Pitfalls in Picking Chimney Crews
WHEN an 82-year-old woman got a phone call in September promoting a chimney cleaning for $49, she accepted the offer. But what seemed like a good deal went sour when the three-man crew from Unique Chimney Company based in Patchogue, cautioned that she needed to replace her chimney liner immediately. Although that additional work was priced at $3,000, she gave them the go-ahead to install the liner that day. Her neighbors, seeing that the crew left after only about an hour on a job that typically takes five hours, advised her to stop payment on the check and to file a complaint with the Westchester County Department of Consumer Protection. Unique, which did not return a reporter's phone calls, initially threatened to contact the police if the woman did not pay. But after Consumer Protection investigated and held an informal hearing, Unique agreed to stop seeking payment.
Another homeowner, who asked that neither her name nor the company's be used because she was fearful of reprisal, was also told that her chimney was crumbling last year. The company offered to do the work -- relining 32 feet of chimney -- for $1,700. But two years later when another chimney company came to clean, they found an obstruction in the newly lined chimney. The first company had lined only portions of the chimney, leaving the middle untouched. The homeowner called the consumer protection agency, which eventually offered the chimney cleaning company a choice: repay the money or face fines of $7,000. The company chose restitution.
These incidents are typical of many in the county, said Elaine Price, the director of Consumer Protection. The most vulnerable chimney cleaning and repair customers are the elderly and mothers with young children. Some contractors use the lure of an inexpensive cleaning as a means to inspect a homeowner's chimney and then sometimes fabricate a list of repairs that can cost thousands of dollars. When companies suggest that a defective furnace flue could send carbon monoxide back into a house, even the most sophisticated homeowners can wind up agreeing to same-day repairs.
Ms. Price said her agency gets approximately 20 such complaints a year ''but there are many more out there.''
''Many consumers don't come forward because they're embarrassed.''
One such customer was Nan McNally of Larchmont. Told by one company that her liner needed replacing, she sought a second opinion from a Staten Island-based company that has since gone out of business. They bid $1,800 for the same job, less than the $3,000 estimate she received from the first company. She accepted its proposal. The work was ostensibly done and she paid in full. Months later, a furnace repairman discovered that the fumes from her boiler were not venting properly. The cause: the pipe leading from the furnace was wider than the liner and gas was able to back up into the house. The company ultimately made the repairs, after Mrs. McNally persisted in her efforts to get them to return.
Some companies say that discounted offers aren't always suspect. Lisa Hannan of Allstate Chimney Sweeps of Islandia, N.Y., for example, said her Long Island based-company legitimately can charge a discounted price because of economies of scale. Allstate employs 27 crews who perform more than 100 cleanings per week, she said.
Problems arise because the industry's requirements for entry are low, said owners of chimney-cleaning companies. With a truck, broom and a ladder, the unscrupulous can easily pass themselves off as experts. Chimney companies tell of chimney sweeps who carry a dead bird or squirrel in their trucks to use as evidence of unwanted openings in the chimney. More common, according to the chimney experts, are the companies that inform homeowners that their liners are crumbling and in need of immediate repair.
Some bring cracked masonry to the job to support their recommendation to reline the flue. Craig Ford, of CF Ford Service in Peekskill, said one of his customers showed him a cracked tan tile supposedly found by the first contractor. When Mr. Ford ascended the roof, however, he discovered that the liner -- completely intact -- was actually terra cotta. There was no tan tile anywhere within the chimney; the supposed evidence was a fake.
Liners can and should last for decades. Some older homes legitimately may need new liners, said Richard Miller of Thornwood Chimney Plus, but beware of companies that claim to carry the required liners on their trucks. Chimneys are not one-size-fits-all; liners, usually made of stainless steel, often must be specially ordered to guarantee the proper fit, said Mr. Miller..
Homeowners most often fall prey when chimney sweeps claim the furnace flue is venting improperly. They may ''throw out phrases designed to make you afraid -- like carbon monoxide poisoning,'' Ms. Price said. Although dangerous, carbon monoxide leakage is a rare occurrence, and local fire department, Con Edison and heating companies will all check for gas leaks on an emergency basis.
Generally, ''there's very little that's really an emergency,'' said Janet Perron, who owns Chim-Chiminey, based in Cortlandt Manor, with her husband, Bill. In most instances, experts agree, repairs can wait for a second opinion.
When looking for a reputable sweep, a few precautions can help. At a minimum, chimney companies must hold a current county business license and should have a county sticker, an indication that they are licensed affixed to their trucks. Companies should also offer proof of their insurance to protect workers and homeowners should a sweep get injured on the job. Some may also show their affiliation with the National Chimney Sweep Guild, but that membership is open to anyone for $300, irrespective of ability or track record. Certification -- awarded when sweeps pass a written exam administered by a nonprofit organization affiliated with the guild -- can be a better indication of the professionalism of the company. Also look for companies that are locally based and can provide a local, rather than an 800, telephone number. Ask for references, and check with the Department of Consumer Protection to determine whether the company has any pending complaints. The department may also provide names of those companies able to evaluate whether a chimney really needs work, said Ms. Price.
''You can tell when a landscaper has watered an azalea,'' Ms. Price continued, ''but there's no similar set of checks and balances with a chimney company.''