Remove Dead Animal from Chimney

Project Description

We need help locating and removing a dead animal from the house. It could be in the chimney. Actual location unknown. It creates a huge smell problem.

Visual inspection of the chimney shows nothing. However, bats used to penetrate into the house via chimney.

Burning wood in the fireplace helps remove the smell temporarily, mostly because a lot of in-house air is drafted out. Next day the smell of a dead body returns, especially when it is hot outside.

Another possibility is that something died in an in-house enclosure, such as a ceiling with built-in lights.

Completion Notes

The first thing to do is locating the problem. The smell is most obvious in the living room, but it is actually unclear where it is coming from.

Visually, there is nothing suspicious in the lower parts of the chimney, or anywhere else.

In an effort to isolate the source of smell, we sealed the doors and the fireplace with pieces of a polyethylene film. Smell returned next day, so an animal must have died in the ceiling, as it has a few enclosed lights, etc. But how do we actually see it?

One thing we could try is using a small USB camera and inserting it into the gaps between fixtures and ceiling parts.

USB camera (endoscope) used to find a dead animal
USB camera (endoscope) to locate a dead animal

The camera has a diameter of approx. 8 mm, so we can actually move the fixtures a little and insert a camera into the gaps.

However, interpreting results is kind of hard, as most pictures reveal something unknown, like from a spacecraft looking into the void. There is definitely no dead body here that we can identify.

Okay then, let's examine the fireplace again, perhaps our poly film did not seal it properly, and the smell comes from there. Here is how a fireplace looks like with the frame and glass doors removed.

Fireplace with frame and doors removed
Fireplace with frame and doors removed

Immediately above fireplace there are some large metal pipes used to warm room air, and an air shutter above them. The shutter is used to open / close access to the chimney. Below is a picture showing the pipes and closed shutter.

Fireplace shutter closed
Fireplace shutter closed behind pipes.

You can open the shutter with a metal handle shown on the left of the photo above. Moving the handle in direction of living room opens access to chimney. The image below shows a partially opened shutter.

Fireplace shutter partially opened
Fireplace shutter partially opened

Moving the handle rotates the shutter plate upward, therefore opening access to chimney exhaust. The picture below shows a fully opened fireplace shutter.

Fireplace shutter fully opened
Fireplace shutter fully opened

A fully opened shutter is at approximately vertical position. The shutter plate kind of stands, its long edge being horizontal, and narrow edge being approximately vertical. The exact fully opened position is actually at some angle, but for the purpose of this project it does not matter.

The point is that there is actually some room behind the shutter, large enough for a small animal such as a rat, a cat, or a squirrel.

Speaking theoretically, with shutter closed, and a small animal falling accidentally from rooftop through the chimney down, there could be a problem if the poor creature cannot climb out. If it dies there, one would not see it, just smell.

To prove this theory we need to look behind and below the chimney shutter.

Locating Dead Animal

There are actually a couple of ways to "look" in there. Although it is kind of hard, it is still realistic to obtain images.

The first method is using a phone camera. You start with removing a frame from the fireplace and opening a shutter. Install a light source above shutter so that the place is illuminated upon. I used a halogen bulb attached to a fireplace utensil as on the picture below.

Light source and viewing tool to find dead animal
Light source and viewing tool to locate dead animal

For the bulb to hold on above shutter plate, I made a hook out of wire.

Now, while carefully holding a phone in one hand, extend it just above the shutter, point the camera down, and make a few pictures or a movie. Make sure not to lose the phone!

The second method is using the endoscope camera with a handmade tool, as on the picture above. The shape of the tool allows you to insert and point the camera behind the shutter in the right direction.

Sure enough, we now can see a dead squirrel in there.

Dead squirrel in fireplace chimney
Dead squirrel in fireplace chimney

How to Make a Viewing Tool

To view behind a shutter plate, we need to insert the camera above the shutter, and then point it below and behind the chimney shutter plate. Therefore, we need something like two very narrow boards that are connected at one point at a sharp, adjustable angle.

Viewing tool for fireplace chimney prototype
Viewing tool for fireplace chimney prototype

Something like the above may work. The idea is that the shutter plate goes between the two attached pieces, and we may actually use the camera well below top edge of the shutter plate.

Viewing tool prototype with attached handle
Viewing tool prototype with handle attached

As the space to insert the tool between pipes is quite narrow, we need to adjust the prototype accordingly, and also attach a handle to it, so that we can use the tool from the fireplace entrance.

Viewing tool without USB camera
Viewing tool without USB camera

The above photo shows the entire tool with the attached handle, without camera attached. The handle is from a fireplace utensil. We aim at using the handle to insert the tool above fireplace, and then point it down at the correct direction to search for dead animal.

You can see the viewing tool with the attached camera on one of the photos above (#6 from top). We just bend the cord accordingly and attach it to the pieces with masking or electrical insulating tape.

Locating dead animal in chimney with USB camera
Locating dead animal in chimney with USB camera

Removing Dead Animal

Now that we know where the animal is located, we have to remove it. This part is a bit tricky, as the squirrel is quite large. After trying a few methods, this is what worked for us.

The theory is that we would try to make a removal tool, which is similar to the viewing tool we just made, but a bit more heavy duty. So, instead of styrofoam boards, we'll use two pieces of plywood as on the picture below.

Dead animal removal tool from chimney
Dead animal removal tool from chimney

We attached a camera to one side of the tool, and a shop vacuum hose to another. Below is a close-up photo of the removal tool end.

Dead animal removal tool with camera and vacuum hose attached
Dead animal removal tool with camera and vacuum hose attached

The important part is to bend the vacuum hose properly so that you can still insert the tool between the pipes up in the chimney. The space there is narrow, so you may get creative about how to do it, and may be use a smaller hose.

The hose shown on the photo above is from a shop vacuum, which worked for this project. For actual removal, we moved the hose end a bit further down, so that the camera is maybe 3 inches above it.

Also, instead of a fixed angle with 2 screws connecting plywood pieces together, for the actual extraction of the animal we used a 1-screw connection, which allowed to adjust the angle.

Also, instead of a fixed angle with 2 screws connecting plywood pieces together, for the actual extraction of the animal we used a 1-screw connection, which allowed to adjust the angle.

The removal procedure is as follows. Insert the removal tool up the chimney and then down behind and below the shutter plate. Locate the animal so that you see it on camera. Put the tool all the way down so that the vacuum hose touches the body. Turn on vacuum so that the body is sucked into the hose opening and is attached to it. Now gently try to move the tool with the attached animal up the chimney until it shows just above the shutter plate. At this point turn the tool around, so that the animal is in front of the shutter plate. When you see it, grab it with another instrument such as pliers or a firewood utensil, and pull it down between the pipes.

You can then use the tool to collect the remaining debris from behind the shutter plate into a shop vacuum.

Installing the Barrier

We can see that the animal removal procedure is quite challenging. To stop this from happening in future, we need to install a metal barrier in chimney to keep bats and squirrels off. We can use something like a fridge shelving element, with not needed pieces cut off.

Metal barrier to install in chimney to keep animals away
Metal barrier to install in chimney to keep animals off

We can cut off metal parts with an angle grinder as on the photo below.

Angle grinder together with metal barrier for chimney
Use angle grinder to cut off edges in metal barrier for chimney

Looks good, but if we use it like that then we can keep off squirrels. Bats will still get through. Let us install a wire mesh with big enough holes on top of it to keep away bats, too.

Note: do not use chickenwire for this! I made a mistake of attaching chickenwire initially and it clogged up with soot approximately after one year of occasional use (1 time a week). Therefore, use a mesh with wider holes and clean it up at least once a year, perhaps together with chimney sweep.

Now we can put the barrier on top of the chimney. A photo below shows the barrier installed.

Metal barrier installed on top of chimney
Metal barrier installed on top of chimney keeps anymals away
Chimney with installed metal barrier
Chimney with installed barrier looks the same

Now it's a good time to give a fireplace a test burn.