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Originally published in the December 2015 issue of Sweeping Magazine


Question: When I have a liner job that requires tile removal I refer it to another company. I'm thinking about adding clay liner removal to the services I provide so that I may keep those jobs. I have done a lot of research, and I've heard some conflicting advice. Should I break tile from the top with my drill and rods, or from the bottom?


by Mike Segerstrom 


That will be up to you, after you have weighed the pros and cons of both. You may even have to try both approaches, before you decide.

There are many things to consider when removing clay liner from the top or bottom. We will try to cover the basics here.

Personal safety! This should come first, even before protecting the client’s chimney and home. If we bring our equipment to the top of the chimney, there is an inherent risk of falling during the process. Wearing the appropriate fall protection is a must! If we have our equipment at the base of the chimney or flue, technically, we can't fall off the chimney. This is especially important if the chimney is tall off the roof, and we find ourselves wanting to stand on top of the chimney when braking tile. We should never stand on top of the chimney when braking tile! If the chimney is that tall, we should scaffold it off the ground or off the roof, or both if necessary.

And if using our equipment on the top of the chimney is our choice, we should use 3 foot tile breaking rods, not 5 foot rods. If we use 5 foot rods, that can put our drill near our head every time we put a new rod on. If the breaker binds and there is drill backlash, we could be hit in the head! This is especially dangerous if we are standing on top of the chimney, and can still be dangerous even with scaffolding in place.

If we choose to break from the bottom, there are other benefits besides not being able to fall off the chimney or roof. With a good exhaust fan on top of the chimney flue, dust control is easy. Some of us actually use fireplace exhaust fans. I've had mine for 10 years, and it still works like a champ. If we use any kind of fan on top of the chimney flue, we should be aware of where the dust is going. Open windows nearby, swimming pools, nice patios, cars in the driveway, etc. And if we break from the bottom, we won't have to set up scaffolding just to put a fan up.

If breaking from the top, it may be difficult to see our progress as the chimney fills with dust. Breaking from the bottom and using an exhaust fan, dust is evacuated immediately so it's pretty easy to see. One method to control dust when breaking from the top is to seal the opening at the base, with the right vacuum hose in the base of the flue. This controls the dust down and into the vacuum, and makes it easy to see. In smaller heating appliance flues and freestanding stove flues, the vacuum could clog as tile debris falls to the base of the flue.

When breaking from the bottom, there is the potential for tile and other debris to exit into the home at a high velocity. If we break from the top, the base of the flue or a fireplace opening are usually closed off or sealed up, so this may not be an issue.  When breaking from the bottom in a fireplace, leaving the damper frame in until the tile removal is completed  is helpful. Filling the firebox with empty buckets also helps to catch debris. But probably the best way to manage debris traveling at high speeds when doing a break out from the bottom in a fireplace, is to cover the fireplace opening with a piece of plywood. A notch in the center of the top of the plywood can be made to keep the rods in place.

And for those of us who have done tile breakouts from the top, at least once, the rods managed to fall out of the drill chuck and down into the chimney. This can be very frustrating, especially if it's as difficult tile break. When breaking from the bottom, the chuck might loosen, but the rods can't fall out and drop down the chimney.

There are some cases where it may be necessary to break from the top and bottom. Specifically flues that have mortar encased areas, offsets and/or very tall flues. With a good flashlight, and a straight flue, we can usually see our progress from the bottom. But when these situations come up, it can be difficult to see. When breaking from the bottom, having two way radios and someone on the roof to periodically check progress is very helpful.

All that said, there is much more to tile breaking that can’t be covered here. Today we looked at some of the pros and cons and different approaches when breaking from the top or bottom. We can set a policy, but sometimes the chimney construction will force us to try a different approach. As long as we schedule plenty of time, and put our safety first, in time we will figure out which method we are most comfortable with.

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