Santa, The Chimney Expert
By: Judi Stuart
Port Discover: Visitor Services Manager
“…And laying a finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.” Does that make Santa an expert on what one can find in a chimney? He does have plenty of experience.
Since 1900, the number of homes constructed with chimneys has steadily declined. Will Santa have to change his methods of operation? Will some animals have to change their habitats?
Before the eleven hundreds, dwellings had fire pits and the smoke traveled to the ceiling and throughout the structure. Spaces near the top were used for storage and hanging meats, thus taking advantage of the preservation qualities of smoke.
When early attempts to control the smoke led to the development of the chimney, a second floor could be added to homes. By the fifteenth and sixteenth century, chimneys were built of brick and found in most homes.
Chimneys are busy places and can be the residence for several types of creatures. Bats, blue-tailed skinks, squirrels, spiders, raccoons, chimney swifts and other animals take shelter within these structures. Tales of wildlife coming into a house through the chimney are common.
Found in North Carolina and most eastern states, the gray, cigar-shaped chimney swift was once a crevice dweller, but eventually transferred to the warm environment of the chimney to build its nest. The small birds spend most of their waking hours flying and catching insects to eat while in flight. They quickly dive into the water to bathe and come up shaking the water from their bodies.
Many modern chimneys are covered and have narrow flues, which are not suitable for nesting. The glue-like saliva, which the bird uses to cement its half-saucer nest to brick walls, no longer works.
In 2012, chimney swifts were added to the watch list because they are in steep decline. Swifts migrate to South America and spend the winter in Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. Although the swift is gone, the nest will remain in the chimney.
Santa might also encounter a nasty substance called creosote, which is a by-product of incomplete combustion. Burning fossil fuels such as wood and coal produces water, carbon, and volatile chemicals which condense on chimney surfaces. All forms of creosote are highly combustible.
Several factors can make the build-up worse. Restricting air flow by closing fireplace doors, failing to open the damper completely, burning unseasoned wood, and overloading a firebox can all accelerate the build-up.
This black, oily substance can eventually become a thick deposit which reduces the airflow in the chimney and may cause a chimney fire. Most of the time, the fire is contained inside the chimney, but if the fire is hot enough, it can ignite materials close to the chimney and cause a house fire. Homeowners should have their chimneys cleaned regularly by a professional.
Whatever Santa encounters, he always gets the job done with the help of many elves, of course.