Thomson, Ralph

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                                          RALPH THOMSON
                                        By Beatrice Jardine


Forget about a top hat and coat tails, says Ralph Thomson of Nordin. They are much too dangerous for his kind of work.

Thomson is a chimney sweep. He has been in the business for over 17 years, starting when he was just 18. “A friend of mine from Germany got me interested in chimney sweeps. It is popular over there,” Thomson said.

The first job he can remember doing was cleaning a pre-fab chimney. The chimney had no supports, so he decided to use a big umbrella brush and clean it from the basement up. But what he didn’t realize was that there was an elbow in the pipe and his brush ended up there, breaking all the pipes in the living room. There was soot everywhere, he said with a laugh. He cleaned the mess up and never tried that method again.

With time comes experience and over time he has learned many things about the business.

A few times through the years he came close to falling off the roofs. Once, he had to climb down a drain spout when his ladder fell down, another time he had to sit on the roof until the owner came home to rescue him.

Once his ladder touched the hydro line, cutting the line in two.

“I remember a high roof on a business in Newcastle. I was about 50-60 feet up in the air when I slipped and fell,” he said. He caught a small peak on the roof and broke the fall. “You get used to ‘reading a roof’ – looking at the pitches and knowing if you can walk on them. But that comes with time,” Thomson said.

One day he put on a rayon jumpsuit and was climbing a metal roof in the winter time. He sat down at one point and from there he took off as if he were on a sled. Now he has proper equipment and clothing, which makes his job safer. It is a dangerous job, but the big danger is not the height it is the creosote build-up that gets into the lungs. He has three masks to wear, but he finds them so hot, most of the time he doesn’t wear them. The black soot goes into the nose and then into the lungs, even with precautions, it is almost impossible not to get some into the lungs. He ends up taking a couple of showers a day because of the creosote that gets on his clothes.

Business is pretty steady. He has built up his customers over the years and there is a demand for his service.

“People are getting their own units and putting them up themselves, some are dangerous, dangerous situations out there,” he said. “Some units are too small; some are not getting proper drafts. The big problem lately is the downdraft caused by negative pressure. This is when people finish their basement or do things to make their homes airtight. There is not enough oxygen getting in and that leads to problems. The best solution is to buy a unit with a vent in it. About eight homes had this problem in the last month,” he added.

Some brushes and a vacuum cleaner are the tools of the trade.

Spring best for cleaning

Ralph Thomson likes it up on the roof tops. He can look out over the community and see things and people he could never see from below. “It’s a whole new world at the top of the roof,” he said.

“It’s a good feeling when you’ve cleaned a chimney and checked to make sure their units are working properly,” he said. “You know when they go to bed at night they are going to be safe. It’s a good feeling.”

It takes about an hour and costs about $50 to clean the average chimney. But sometimes it is hard to convince people who have been burning wood all of their lives to keep their chimney cleaned, especially when the chimney is getting older and the combustion behind the chimney is not as high as it once was.

Wood heat is still popular, but with the cost of wood going up, people are looking into buying a more efficient wood burning unit that also cuts down on emissions. They are also installing an insert into some of the fireplaces which keeps some of the heat in.

But although the service is a needed one, it is hard to make a living at it, Thomson said.

People are changing over the years. They are beginning to realize that the end of wood burning season is the time to get their chimneys cleaned – not the fall. When they want to put a fire on they are able to do it without worrying about a chimney fire, or waiting until the chimney is cleaned before starting their first fire of the season. The best time to clean the chimney is in May, it gives the chimney the summer to stay clean and dry. Rain can soften creosote and sometimes results in stains.

But even in May one has to be careful on the rooftops. He once put the ladder up against the wheel of his truck and climbed up. When he slipped, he went 15 feet before he grabbed the ladder with one hand and ended up swinging himself right around.

That is partly why he wears proper clothing. Years ago, poor people would get clothes that rich people threw away, things which included the top hat and coat with tails which is familiar with chimney sweeps. They would get all dressed up and clean the roofs, walking from roof to roof because the roofs were quite flat. But with walking on all the high peaks around here, he needs his balance, he just couldn’t do it without proper clothes. It is not a glamour job, a good advertisement is to dress up, but in the real world that isn’t how it works.

Just the other day he was up about 60 feet and went to climb down. Without looking, he put his leg on the ladder, but sense something was wrong. His pant leg was caught on the ladder. If he had put his other leg down he would have fallen. He has since bought closures and fastens his pant legs tight so there would be no chance of that happening again. He wears a one piece jumpsuit, a hat, a mask and a good pair of hiking boots.

He hasn’t fallen yet, despite the close calls he has had over the years.

When asked about the old saying that when one touches a chimney sweep it is lucky, he replied it is just that, an old saying, Thomson said laughing. “If you touch me all you will get is dirty,” Thomson added.

Thomson operates Active Air Chimney Cleaning and Repairs in Nordin. The business sells airtight stoves, inserts, stainless steel liners, and anything connected with a chimney. He even sells a chimney with a 25 year guarantee, something just new in the business. The square A chimney company has gone out of business and the older Selkirk chimneys are not as safe as those made today. The old clay liners used in brick chimneys can be replaced by stainless steel liners that heat quickly and provide a more efficient heat.

Thomson has been in the business for 17 years and has taken courses and had regular checks on his customers to make sure they don’t have a chimney fire


Source: Miramichi Leader – March 20, 1991

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