Steve Trumble, the owner of Chimney Doctors in the Twin Cities, joins the show to talk about all things related to chimneys. The show starts off with Steve introducing himself and his company. He also discusses a metal fabrication company which he owns. Then, Steve, having a massive amount of knowledge about this topic, answers the following questions:
How can there be such discrepancies in most chimney inspections? Is there some type of standard that just makes it black and white?
What are the three most often things you see when you’re looking at the chimney?
What percentage of chimneys would you say are built improperly from the get-go?
What are some of the most common repairs that you make on chimneys?
How do you get up in chimneys and do the work with the damper in place?
How much do liners and smoke chamber repairs cost?
What type of license do you need to work on a chimney? Is there any special training?
What are these metal caps that your company, Sota Metal Fabrication, is making? What is it going to protect?
What do you think is the average cost to replace a traditional concrete form?
The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.
Bill Oelrich: As I look out my window, every single house has a chimney, they’re all brick, they’ve all got clay flue sticking out of the top of them, and they all seem to have problems when it comes time to sell. Welcome, everybody. You’re listening to structure talkies, structure tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich as always, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, your three-legged stool in the northland, talking to you about all things house related, thanks for joining us today. On today’s episode, we are excited to have Steve Trumble here, the owner of Chimney Doctors in the Twin Cities, and we’re gonna be talking all things related to chimneys because it’s one of those fun topics that seems to come up a lot when houses are sold, especially in the city. Like I live in the city, everybody knows I’m a core member of the Urban complex here, but as I look out my window, every single house has a chimney, they’re all brick, they’ve all got clay flue sticking out of the top of them, and they all seem to have problems when it comes time to sell, so we’re gonna get into this with Steve, he brings a massive amount of knowledge about this topic. So Steve, why don’t you go ahead. Introduce yourself, tell us a little bit about your company and how you got into the chimney business?
Steve Trumble: Thank you so much for having me guys. I have been in the chimney business since about 2003. I started working under a fellow named Michael McFarland, my girlfriend at the times brother was working with a chimney company and I needed a job, and I started working with him and worked with him on and off a little while, but ended up going off and start my own thing, but I still kept a relationship with him, I did some work for him, stuff that he wasn’t interested in doing as a one-man show, and in 2009 he passed away, and to Kinda help out, his family had two young kids, I purchased his assets, I guess you’d say, a couple of trucks from his family and his widow, and started working under Air Pro LLC, which was his company. And then we decided to change the name to Chimney Doctors, something that was a little bit more focused on chimneys specifically ’cause we don’t do air ducting anymore which he used to do. So that’s how I got into it, and then hitting it hard ever since.
Reuben Saltzman: And where are you at now?
ST: Yeah, right now, I have three people in our office and I have seven guys out in the field, and I also own a metal fabrication called soda metal fabrication, and we do custom chimney products. In that division, we have a couple… We have three employees in that company as well.
RS: Yeah, I wanna dig into that in a little bit, we gotta talk chimneys first, but what you’re doing with that metal fabrication, guys, I had a chance to go out and take a look at his shop just probably a couple of weeks ago, and it’s super cool, so we will… I’m teasing that right now. You’re gonna change the face of chimneys all over the Twin Cities here with what you’re doing, but crazy growth with what you’re doing, and you’re still out in the field, working that trolley yourself, aren’t you, Steve?
ST: Yeah, I am, as much as I can be, yes. I gotta work in it and work on it, so my 9-5 job is out in the field and my 5-9 job is working at a desk and trying to help take care of all the owner and leadership stuff.
BO: Is that because you just love doing the work that much?
ST: I do, I really do. It’s really hard for me to come out of it, but I know I have to, but I really do enjoy to… I really love helping people, and I love solving people’s problems, and I love working outside too. Building Chimneys is awesome, up on the scaffolding, nobody’s bothering you, crank the tunes and just labor it.
Tessa Murry: And Steve, I have to say, you are not afraid of pipes, are you?
ST: Yeah, no, definitely not.
TM: You know, there’s a picture of you, Steve, that we have. I don’t know who took it, maybe was Ruben, but it’s in our… One of our classes that we offer to real estate agents for CE, and we talk about just kind of the problems that chimneys can be, and we’ve got a picture of you on top of this chimney that’s like, I don’t know, probably three or four stories in the air above this house, I have no idea how you got up there and you are just hanging on to the crown, there’s no scaffolding or anything, it makes my hand sweat whenever I see it.
ST: Yeah, that was Milind.
TM: Was it?
RS: I think it was Milind who took that picture.
ST: Yeah Milind and I.
TM: Picture credit to Milind. We’ll have to post that in the notes for this podcast.
RS: I think that’s probably gonna be the cover photo for this particular podcast. Every time we do these podcasts, we gotta figure out a cover photo for it and this would definitely be it.
BO: I start sweating, just looking at that.
ST: You get a little too comfortable.
BO: So you knew at a point this was a good match career-wise, because you’re like, “Nobody else will go up there, so I’ll go up there and as a result, I’ll get them great information and then we’ll exchange some value and… In currency for it.
ST: Absolutely. And we solved a really important issue at that person’s house. They were having… Their boiler and water heater liner was shot and the excessive moisture issues in the house and carbon oxide, so it was a… It’s a pretty big deal.
RS: So I wanna talk a little bit about how Structure Tech and Chimney Doctors has a relationship and how we know each other. This started, man, it was a while ago, we had more and more real estate agents asking us, “Do you do chimney inspections?” And then it turned into, “When are you gonna do chimney inspections?”
RS: And it was like, “Alright, I can see that this is an inevitability, we need to start doing this at some point”, and went on the website for The Chimney Safety Institute of America CSIA, that is the, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only certification, I know it’s not the only one, but it’s the gold standard for certification for chimneys and chimney inspections and work, and I got on their website and looked up everybody within maybe a 50 mile radius of our office and I had conversations with every chimney contractor here in the Twin Cities trying to figure out who would be a good fit for Structure Tech to partner up with, and I’m not bashing anybody by saying this, but I’m also not making this up to blow smoke up your chimney. Chimney Doctors is the clear choice. Steve and I just seemed to hit it off right away over the phone. He had a good attitude about it, he was open to it. I can’t tell you guys how many companies out there just have this attitude where it’s like, “Wait, what? You wanna send me business. Forget you, I don’t need your business”. I mean so closed-minded and steve was like, “Well, I’d be happy to talk. What’s your idea?” So we just met for lunch and we hammered it all out.
RS: I told them what we’re looking for, and he shared what they do, and it was a perfect fit. And it was the only really good choice we had, but it was a fantastic choice. So Chimney Doctors, we started subbing out chimney inspections and we would coordinate with them to do it, and we did it that way for, I don’t know, a year or two, something like that, and it worked out well except for perception. One thing I was looking for is if you find problems and a chimney is toast, the next thing that the buyers wanna know is, “Well, what’s it gonna cost? And who can do the work?” And I told Steve that you guys have chimneys that are in need of repair. I don’t want you to just automatically give them a quote, but at least to offer the clients to give them a quote if they’re interested.
RS: And we had a lot of people involved in these transactions who would buck and they’d say, “This isn’t right. You have a conflict of interest, you repair chimneys yet you’re inspecting it, therefore, whatever you’re telling me is null and void and I’m not buying it.” And it just got to a point where I was personally dealing with so many phone calls, not because of the quality of work or unfair estimates or any of that, it was just the fact that they did both the inspection and offered repair work, and enough people said, “This isn’t fair.” We eventually quit subbing things out to Chimney Doctors and we made an arrangement, I mean I said, “Steve, teach us how to do this, we wanna steal this business that we’ve given you, and we wanna take this in-house, teach us how to do this, and we have a good working relationship, and in return, you’re still gonna be our number one company we recommend for chimney repairs. To be fair, you’re not the only one, but you’re definitely the first.” And I think it’s been a good relationship ’cause I love having good contractors that we can send business to. Fill in the gaps Steve, did I miss anything?
ST: No, that sounds right. I totally agree. There was a lot of people who thought that since we fixed them, then we’re gonna find things or even make up things they probably would imagine, but at the end of the day, most of them don’t pass inspection. So I guess when we were working for you or subbing for you, we started just not offering proposals, “Here’s the issues, and if you request it from our office, we’ll give it to you.” But we didn’t want people to think that. We’re here to make sure that people understand what’s going on with their system, first and foremost, and understand the safety and risk involved in using a system that might not be as safe as it could be.
BO: Let me understand this. You take your car to the repair shop. They’re gonna look at it, they’re gonna tell you what’s wrong with it and give you an estimate for repair and then fix it, what is wrong with somebody doing the exact same thing with your chimney? Why do we have this idea that it has to be a separate inspecting agency versus a fixing agency? It just makes no sense. Where is the trust?
RS: Yeah, you’re pretty into the choir Bill, but that’s how it is, and that’s why we ended up switching stuff out, but I think in the long run, it was probably for the better because Chimney Doctors got so busy, it was almost like they don’t have time to do these onesie twosie inspections. I’m sure you still do your fair share of inspections, but it’s just… It’s almost like it’s something that gets in the way of your bread and butter, which is fixing chimneys right?
ST: Correct. Yeah, and we honestly, we don’t do a ton of real state inspections anymore, we were doing a ton with you guys, and I think maybe just because you guys are so big and get to so many houses, that mentality kind of spread through the real estate industry, like, “Hey, don’t use Chimney Doctors because they’re gonna find… They’re not gonna overlook things, they’re gonna find issues and it could potentially interrupt the sale of the house, or the closing of the house,” because we find problems with almost every single one of them.
ST: So I almost feel like we kinda got blacklisted from the real estate industry, which is honestly is fine by me because it was so fast-paced and so everybody needs everything five minutes ago, and it’s just like… And in most parts they’re just looking for numbers anyways, they’re just shopping around to see how much money they can get taken off the total or the sale price. It’s changed a little bit now where the market is where it is, but we do them and we’re not gonna change our inspection process for anybody.
RS: No, I gotta say, every once in a while… And Tessa and I have experienced this first-hand together, but every once in a while, you’ll get a chimney professional… I got air quotes, it doesn’t come through on the pod very well, but every once in a while you get a chimney professional who comes out, chimney is toast, or the chimney’s got obvious issues, and Steve, we’re not gonna name any names, but I know you’re thinking of some off the top of your head right now, they come out and they say, “Oh yeah, it’s got all this missing mortar, it’s got gaps. But it’s been this way for a long time. It’s gonna be fine. You got nothing to worry about.” What do you have to say to the people who do that Steve?
ST: Oh it’s painful. We normally are the ones that come out and have to clean up the mess. So I’ve seen it way too many times where young home buyers have an inspection done, they think they’re doing the right thing, they have a company come out and say, “Everything’s okay,” and then maybe something didn’t feel right, or maybe somehow they got a hold of us and we go out there and explain to them what’s going on, and they end up after the fact having to deal with all these issues and problems.
ST: And we had one happen just recently where the owner of a company came out, did a chimney inspection on it, said everything was fine, passed the chimney, we ended up going out there inspecting it, it failed in so many ways. The top of the chimney was literally falling off the house, and to try to make up for it, the owner of this other company said that they would come out and do all this repair works for free…
ST: To make up for the fact that they mis-inspected it. And the customer reached out to me and said, “What should I do?” I said, “Don’t do it. Just have it done correctly. You don’t have to go with us, but I would not go with somebody that started off that way, and I don’t think you can get away from the idea, the free sign on it.” And they did it, it took them five weeks to do it. We went out there, they set three new tiles, no mortar in between the tiles, it was a nightmare, there was two inches of mortar on their shingles, they damaged the gutters. It’s just a nightmare. And it pays to have it inspected correctly the first time. And there was a company that I’ve worked with recently that doesn’t believe in protecting chimney tops, it doesn’t believe in caps in any form.
RS: Now, let me ask you, Steve, how can there be such a discrepancy. How can you have one person look at it one way and somebody else come out and say, “No, it’s fine.” when it’s not, or vice versa. Isn’t there some type of standard that just makes it black and white?
ST: There is the NFPA 211 is the standard that we follow, and in my mind, it’s common sense. Water is the biggest enemy of most structures, and especially chimneys sticking out of the top of the roof being constructed with very porous materials. A brick can hold a cup and a half to two cups of water, so it really, really sucks in water. There’s cores in the brick that carry water and hold water, so a cap is the best thing you can do to protect it or a properly foreground something to stop the water penetration and water repellent is another thing that we use, but I haven’t personally talked to them about this specific issue. Hopefully I will actually in the near future, but I understand conceptually putting a lid over something could change the performance of it.
ST: I understand that I’ve had chimney systems where we’ve installed a single flue cap on a lining system, and it changes the performance of it. The chimney worked just well enough to draft, but when you put a plate eight inches above it, you’re causing turbulence and you’re causing some restriction to flow and it changes the function of it. I get that, but at the end of the day, it’s the structure as a whole, it’s the system as a whole, there’s something wrong when you can’t put a lid on something. That’s really the only argument I could come up with from that kind of stance, but there’s a couple of companies out there in the Metro here that are hardcore advocates of just put a screen up there, put a bird cage up there.
RS: Sure, and just let water dump right in through the top opening.
RS: Okay, and how is it that you can have some companies who say it’s fine to have missing mortar in the flue tiles, and other people say it’s not okay to have these gaps. How is there discrepancy?
ST: The flue cap’s temperature is 15-20 feet up the chimney system, obviously are much, much less than they are in the firebox and smoke chamber area. So I know that’s been a topic that’s come up in the past, like, “Oh, the temperature don’t even get up to a point where you could potentially have combustion.” but on the other end of that argument, when you have missing tiles or missing mortar joint in between tiles you start to get a build-up of creosote, which is a natural by-product of burning wood into places that we can’t clean and we can’t inspect, so once they’re outside of that lining system, they’re encased inside of a chimney and building up corrosive and acidic materials and very combustible materials in places that we can’t clean and we can’t inspect. So it’s very, very important that the system is sealed from the firebox to the atmosphere.
TM: So Steve, you mentioned something called NFPA 211, I think. Can you explain a little bit about what that is?
ST: Yeah, the National Fire Protection Association, code book 211 is the standard that we follow as far as construction maintenance inspection, stuff like that, of wood burning fireplace systems, solid systems.
TM: So it’s the best practice. It’s a standard, but it’s not required.
ST: Correct. Some states have adopted it as code, but ours is not one of them. We still follow the IRC, but our company personally uses that as a standard in which we inspect against.
TM: Okay, well, that’s kind of similar to the home inspection industry too, ’cause here in Minnesota, we don’t have any sort of licensing requirements or anything like that, so it’s kind of Wild, Wild West here.
ST: Same as a chimney.
BO: So, Steve, when you’re looking at the chimney, what are the three most often things you see? Missing mortars seems to obviously come up, what else is there in so many fireplaces that you encounter?
ST: Wood. Wood in in places that there can’t be wood. So basically, when you have an interior chimney system, the code requires that during construction of the chimney system and all of the products around it for an interior chimney, you have to have a two-inch clearance to anything combustible to the exterior of the chimney structure. On an exterior chimney, say, it’s going up the side of the house, you need to have a one-inch clearance. That’s the number one thing we see on almost every chimney system, and you guys probably see it every day. When you look up in an attic, there’s framing, there’s headers, there’s ruffing material, they’re siding materials, stuff like that, touching the brick, so you basically have the tile aligning system, a single course of brick, which is nominal four inches thick, and then you have wood touching it. So that’s the main thing that we see that almost never meets the standards. Along those same lines would be wood under the firebox or wood under the hearth extension. So a lot of times when mason’s build the firebox, you’re building it over the open cavity of the foundation of the chimney, so the way that they support it is they put a piece of plywood, so you’re building…
ST: Imagine you’re building up the structure of the chimney, you put a piece plywood in it with a little hole for an ash dump and then they build the firebox right on top of it and continue building the chimney. That’s another place that we see wood very often, and then thirdly, for wood is the hearth extension being supported by floor joist, not by the chimney System, so the Code and the standard requires that a hearth extension, which is basically the extension, the hearth is the floor of the firebox, the hearth extension is what comes out into the room to protect the floor from hot embers, but that is required to be built off of the chimney structure out of non-combustible materials. In a lot of the metro area houses, they build it right off the floor, the floor trusses, and they’ll pour a little three-inch slab and then put tile on it.
TM: I was just gonna ask, Steve what percentage of chimneys would you say are built improperly from the get go?
ST: Yeah. It’s really, really rare that you see that unicorn. It’s just not there. So always something.
RS: So if there’s this many chimneys improperly built, shouldn’t there be a lot of chimney fires every year?
ST: Yeah, there are 25,000 of them, annual structure fires directly related to chimneys.
RS: It’s a scary number. Yeah, we didn’t tee this up before the show, I just kind of figured, you’d know.
ST: There’s a lot, but some of the most problematic areas, or I would say the most problematic areas are in the lower portions of the chimney structure. So oftentimes when the hearth extension is supported by the floor joists, and it’s not supported by the same foundation that the chimney system is, there will be settling and a separation that you guys probably see it all the time. There’s a separation in between the hearth extension of the firebox, there’s wood under there, so a vast majority of structure fires that come from chimney systems happen right there or in the smoke chamber area or in between there’s what we call the lintel gap. The lintel is what supports the top of the firebox opening, it’s a piece of L-shaped steel that supports the face brick and chimney system above it. There’s oftentimes a big gap in there, you’ll see insulation and stuff stuck in there, sometimes you’ll see open charge framing stuffed in there. But there’s a header in there when wood dries out and the ignition temperature greatly reduces as the wood dries out and it kind of changes the chemical structure of it, and so when people say it’s been good for 30 years what’s the big deal? I feel like it’s just getting closer to the big deal.
ST: It’s coming, it’s just a matter of when, and it’s a matter of what night mom and dad are out of town and the teenager as a bonfire in their fireplace. That dad normally, it happens, and it happens all the time. My son was using it.
RS: I know I did my share of those growing up with fires. I remember we did one so hot that it shattered the glass on the glass doors in front of the fireplace.
ST: Oh lord.
TM: Oh my gosh. Steve so I guess there’s a lot of different issues that can happen with the fireplace and the chimney and everything, and there’s a lot of different ways to resolve it, but what are some of the most common repairs that you guys make on chimneys? What’s the variety of repairs that you can do ’cause I’m sure some of these chimneys, you just recommend rebuilding them, but what else do you commonly do?
ST: Yeah, so we do a lot of re-lining, which re-lining is basically when you remove an old tile system that has failed or has vertical cracking from a chimney fire or sudden current event, lightning strike something like that. So we shatter up the tile system and install an insulated lining system. There’s multiple reasons why we do it. Number one is so it’s a sealed system so it can contain the product’s combustion properly, but number two is it brings the system up to zero clearance to masonry. So what I mean by that is what I mentioned earlier, when an interior chimney system has to have two inch clearance the wood around it, and none of them do, a way that you can bring that up to today’s standards is by putting an insulated lining system in there. So zero clearance in masonry means wood can be touching the outside of the masonry and it’s okay now because the heat transfer just isn’t there anymore. So that’s one of the main things that we fix on chimneys systems. Number two is purging the smoke chamber. Smoke chambers, hearth extensions, and those areas are the main causes of structure fires, and so typically when a smoke chamber is built… Do we all need a little chimney 101. Does everybody understand that or do you want me to go through that?
RS: Most people probably won’t know what a smoke chamber is.
ST: Yeah I’ll do a little chimney 101. So basically, the firebox is the spot where the grate is where you actually like the fire. Directly above that is the damper that you open and close when you use or not using your fire place, and then above that is an area that’s kind of like an upside down funnel. So they build, they lay brick in there and they corbel it inward to funnel it down from the large size of the firebox down to the size of the lining system, and that area is often corbelled and by corbelled I mean steps. So when you look up in there it actually looks like a staircase from where they were laying the brick halfway over and then halfway over and halfway over, and they step it in, and a lot of times there’s exposed cores, which things can escape. Excessive amounts of heat can escape through that, and a lot of times they’ll be backed up to a garage, to a garage wall that’s been framed out, and that’s where a lot of fires start as well.
ST: The minimum thickness of a smoke chamber is supposed to be six inches using fire brick, nobody ever uses fire brick, or it has to be 12 inches if you aren’t using fire brick. So they’re normally a single brick course thick. Sometimes a brick tipped up on its side, which is two and a quarter. So secondly a lot of what we do is filling that lintel gap with, it’s called chamber tech 2000, which is an insulating material, and when you parge coat the inside of that smoke chamber area with an inch and a half of chamber safe or chamber tech, whatever material you’d be using, that brings that to the zero clearance in masonry as well. So as long as you have four inches of nominal masonry thickness, you can bring a smoke chamber up to code as well.
BO: Steve, how do you get up in there and actually do that work with the damper in place?
ST: You cut it out.
BO: You cut the damper out?
ST: Yeah, sometimes we have to remove the whole back wall of the firebox to get in there, depending on the application.
TM: How much does something like that cost Steve? The liner and a smoke chamber.
ST: I could give you ballparks, but we basically charge things based on the size of the lining system and linear foot, so how tall it is and difficulty of access, stuff like that. If it’s a 40-foot tall chimney, we’re gonna charge accordingly but we charge it by foot, and I would say on average, a reline is about 5,000 to 7,000 with a new damper system, cutting everything out, parging, smoke chamber, shattering all the tiles. And it’s a big job. It is a big job, and I think a really common misconception that people have is that we can just jam a pipe down the chimney. I’ve had thousands of customers “How could it be so much? Aren’t you just sticking a pipe in there?” And you can’t just put a pipe inside the tile system because it’ll be too small. It has to be adequately sized to move the amount of smoke based on the size of the firebox opening.
TM: I did not know that. So you have to if you’re gonna put in a liner, even if the flue is huge, you still should break out the clay tile?
ST: It depends, there are anomalies, but with basically the basic math of it is the lining system needs to be, for a round liner, it needs to be one 12th the size of the firebox opening. So if you are replacing it with a round liner and with a square rectangle is one 10th and one 8th. So there is mass involved, and that’s based on, and height comes into play too. The taller it is, the more draft is induced and there’s some change there too.
BO: Say you have a very small chimney and you can’t put a liner in the way you want, can you reduce the size of the firebox by putting an insert or something in to give you a smaller flue to work with?
ST: You can. It depends on the application really. There are a lot of older houses in Minneapolis and St. Paul that have little coal-burning fireplaces, tiny little where firebox openings that are like 24 by 24, and most of them are unlined. Pre-1920, most chimney systems didn’t have liners, so there’s nothing to remove. You can’t make any more room, so it gets pretty challenging and the majority of the inserts and things that we can use to accommodate those are designed for traditional firebox opening sizes of today, so there’s only one product line as far as gas inserts go that we can even install in those old coal burners.
RS: Now, you bring up a gas insert, are there ever situations where it’s like alright, this is gonna cost a ridiculous amount of money. You’re not even that keen on having a wood-burning fireplace. Why don’t we save you some money and put in a gas insert? Do you ever talk about that? Or is that outside you guys’ scope of work?
ST: We do gas inserts every day. Like I said earlier, a lot of what we do is not home inspection, in that process of it, so we go in there and really try to discover what they truly wanna get out of it. Some people think they wanna burn wood, but they don’t really wanna burn wood. I will talk people out of it all the time.
TM: I need you to talk my fiance out of it. He really wants a wood-burning fireplace.
ST: It’s a lot of work. It’s a mess and depending on your system, you know, it could smell like a bonfire in your house half the year.
BO: So Steve, you said 99.9% of what you look at doesn’t meet the standard or wouldn’t pass code. How is that possible? Is there licensing required to be installing this, and if so, aren’t you held to a particular standard? How can there be so much bad out there?
ST: Yeah, so a lot of companies aren’t pulling permits when they’re supposed to be pulling permits, and the company that are pulling permits, when we have a city inspector coming out of the authority, having jurisdiction in that area, come out to do an inspection, they show up in a Prius with no ladder. So that’s kinda… The answer.
TM: So we’re not just saying Priuses, we’re just saying they can’t fit a ladder in a Prius. [chuckle]
ST: [chuckle] I know. I’m saying, “Hold… No, I’m there for Priuses.” But, they’ll show up in this tiny little car with no tools, no ladders, no anything, and a lot of times they’ll peek up from the car. “Oh looks good.” We really focus on doing everything perfectly, and it’s kind of discouraging when they come out and we’ll do installs, and our guys are really diligent about doing things exactly as they’re supposed to be done, and then they barely get into the yard, so they’re not inspecting these fire place systems from the get-go, even new construction, they don’t leave the ground, just for liability purposes, many inspectors do not leave the ground, it’s very rare that you see them leave the ground.
RS: And what type of special license do you need to work on a chimney?
ST: You need a builder’s license, contractor’s license.
RS: Okay, that’s it. No special training? A general contractor. You are qualified air quotes.
ST: Correct. On top of that even, you don’t even have to have that in most cities, you can be considered a specialty contractor and get away with being able to pull permits with zero licensing and zero education.
ST: So just in the city. Saint Paul, Minneapolis are the ones that are pretty heavy unionized, and they require that you at least have a general contractor’s license, and if you don’t, you have to have an individual Minneapolis and Saint Paul City license, but at least it requires that you’re bonded and insured in the basics.
RS: Sure, well, Steve, I wanna have a chance to chat about these metal caps that you’re making. What was the name of the company again?
ST: Sota Metal Fabrication.
RS: Sota. S-O-T…
ST: Sota like Minnesota. Yep.
RS: Alright, cool. And what are you making and why does it kick so much, butt. [laughter]
ST: Okay, so basically what it is, it would be classified as an outside mount chimney cap, which is either stainless steel or galvanized steel or copper, big roof that goes over the top of the chimney, so it covers not only each individual tile system from water and pest infestations and stuff like that, but it also has a 6-inch overhang that keeps the top two to five feet of the chimney dry permanently. So as we talked about earlier, water is a chimney’s worst enemy, and if we can stop the water from hitting the top of the chimney, we’re gonna stop 75% to 85% of the deterioration that happens to all the chimney systems.
RS: And so that’s probably one of the most common things that we find with chimney is the crown or the wash, whatever you wanna call it, is all deteriorated. You got cracks, you got water intrusion happening between the crown and the clay tiles. That’s where all the problems start, and it’s expensive to redo those. We’ve talked about it, it’s like you gotta break the whole thing apart, maybe replace some bricks, you gotta set a wood form, you gotta pour the whole thing, you gotta set all the scaffolding up, you gotta come back, like what? A couple of days later to take down the wood form. And it is a lot of work, what do you think is an average cost to replace a traditional concrete form?
ST: Probably 1500 to 3000 bucks.
ST: Depending on the application.
RS: Alright, and so it’s a lot of time, it’s a lot of work, and it’s gonna last a long time once you do it right. But this other system you got, it’s completely replacing all of that, and we’ll put some pictures up or we’ll put a link to that website. I know you got tons of cool pictures on there, it’s really neat what you guys are doing and you make them custom for every chimney. Can you talk about the process of how you make these and how they get installed.
ST: Yeah. Basically, we go from a piece of sheet metal all the way through the powder coating, depending on the product. When our guys go out to inspect the chimney system, we take measurements length, width, tile heights, whatever’s venting through the system and get all those measurements, comes back to the shop, and they literally take a sheet, cut it, bend it, weld it, assemble it, clean it, powder-coat it, out the door. So start to finish, we do everything in-house.
RS: And so, if somebody has a chimney crown that’s toast, they call you guys up, you’ll go over to their house, you measure up the chimney and then you tell them what it’s gonna cost. They say, “Yeah, let’s do it.” You guys make the cover, and then how long does it take from the time you receive the order to the time it’s done?
ST: Maximum 10 days.
ST: We’ll have it installed, so that’s what our target is, we’ve been able to do it so far.
TM: Can I ask what the average price is or something like that.
ST: Typically, we’ve installed them better, 6-7-8000 dollars on massive chimney systems, but our average price is normally about 2000 bucks installed.
TM: Okay, and it’s maintenance free then it, right? Completely maintenance…
ST: Right. As far as inspecting and serviceability and stuff like that, we actually designed a cap style that is very, very easy to remove. Some of them… We have a couple different styles, but yeah, it’s important to be able to get under them.
TM: Great idea. Great idea.
BO: Did you guys buy a manufacturer that specialized in this type of material, or did you just build out a fab facility and started from scratch?
ST: We started it from scratch.
RS: Super cool, man.
ST: Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. I actually, yeah, one of my mentors, I guess you’d say, owns a chimney company out in Nashville, and he kinda told me about it and just clicked. It just makes sense. Even when we tell our clients about it, it’s just like, “Well, duh.” [chuckle] Imagine the side of your house without an overing, its the same concept, and then I got even deeper into thinking like, say, a Ford crown. It has an inch and a half overing. What’s it gonna protect?
TM: Yeah. [chuckle]
ST: Really, what is it gonna protect? And maybe the top half of a course a brick, that’s all we had, and that’s all we knew. So that’s what we’re doing, but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t protect much, and if you know anything about concrete, it’s not… If it cracks, it’s when it cracks. You have guys out there that are working hard to do it correctly, and then it’ll get inspected a month or two later, and there’s already hairline cracks in it because that’s just what concrete does. There’s so many variables and so many different weather conditions and humidity levels and stuff like that, that can affect concrete where it has shrunk too fast or set too fast and bam, you got a problem.
TM: So Steve, when are you going on Shark Tank?
ST: [laughter] Yeah, not my idea. It’s not my idea.
RS: Who’s the company in Nashville?
ST: Ashbusters Chimney Service.
RS: Okay, alright.
ST: Yeah. He has a metal fab department to it, I totally will give 100% of the credit to him. He brought me into the idea and really educated me on it and has been a massive help to us along the way. So we’re not reinventing the wheel here. People have been installing metal flue caps, years and years and years, just the concept of making them that actually overhang chimney and protect the top couple rows of brick is really what the game changer in what we’re doing.
BO: That’s outstanding, ’cause these old times could use a nice hat, that’s for sure.
ST: Yeah. [laughter]
BO: Well, I’ll see if I think we’re gonna put a wrap on today’s episode. Thank you so much for spending some time with us and talking chimneys. Can you tell everybody where they can find you?
ST: Yeah, absolutely. You can find us on Facebook, chimney doctors or chimneydoctorsmn.com, or sotametalfabrication.com.
BO: Alright, thank you very much, and thank you everybody for listening. You’ve been listening to structure talk, a structure tech presentation. We will catch you next time.