PEABODY — Ron Plante remembers a great piece of advice from his father, Al, who founded Boston Chimney & Tower Co. in Peabody:
"There's no substitute for experience," he used to say.
Experience is something this business has plenty of, as it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Over time, Ron Plante, now the company president, has garnered most of that experience working on smokestacks that carry steam and smoke from power plants at factories, hospitals and schools.
But Boston Chimney's expertise also lies in working on things at great heights, and that skill has allowed them to be versatile. Last week, for example, they were atop Abbot Hall in Marblehead to work on the tower finial and weather vane, which they had first installed 60 years ago.
We chatted with Plante about some of the milestones in the business.
What exactly is a finial?
The cap that goes on top — think of it as a hat — on the very top of the tower, 150 feet above grade. It's made of copper.
What does the Abbot Hall job entail?
We conducted a survey of the tower of Abbot Hall. They're contemplating much-needed repairs. I haven't received the full report yet.
Do you work on lots of finials?
We replaced the finial on the Custom House in Boston, over 400 feet in the air. We used a helicopter. We did that job in half a day, after doing a lot of preliminary work. It was well-planned.
What other kinds of specialized jobs have you done?
We worked on the Sagamore Bridge and Bourne Bridge for another contractor, who had a contract to work on the gas lines underneath the bridges, supplying the gas for Cape Cod. He had no access. I designed a system with cables, a smaller bridge underneath the bridge. That was our prime objective. We ended up doing the whole job.
You don't just work on the North Shore.
We've been to Trinidad, where we removed a 175-foot-tall, freestanding, self-supporting chimney. We've been to South Dakota, where we took down a chimney of similar size. We did a job in El Paso, Texas. It's a very unique service. We don't do any advertising — we don't have to.
But mostly you work on chimneys.
We're primarily in the chimney business. We don't do house chimneys. We don't do residential, but mostly industrial and commercial.
Are chimneys all made of brick?
They could be masonry, steel, fiberglass. They even have resins now that allow us to use fiberglass.
Exactly what kind of work do you do on chimneys?
We design them, build them, repair them, service them. We worked on a chimney at Lowell General Hospital. The interior lining was deteriorating; sulfuric acid caused deterioration of the bottom 15 feet. The grout was decomposed. The only things that prevented it from toppling over were some steel base plates. It's a very corrosive environment in the stacks.
Corrosion from sulfuric acid is common in chimneys?
It's normal in chimneys, particularly when they're oil-fired. Even gas, it's corrosive, but not as much as oil.
How tall do chimneys get?
Some of the stacks we work on are 400 or 500 feet tall. We just did a job at UMass Medical in Worcester; it's 200 or 300 feet tall. We put a new stainless-steel flue-liner in the stack. That's the lining that carries the flue gases from the boilers up through the chimney. An awful lot of flue linings need to be installed in chimneys today, because a lot of chimneys are bigger than they need to be.
Why is that?
They were built for natural draft, and they were burning coal.
What is natural draft?
Natural draft is created by flue gases coming from the boiler with coal-burning, coal-fired boilers. Warm air is lighter, and it creates a draft. Sometimes the exit velocity can be in excess of 100 feet per second.
Modern boilers work differently?
The boilers today are a lot more efficient. They have force draft, which works through fans built right into the boiler. So the flues don't need to be as big.
Getting rid of the particulates is what it's all about?
The point is to clean up the environment. That's why they built these 400- or 500-foot chimneys, to get the flue gases up into the atmosphere high enough so they wouldn't be a problem.
They don't build stacks that high anymore?
No, they don't have to go up as high. The technology has improved.
What's the tallest chimney you've personally ever been on?
500 feet, at Mount Tom in Holyoke.
Do you have any fear of heights?
I do. But when you have a fear and you focus on that fear, you can't function. You focus on what you have to do. When you have a phobia, it's all in the head. You have to cope with it, and you do that by focusing on what your job is.
Will the business stay in the family?
Ronald Michaud from Salem, he'll be taking over the business some day. He's been here over 25 years.