Although he lives in downtown Lexington now, Brion Barnhill’s dirty job keeps bringing him back home to Frankfort.
A certified chimney sweep, Brion, 33, owns Barnhill Chimney Co., a small business that “has been growing, nearly doubling every year,” he says.
He’s been chimney sweeping since 1995, and it was “happenstance” that led him into a job he loves.
“My older brother, David ‘Fireball’ III, was living in Atlanta when he got out of the Marines and a chimney sweep came to his house,” Brion says. “David asked him how he got into the business and he responded, ‘I’m hiring.’
“So my brother started to work for him and I went down to stay with David in the summer of 1995 and ended up doing the same work. I learned the business from my brother.”
Brion did his apprenticeship with a franchise company in Atlanta called the Mad Hatter, taken from the “Alice in Wonderland” classic.
“There are 30 Mad Hatter franchises in the country,” Brion says.
He completed his certification tests through the Chimney Safety Institute of America in Indianapolis.
A 1994 graduate of Western Hills High School, Brion went to the University of Kentucky and wanted to become a full-time poet or ethnobotanist before landing on rooftops and in fireplaces.
The slogan on Barnhill Chimney Co. vehicles is, “We Stop Fires Before They Start.”
The company has five full-time employees this time of year, the busy season, and four from March through July.
“Right now we have three trucks running and probably do four to five a day on each truck. We did a hundred in two days a few weeks ago at an apartment community in Lexington.
“They’ll hire us, and we’ll go through one after the other after the other with a big crew.”
The price for inspection and cleaning of a regular open fireplace is $175. Inspection by itself, if no cleaning is needed, is $95.
“We also repair and rebuild fireplaces, make chimney caps and other parts, and do pretty much anything related to fireplaces. We have a custom metal shop, which is tending to augment our slow season.
“Chimneys are all different shapes and sizes. So a chimney cap is not the kind of thing that China can mass manufacture a billion of. Every house has to have its own. That’s ideal for a custom metal shop because that’s going to be a local need. And that’s one of the needs we fill.”
Brion says the National Chimney Safety Guild recommends a yearly inspection of fireplaces.
Creosote, a cancer-causing dark brown or black tar is deposited inside a chimney flue because of smoke, which is the byproduct of incomplete combustion of fuel, Brion says.
“How much cleaning you will need is largely going to be a factor of how many fires you have and how cleanly you burn your fires. Wet wood is going to smoke more.
“If you have a slow draft, if the smoke doesn’t leave your house quickly, all of those things would be something a chimney sweep would help determine on an inspection.
“If you’re using your fireplace at any frequency, they usually need to be cleaned yearly, although we have some customers who use their chimney to heat their home and they have us out three times a year.”
In 2005, there were about 26,000 house fires from unclean chimneys in the U.S., Brion says.
“I think that statistic is low. When I talk to firefighters they make it sound like every day they’re going to somebody’s house. I think it’s not always being reported specifically.”
On a home inspection Brion places clean drop cloths in front of the fireplace and along a path to a door.
He opens the damper and looks up the chimney.
“Often we’ll need to do a video camera inspection to determine what we need to do next,” he says.
If it needs to be cleaned, he brings in a large special vacuum that keeps creosote from escaping into the room, and puts on a respirator.
“It’s a very dirty job,” he says. “But we do our best to minimize that as far as impact to a customer’s home. Creosote is largely contained by vacuums and drop cloths.”
“We have various tools of the trade that get the chimney cleaned, kind of like Mary Poppins with rotary tools. We have polyflexible rods with whips on the end to get the creosote out.”
A re-inspection follows the cleaning. Then Brion goes up on the roof “to see what’s going on up there.”
On Monday morning, Dec. 14, Brion did his yearly inspection at Buddy and Mary Vincent Breeck’s house on Port Collins Road in Franklin County.
The inspection and cleaning took about an hour.
Their house was built in 2002 and has a factory manufactured fireplace. On the roof, Brion noticed a rusty chimney cover, which resembles a shoebox lid.
“Unfortunately modern local building codes only require the chase cover to be made out of galvanized metal,” he says. “Because of that, it rusts rather quickly because it’s exposed to pretty extreme temperatures and weather.
“When it rusts, the water goes right in.”
Measurements were taken for a replacement.
“Back at our metal shop, we will fabricate one out of stainless steel to fit this chimney.”
The Breecks have known Brion a long time.
“Our son, Kevin, went to high school with him,” Mary Vincent says. “Brion’s work is very good. We’ve referred other people to him.
“He always does what he says he will do and he’s a gung-ho businessman. They had a barbecue cook-off for charity in Lexington, and Brion was barbecuing up a storm. He and his wife, Amy, are both very enterprising community members.”
Amy is an art teacher and they were married on July 7, 2007, on Don Stosberg’s farm in Franklin County.
Brion happily told the Breecks that Amy is expecting identical twin daughters in March.
Brion moved with his parents, David and Audrey Barnhill, to Frankfort when he was 13. His father was director of federal OSHA for Kentucky and Tennessee.
“I went to 13 different schools growing up, and I loved living here,” he says. “I definitely still consider Frankfort home.”
He says there are four certified chimney sweep businesses in Lexington.
“Our business is growing,” Brion says. “We’ve been lucky. A big part of it has been Jeff Gitlin. He’s been a mentor to me. He kind of took me under his wing. He was a chimney sweep in the local area for over 30 years.
“He’s out of Nonesuch in Woodford County. He’s really helped me a lot as far as business practices.”
Brion says his employees are all intelligent and creative.
Jake Myers, who was with Brion at the Breeck residence, is an engineering student at UK and a recreational pilot.
John Darko, a philosophy graduate from UK, is a graphic designer.
Barry Richardson, a philosophy graduate from Berea College, is a professional rock climber who used to own Climb Time on Leestown Road.
“He’s a metal smith and runs our metal shop,” Brion says.
Wes Thornton, a geography graduate from UK, “speaks Spanish fluently and owns beach property in Oaxaca, Mexico. He usually spends a month or two there in the summer, so the chimney sweeping job works out really well for him.”
Office manager Jamie McIntosh, a Transylvania University graduate, is an artist and fashion designer.
“I really enjoy working with them and the freedom of the job, going to multiple places throughout the day,” Brion says. “All of us are kind of daredevils so we enjoy being in the high places you have to get to.”
Brion’s Brittany spaniel, Aero, “is my mascot. He goes to work with me. The employees get to take their dogs to work with them.”
He says the toughest part of the job is “balancing work and personal life. When you own your business, you take it home with you.”
For relaxation, he likes to play soccer as he did at WHHS.
“But lately with the babies on the way, I’ve enjoyed doing home improvements. We live downtown in a 100-year-old Queen Anne house on Bell Place.”
After finishing his cleaning job at the Breeck house – off Steele Branch Road near the Kentucky River – Brion, in dark clothes, didn’t look dirty.
Since he annually inspects their home, the creosote build-up was light, he says.
“Creosote has a very strong odor, and I have a very strong sense of smell so I’m always smelling it. Some jobs are dirtier than others.
“Sometimes in repairing a masonry fireplace, I’ll rip the fireplace apart, crawl inside it and you won’t see me. When I come out I’ll be covered from head to toe in mortar and soot. Sometimes we’ll pull two hefty bags full of creosote out of a chimney.”
Brion says there used to be a very high rate of cancer among chimney sweeps.
“More than a hundred years ago, England passed a law saying all chimney sweeps must bathe daily,” he says. “After that, rates of cancer dropped precipitously.”
The Barnhill Chimney Co. employee handbook doesn’t specify one bath a day, “but it’s understood,” he says, laughing. “If you don’t, it’s very obvious.”
“Frankfort Faces” is a series that highlights people from within the Frankfort and Franklin County community. Each feature follows one of the city’s most unique personalities and includes a story, photos and video, which can be found by clicking the TV icon attached to the story online at state-journal.com.