Tom & Esther Urban: Chimney Scanning Innovators
By Jim Gillam, Photos by Harriet Gillam
The Chim-Scan factory, headquarters of the fertile minds of chimney scanning pioneers Tom and Esther Urban, is located amid fertile rolling hills rich with corn and soybeans near Fairfield, Iowa.
With their single full-time employee, Marvin Fitzsimmons, building the cameras, and Tom and Esther doing everything else, including parts ordering, machining, welding, wiring, woodworking, marketing and order taking, it's a true Mom & Pop operation. Tom and Esther are a lively, industrious couple, cooperating at home and in business and finishing each other's sentences!
In addition to the business enterprise, Tom and Esther are home schooling their thirteen year-old daughter, Shelley. Quite a few in the chimney industry have watched Shelley grow up as she often accompanies her parents to conventions and workshops.
What is a Chim-Scan®?
Chim-Scan is a registered trademark for the vision product of the Urbans' corporate entity, Estoban Corporation. It is a remote imaging apparatus, designed to be raised or lowered into a chimney. Its purpose is to provide the viewer the ability to see the interior portions of the chimney up close, and to provide a view of areas that cannot be seen by regular visual means.
Other applications include air ducts, crawl space areas and other confined spaces, and search & rescue.
Chim-Scans are available in several different configurations including remote focus or auto-focus, black and white or color, a 12-volt power option and with a choice of one, two or no VCRs and/or a digital recorder on board.
In addition to the Chim-Scan itself, Estoban Corporation manufactures accessories and related products such as Kwik-Lock rods, robotic cameras for air duct work, and remote controlled carts for scanning in inaccessible areas.
Each Chim-Scan system is built from scratch using commercial grade and hand crafted components. Because the systems are a limited production specialty item for use in the chimney maintenance trade, parts are unique and many of them are made right there.
A rack near one wall holds bars of aluminum and grey PVC. "Our front plates are actually cut from solid aluminum," Tom says. "Then we drill it down and polish it before putting the lights in. The mechanisms and focusing, this is all done out of solid stock," he adds. "It has to be cut, machined off, finished, then the lens gets put on."
In order to accomplish this, they've accumulated an array of special tools. Esther says, "We have a wood shop for building the cases, a metal shop for many of our components..."
"...And an electronics shop for wiring," adds Tom. "Esther does a lot of the cable wiring."
And how did they learn to do all this?
"I have a degree in dairy science," replies Tom, "but I have done some night courses in electronics and machining technology. Thank God, He gave me a gift that I can work with my hands."
Tom and Esther met on a dairy farm in 1975 and were married in 1976 after Tom graduated from college. After a stint with the Peace Corps in Swaziland in 1977-1978, Tom and Esther started Urbans' Chimney Sweep and Supply in northeast Pennsylvania in January 1979. They learned everything they could about chimneys. Tom took courses on oil burner combustion and heat loss evaluation. They joined the National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG) in 1980.
Every day, they encountered a lot of glazed creosote. "Everybody bought black boxes and installed them in houses with outside masonry chimneys, built by their friends," Tom recalls.
Quickly realizing that attempting to vent relatively low temperature, particulate laden gases up cold, oversized chimneys created excessive deposits of creosote, the Urbans searched for a source of chimney liner pipe and began relining. "There wasn't anything commercially available yet for chimney sweeps," notes Esther. "We had to go to Chicago to buy liner!"
From the Chicago manufacturer, Tom learned of the concept of wrapping a liner with ceramic blanket, although it was not being used for chimney liner applications. "I actually brought the concept of wrapping stainless liner with ceramic blanket to our industry," Tom states proudly.
Along the way, they got involved with an insurance adjuster with a masonry background. Tom occasionally accompanied the adjuster as he made his rounds. Together they began to see the need for a better way to observe the interior of chimneys.
Tom went to the National Chimney Sweep Guild convention in 1983 and talked to other sweeps about his concerns.
"They were saying they could look down a chimney and see everything," Tom recalls incredulously. "I'm thinking, 'I've got 20-20 vision, but I know I'm missing things! Coming out of that convention, crossing the bridge out of St. Louis, I vowed that before the next convention I would have a camera system!"
When they returned home, Tom told the adjuster about his idea of finding a camera that could be used inside of chimneys. "Call me when you get it," the adjuster said.
Thus encouraged, Tom began looking for sources of equipment. Eventually he found himself at a security convention in New York City.
"It was huge," Tom remembers. "I talked with the security people about my idea. They said, 'You want to do WHAT with that camera!?'"
Tom did find one fellow who was interested in his idea. Tom emphasized that he wanted a camera that could be remotely focused to provide clear imagery.
After about four months of development, they came up with a camera system with a 9" monitor packaged in a footlocker on wheels.
At the 1984 NCSG convention in Washington, DC, Tom introduced video scanning to the industry. His invention was described as "the show stopper of the convention -- Hi-tech meets chimneys!" and he was interviewed by CNN.
Initial orders proved disappointing. "So we just used it in our business," Esther recalls. They offered their scanning services to insurance companies and began to do chimney fire damage investigations for them.
Eventually word about the Chim-Scan began to get around and orders started coming in. Tom began to spend increasing amounts of time with Fred Schukal of Sleepy Hollow Chimney Supply and Bill Paynton of Improved Consumer Products at various chimney industry workshops and conventions, providing relining instruction and promoting the idea of chimney scanning.
At home, Esther managed the service business. "People knew us," she says. "They were almost all repeat customers at that point. I'd call them and ask if somebody could put the big ladder up. Otherwise they had to wait until Tom came back. I swept a couple a day while he was gone.
"But after the second time around of just Esther coming, it was like, 'Well, where's Tom? Is he too busy to see us?' Actually, he was!"
Tom and Esther decided to focus on the Chim-Scan business and sold their service company.
"One door was closing and another was opening," reflects Tom. "I was talking to Bob Daniels [of Copperfield Chimney Supply in Fairfield, Iowa] about distributing our product when the topic came up about a new position with his company, a technical advisor. Bob asked, "Do you want the job?"
"After working out some details, we moved to Iowa."
Tom assumed the new position at Copperfield of Director of Technical Advisory Services in July 1985. His duties included answering sweeps' technical questions and running the technical day of Sooty Bob's seminars. Copperfield distributed the Chim-Scan.
Meanwhile, the manufacturing of Chim-Scans remained with an employee in Pennsylvania.
"We started getting phone calls that told us something was not right," Tom remembers.
Tom decided to leave Copperfield and bring the Chim-Scan manufacturing to Iowa. Esther jokes, "I offered him better fringe benefits. But not much pay!"
Built to Last
"The way the cameras are designed and built, you've got to be a beast to break them," Tom brags. Last year they had an opportunity to refurbish the third camera they made. It has seen three owners.
Today's systems are color but "if they want to stay black and white and the monitor is still good, we can just put a new camera in them," Esther says.
Not that they recommend it, but Tom claims, "They are designed to withstand a fall out of the back of somebody's van."
Tom has some problems with the "baby monitors" being marketed to chimney sweeps. "The idea of showing a customer something without documentation is a huge step back for the industry," Tom contends. "When the sweep has shown the client the problem on the monitor, is he/she then going to write all that information down? There is a big gap there!
"I think a $400 camcorder can do nearly the same thing, plus tape it for your notes for estimates. Or use a digital camera."
Serving the Industry
Tom, along with Jerry Isenhour and Ken Robinson, is one of the chimney and venting maintenance industry's leading proponents of documentation, and they have presented several "Diagnosis & Documentation" seminars around the country in recent years [see SNEWS - The Chimney Sweep News, March/April 1999, page 10].
Since his first presentation for the National Guild in 1984, Tom has appeared before hundreds of sweep and hearth industry groups. He's spoken on various topics, including relining techniques, oil burner servicing, and inspection practices.
He served on the NCSG Technical Committee from 1985-1999 and was its Chair in 1997 while serving a three-year term on the Board of Directors of the NCSG and Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA).
Tom and Esther were founding members of the Pennsylvania Guild in 1985.
In November and December 1999 he worked with the producers of ABC News' 20/20 show on a segment about carbon monoxide poisoning that was aired in January 2000 [SNEWS - The Chimney Sweep News, March 2000, page 14]. And in August he flew to Boston to provide vision equipment for an episode of This Old House.
Contact Tom, Esther and Shelley Urban of Chim-Scan at 641-472-7643. Check out their website at www.chimscan.net.