Living in the UK we are fortunate in that our climate is pretty mild most of the time. Summer-time tends to be warmish to hot on a really good day and winter is cool to pretty chilly most of the time. Of course, there are also unusual weather events that happen now and again and the last couple of winters have been more severe than normal. For this reason, plus the rising costs of home heating oil, I, like many others, have been trying to save on energy costs and looking at ways to avoid heat loss and control draughts in my house.
With four children and a husband who tend to leave doors lying open every time they leave a room, I've grown weary of shouting at them all to close doors behind them and although they ignore me most of the time my two year old has taken to getting up after anyone who leaves the room and closing the door for them whilst stating in her baby voice, "Keep heat in!" So at least my heat-saving efforts aren't totally in vain!
Last winter, after reading numerous online forums for information on retaining heat in the home, I started following through on some of the advice I came across. For instance, I'd known a lot of our double glazed windows were leaking heat so got a man in to fix them for me. Whilst this made quite a difference, we were still burning through quite a bit of oil. I fixed draught excluding tape on the door frames of some ill fitting doors and this too made a difference.
However, I couldn't help but notice that in the midst of all the heat-saving and draught excluding I was doing, there was one huge gap I couldn't do much about - the chimney. As with all chimneys, ours was sucking up all the heat in our living room and allowing draughty cold air to enter. I'd sit and gaze at it in the evening and wonder if there was any way I could seal it up temporarily. I like a blazing fire occasionally, particularly around Christmas time, and although it was an option I simply couldn't bring myself to get the chimney permanently sealed. But, whilst researching ways to prevent heat loss up chimneys I somehow stumbled across a product called a Chimney Balloon. Now, whilst Chimney Balloons have apparently been around for quite a few years, I'd never heard of them before and to be frank, it seemed an ingenious idea to me - simple, straightforward and relatively inexpensive compared to some of the other measures I'd taken to prevent heat loss in our house. According to their sales page a Chimney Balloon would stop heat loss and prevent cold draughts and it all looked and sounded very encouraging.
I'll admit right now that I almost bought one before wondering if I couldn't just make one myself. No harm in trying, I thought, so, I got an old pillow, wrapped it in a couple of black binliners and shoved it into the chimney. Next morning the living room was properly warm, perhaps for the first time ever. I thought I was a genius. Not only had I discovered a rather wonderful idea online that could be used, but I'd saved money by making my own.
Over the following months I couldn't help but feel happy with my warm room... but it wasn't long before I noted a few problems. For instance, I'd stuffed the pillow so far up the chimney that I knew it would be a difficult, not to mention probably very dirty, job to take it out. Ah well, we'd just not light the fire. (So much for lighting the fire occasionally then!)
Problem number two then reared its head - what if my husband or I forgot about the pillow and lit the fire? Would we be able to get the pillow out before being at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning? Yikes! The Chimney Balloon I had looked at had a little dangley device hanging from it to warn the householder to remove it before lighting the fire, so maybe I could somehow affix something to my pillow - if I could ever get around to it!
However, as the weeks turned into months something else much more immediately concerning happened. Our house got damp and not just a little bit damp but a lot damp. Mould was beginning to grow in the bedroom above the living room and windows in the living room and bedrooms became increasingly prone to condensation. It took me quite a while to put two and two together and to realise my pillow was the offending cause of this but thankfully I did realise that the chimney was so well sealed that ventilation was suffering in a big way. Our poor house couldn't breathe.
So, with much effort I removed my home-made chimney draught excluder and was horrified to discover the outer bag contained at least a full mug of water and the pillow inside the inner bag was mouldy. Yuck! No wonder our house had become so damp.
There and then I decided to bite the bullet and invest in a proper Chimney Balloon. Going online again to properly research Chimney Balloons however, I quickly realised that despite all the benefits they weren't entirely without their problems. Although many people commented on how wonderful and innovative they were, others lamented that they found their balloons deflated easily meaning they had to be re-inflated often - something that really wasn't very appealing to me.
Others alleged theirs had burst and again, I was worried. If I'm going to be spending money on a balloon that goes into my chimney, the last thing I want is it bursting on me! Some said their Chimney Balloons corroded due to the tar on the inside of the chimney or amplified rain noise whilst some simply found them difficult to put in and take out again. I even came across stories of balloons being sucked up chimneys on windy days!
Well, I was a little concerned as to whether or not a balloon would meet my needs and as often happens during online searching I began looking for alternatives to balloons.
Before long I somehow found myself on a website selling Chimney Sheep! Immediately I was intrigued. You see, last year I'd done a lot of research on wool quilts for beds. I had read about how wool is a great insulator but it also allows for ventilation. This was important for me as I wanted a quilt that wouldn't cause my husband and I to get too hot but which would also keep us cool in hotter summer months. I had been really fed up with the way our previous quilt bunched up and needed a good shake out every morning and wool keeps it shape so that was favourable to me too.
I decided maybe a Chimney Sheep would work for us and set about researching it. Straight away it appeared to be a very interesting concept indeed. Yes, Chimney Balloons came first and deserve much credit for developing such a fantastic new product, but the inventor of the Chimney Sheep, Sally Phillips, had taken on board a lot of the problems the balloons presented and came up with a whole new take on the product.
Basically, a Chimney Sheep is made from 100% Herdwick wool (thick coarse fleece that was traditionally prized in the carpet industry) and cut to shape depending upon the flue it will fit. Once you have measured the inside of your chimney, something you also need to do for a Chimney Balloon, then you simply place the Chimney Sheep inside and apparently never have to worry about it further. Because it's made of wool it won't deflate or burst, it can be easily removed without the need to deflate it and it can even be machine washed. It can then be safely stored for the times when you do need it and if, after years of use you find it is showing signs of wear and tear, you can simply replace the head. The old head is biodegradable making it an even better choice for the conservationists amongst us! Best of all, because it's made of real wool your room can breathe easily.
I was sold.
I ordered my Chimney Sheep and it arrived within a couple of days. Removing it from its packaging I was pleasantly surprised at just how lovely it looked and felt: soft, cosy and dense - almost too nice to be hiding in a chimney!
Now, normally I get my husband to do the messier jobs around the house, but I couldn't wait to try out my Chimney Sheep. I read the instructions, followed the directions and within a few minutes my Chimney Sheep was installed. I did have to put it up further than I'd anticipated and then pull it down a little to adjust it but this is all advised in the instructions. And that was it! I walked off and within just one day noticed our room was considerably warmer again. Not just as warm as when I had a pillow up the chimney, but I can't feel any drafts and although I can hear the slight sound of traffic outside, this is reassuring as I now know the chimney isn't completely blocked - there's still good ventilation so no risk of dampness but much less heat loss.
In fact, the only problems I encountered with the Chimney Sheep were measuring my chimney to get the right size Chimney Sheep and then some sneezing for a little while after I'd put it in the Chimney. I have allergies and the sneezing may have been due to the wool or the soot I'd dislodged. In any case, I stopped sneezing once the room had cleared of any allergens and I've had no problems at all since.
(By the way, I watched the very helpful video on the Chimney Sheep website to help me measure my chimney and to select the right size for our chimney.)
After installing my Chimney Sheep and being very pleased with its ease of use and more importantly its functionality, I thought it might be interesting to compare a Chimney Balloon with the Chimney Sheep directly rather than based on hearsay so I went ahead and ordered a Chimney Balloon.
Again, as with the Chimney Sheep, my Chimney Balloon arrived very quickly after the order was placed. It arrived well packaged and upon opening I was impressed at how small it appeared when rolled up. However, I must admit I found the tubing a little disconcerting. Attached to the Chimney Balloon was a rather odd looking contraption which I quickly realised was an attachment for inflating it. However, the instructions warn that you must only use this attachment with a hand or foot pump. Since I don't own either of those, I was instructed to remove the attachment and use the long plastic enclosed tubing and to blow into it to inflate it myself. I don't know why, but I'd assumed it would come with a small pump!
In my opinion, if you are intending on inserting and removing the Chimney Balloon regularly then a pump would be a good investment but it will inflate (if you'll excuse the pun!) the overall cost of the Chimney Balloon considerably. I'm also not sure I like the idea of having to blow into the same tube every time I want to re-inflate my Chimney Balloon not to mention there's also the added risk of losing the tubing which I imagine will be a bit of an inconvenience.
Anyhow, despite the inflating and tubing issues, the Chimney Balloon looks and feels surprisingly sturdy. I had envisaged a sort of glorified plastic bag but the plastic balloon is actually very strong and well made and like the Chimney Sheep, it promises to save on energy bills by preventing heat going up the chimney and cold air coming into the room in which it is placed whilst ventilation is not adversely affected.
Importantly, both products promise complete safety even if you accidentally light the fire as the Balloon will shrivel and melt and the Sheep will alight and disintegrate. Both also prevent soot and bird droppings from falling into the fireplace or onto the hearth - a particular problem on wetter days in our house!
Having unpacked and read all the instructions on my Chimney Balloon, I immediately worried it would be a little more difficult to place in the chimney than the Chimney Sheep considering that the Sheep is simply unwrapped, has an extension pole attached and is placed in the chimney.
With the Chimney Balloon you have to partially inflate it so it feels like a floppy pillow, then carefully place it inside the chimney before continuing to inflate with either a pump or via the mouth tube. The instructions warn not to inflate it to "drum tight" but that there should still be a little flexibility. I must admit I wasn't looking forward to removing my Chimney Sheep so soon after placing it in my chimney but I needn't have worried as it came out easily enough and although a little dirty, the mess was minimal. I placed it safely in my garage and then following the instructions on the Chimney Balloon got to trying it out.
I removed the short black rubber hose which is for use with a foot or hand pump and easily attached the mouth inflation tube as instructed. Then I opened the tap on the balloon and partially inflated it which again was a straight-forward enough task. I situated the balloon into the chimney and continued to inflate it. Whilst this is all very much what you would expect with a balloon type device, I did consider how anyone with breathing issues might manage and realised they'd most likely require a pump for use with the pump attachment, confirming my earlier consideration about the potential extra cost involved if a pump was necessary. Anyway, as I blew into the balloon I kept checking how inflated it was in case I over-inflated it. Once satisfied that the balloon was correctly inflated, firm to the touch but not taut, I checked its placement and was happy that all appeared as it should.
The Chimney Balloon needs to fit snugly inside the chimney as the makers warn that any rubbing will damage it and possibly lead to potential problems, and this is probably why some people have found theirs to have burst or deflated.
Again, as with the Chimney Sheep, there is a little handgrip to which you attach a reminder tag to help prevent you or another family member lighting a fire in the hearth. It also makes it easy to remove when necessary.
The Chimney Balloon has a curve at one end to help with ventilation thus preventing your chimney becoming damp and, going back to my own attempts at self-sealing my chimney, this is reassuring to know.
As with the Chimney Sheep, I could hear a little noise from outside with the Chimney Balloon in place but it didn't rain heavily during my testing period for me to tell if rain noise would be a problem. However, I can't imagine it would annoy me too much - I think I could cope with a little rain noise as long as the house is warm and draught free.
After leaving my Chimney Balloon in place overnight, my living room was still snug the next morning so the Chimney Balloon, just like the Chimney Sheep, certainly fulfils this need.
Regarding the online comments that balloons can sometimes be sucked up the chimney by the wind, the makers suggest in their instructions that you tie a piece of string from the balloon handgrip to the grate to help prevent this happening. Whilst this is good advice and shows that the manufacturer is listening to their customers, it would be nice if they'd included a small ball of string with which to do this - I, like many people, am not always able to find string when I need it and in fact didn't get around to attaching any string. Fortunately there was no strong updraught so my balloon stayed in place but it does seem like a bit of an after-thought to me and perhaps in the future the makers will address this aspect.
Upon removing my Chimney Balloon I was happy that it didn't cause any problems with deflating and although a little dirty, a quick wipe down with a damp cloth soon sorted that out.
In conclusion, whilst the Chimney Balloon was the original concept for temporarily blocking chimneys to exclude draughts and prevent heat loss, and has been purchased by many more people than the Chimney Sheep, I feel the Chimney Sheep is my personal preference. In fact, I've already replaced it in my chimney now that my comparison between the Chimney Sheep and Chimney Balloon is over!
Yes, the Chimney Sheep is a relative new-comer and in some ways is riding the waves of the Chimney Balloon's success, but I do feel it is simply an easier product to work with. Perhaps in time it will reveal flaws of its own, but for my money I'm happier with my Chimney Sheep. It's made from lovely natural wool, is easy to place inside and remove from your chimney, is washable, flexible and ventilation is not an issue. On the other hand, the Chimney Balloon is made from flexible laminated plastic, is also removable but is not just so flexible once inside the Chimney. It too is ventilating but in a different way so there's not a huge deal of difference between them.
As I've already said, I prefer my Chimney Sheep to the Chimney Balloon but someone else might feel a Chimney Balloon has advantages over a Chimney Sheep that I just haven't thought about or realised yet!
Pricewise, the Chimney Sheep that I ordered cost £30 plus £3.00 postage whilst the same size Chimney Balloon costs £22.20 with free postage but bear in mind that a hand or foot pump may be required if you are not able to breathe into the mouth ventilation tube for any reason.
If you are interested in finding out more or purchasing either a Chimney Sheep or a Chimney Balloon you can do so via their websites - http://www.chimneysheep.co.uk/ and http://www.chimneyballoon.com. Both are also available from selected online retailers.