of wildlife from flues, including racoons and the associated health risks. Creosote, soot and their carcinogenic properties were also covered in great detail.
Towards the middle of the week, focus shifted to tools and techniques. Brushes, whips, wire brushes and creosote removal were all explored.
Before I knew it Wednesday had arrived and by the end of the day, we were examining chimney flues and rigs which had predefined faults and issues and being asked to report on the corrective actions needed.
Most sweeps will deal with the results of a chimney fire. But the CSIA went one step further, by setting fire to a purpose build stack at the facility. This was used to demonstrate what happens during this type of incident. Once extinguished, the flue was used as a live inspection rig with the opportunity to learn more in respect of thermal shock, heat transfer and other issues caused by chimney fires.
Thursday saw a recap of all the subjects covered so far. The remaining days were spent learning about masonry fireplaces, factory-built fireplace chimneys, sweeping of freestanding stoves, inserts, pellet appliances, gas and oil. The extensive on-site lab provided some great opportunities to get hands on with each type of potential job.
There was also an opportunity to use camera equipment on flues and set ups. This was important, as certain levels of inspection mandated the use of a camera when work was undertaken. Each level of inspection has a different scope, degree of access requirements, circumstances (which initiate an inspection) and indications.
Friday was rounded off looking at documentation and troubleshooting. As you would expect in the USA, there was a huge input in respect of customer service and engagement. That evening was spent revising the manuals and notes taken whilst on the course.
On Saturday at 8am, all students were back at the training centre laptops in hand, with two exams to sit. Both were sat under strict examination conditions. The first was 30 questions, which you could use the books to reference. The second was 100 questions, which you were not permitted to refer to any books or notes. To preserve the integrity of the exams, questions were generated at random. Each candidate had questions delivered to their laptop in a different order.
Once finished, students left the room, their exam was marked and were advised of their results within about 20 mins. Those who did not score high enough, could re-sit the exam after about a week.
I was so pleased to be informed I had passed both exams and was now designated a Chimney Safety Institute of America Certified Sweep. This status is valid for 3 years. To keep it, I would now need to undertake a journey of continued professional development. A total of 48 hours of continued professional education units would need to be evidenced.
Looking back at my time with the CSIA, there is no doubt I learnt a great deal. There was a huge amount of expertise and experience in the room. Taking time out from my own business was time well spent and the knowledge and friendships made whilst in the USA, will last a lifetime.
Joe has submitted a report to the Guild Board with options for future training and member opportunities based on his experiences in the USA. He has made a presentation to the Board, and we hope to develop and take up some of his recommendations. Many thanks to Joe for taking the time to document his experience for us and keep one eye on how Guild members may benefit from his initiative. Ed.