Daniel Gainey, the owner of Advanced Chimney Sweep of Augusta, is an expert on the maintenance, science and design of fireplaces and chimneys, but he admits he's a bit befuddled by Santa's annual trip into homes.
Mr. Gainey spends the better part of December sweeping soot in preparation for Santa's big night. He said the motivation for keeping chimneys clean is twofold.
The first is safety. In 2004 and 2005, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 49,700 fires in the United States were chimney related, causing 40 deaths and $235.4 million in property damage.
The second: Dry cleaning at the North Pole can be expensive.
"I always tell people that we want to keep Santa's nice red suit clean."
The physics of chimneys are relatively straightforward, Mr. Gainey said. Chimneys have an opening no more than one-eighth the size of the flue on the fireplace end. The funnel configuration causes the hot air from the fire to push the smoke up and out.
It's an elegant design, Mr. Gainey said, but not much of an entryway. The average rooftop chimney is 13 inches square. Larger models could be 18-by-13.
Not much room for a guy whose gut is purported to be like a bowl full of jelly. He said some chimneys, particularly in houses with multiple fireplaces, provide additional challenges to Santa.
"There are curves in some," he said.
"But really, the most efficient design is straight," Mr. Gainey said.
He listed some simple ways of determining whether a chimney needs some pre-Santa TLC. These include checking the exterior for loose or missing bricks and mortar, visually inspecting the chimney interior, from below, for soot buildup, and possibly installing chimney caps -- although in all probability Santa hates those.
He also suggests not waiting until the temperature drops to call in the sweeps.
"But everyone does it," he said. "The first frost we had we set up 27 appointments in one day."
As for the big, red and jolly question, Mr. Gainey remains mystified. He has no idea how Santa manages his slides.
"I guess he has to get a good running start, suck it up and hope for the best," he said.
"And in case of an emergency, give me a call. I'll bring out my sticks and help him out."
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.