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Spain’s chimney sweeps profit as consumers switch to wood fires

In homage to Reservoir Dogs’ colour-coded gangsters, he fashions himself as Mr Black, dressing up to look like he is wearing a dark jacket, white shirt and black tie, just like the diamond thieves in the cult film.

Ángel Vilches’s job, as one of Spain’s small band of suddenly very highly sought after chimney sweeps, is more commonly associated with dust and dirt than gangster chic. But he sees a parallel.

“I like the Harvey Keitel character who gets things done in the film because I am like that; I get things fixed too,” says the sweep, who is based in Segovia, about an hour’s drive north-west of Madrid.

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In a country adjusting to the reality of an energy crisis, the number of people who need someone to “fix” their clogged-up chimneys has just rocketed.

Angel Vilches Mr Black Chimney Sweep Segovia Spain Image via writer Graham Keeley
Mr Vilches is in demand as consumers seek to manage their energy bills (Photo: Angel Vilches)

Like other European nations, Spain is struggling with a cost of living crisis caused by the invasion of Ukraine and Russia restricting gas supplies to Europe, leading to soaring electricity and gas bills. Many have turned to what was until recently an old-fashioned way of heating their homes: with a wood fire using logs or pellets.

According to Tamara Pensado, of the specialist Firewood and Pellets in Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, there are waiting lists of up to two months for pellets and wood – which sells for between €180 (£155) and €525 (£453) a pallet.

Meanwhile, ManoMano, a DIY, garden ware and home interiors company, has seen sales of firewood and pellets rise this year by 474 per cent and 395 per cent respectively.

A move towards real fires was already under way before the current energy crisis. At the close of 2021, 497,556 pellet stoves and boilers were operating in Spain – 74,655 more than the previous year, according to the Spanish Biomass Association.

The switch to biomass heating equipment is being repeated across Europe, driven by consumers’ concern over climate change, as well as cost.

WOOD FIRE
Wood fires are gaining popularity as a relatively cheap form of heating (Photo: Getty/fStop)

And in Spain it means a good income for chimney sweeps. Vilches now makes more money in a day than he did in his previous job as a Porsche driving instructor, racing around a track in a high-performance car.

“There is a perfect storm right now,” he says fitting in a chat with i amid a constant stream of calls from customers needing his help. “What happened is that during the Covid pandemic people stayed longer in their houses and realised that wood fires could not only heat their homes, but had become fashionable.”

In Spain, a country where many people live in flats in densely populated cities, open fires are traditionally found only in second residences or rural villages and towns.

Vilches says the pandemic claimed the lives of many elderly people, who left their homes to younger relatives. Many lived in cities but moved out to live in the countryside in their inherited homes, taking advantage of the societal change towards working from home.

Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has changed the European energy market as Moscow cut gas supplies to the rest of the continent in retribution for a raft of sanctions imposed by the West.

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“After the war in Ukraine and the rise in the cost of electricity and gas, people are buying firewood and pellets to heat their open fires,” the chimney sweep says. “Since September, there has been a revolution.”

It is a picture supported by the Spanish Association of Manufacturers of Stoves, Fireplaces and Cookers of Solid Fuels, which expects demand for wood fires to grow by 40 per cent this year on 2021.

And it means that Vilches, who worked in London as a waiter for 13 years before joining Porsche, finds himself in the right place at the right time.

Spain has only 250 registered chimney sweeps at the moment and insurance companies will cover only sweeps who are properly qualified. So Vilches’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. “Many people are trying to become chimney sweeps right now. But how many are qualified is not so certain,” says the 48-year-old.

A good English speaker, he has attended chimney sweep conferences in Birmingham.

As the demand increases for his services, so does his price: Vilches charges €185 (£160) per visit, which he admits is at the top end of the market.

And he reveals that, contrary to popular myth, his job does not actually leave him very dirty at all.

Using a high-powered vacuum cleaner and various self-made rods to clean the chimneys means that quite often he does not have to go very near the chimney at all.

“Sometimes I get home after sorting out three or four chimneys and my wife asks me, ‘But where have you been?’ as if I had not been to work,” Vilches laughs.

Nevertheless, before he learned his trade, he remembers, he tried to clean up his own chimney – only to cover a new, white sofa in soot.

“It very nearly cost me my marriage,” he says. “Thankfully, my wife forgave me. Now I work less and earn more than when I was working for Porsche so that also helps my marriage.”

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