There are very clear checks and procedures to be performed at each of the three levels of chimney inspection. Established by the NFPA with the safety of homeowners in mind, these are the standards to which certified sweeps perform their inspections. If you fail to ask for proof of industry certification, we do not know what you should expect and, frankly, neither do you.
The three levels delineated by the NFPA* build on each other to ensure safety without unnecessary procedures, ‘damage’ to homes, or expense for homeowners. Only Level 3 inspections should involve doing things necessary to gain access to “concealed areas”. They are rare and are necessary only when “serious hazards” exist that cannot be inspected in any other way. They are the most detailed inspections and do involve “removal of components” to achieve needed access. Your chimney sweep will not, however, just start taking apart your fireplace system without discussing the problems first.
Level 2 inspections are far more common because they are required whenever something changes. Even restricted to your chimney, that encompasses a lot – different fuel, different firebox, new flue lining, warping, cracking, crumbling, rusting, rotting, and even different homeowners. Level 2 chimney inspections are needed “upon sale” of the property and after chimney fires or other sudden events that can damage chimneys. They involve inspection of “accessible” areas, so they may include ‘remote viewing’ of the flue with camera assistance. One way or another, the accessible system is inspected top to bottom.
What you are probably hoping for is a Level 1 inspection, which assumes that there have been no changes in your fireplace system. It also assumes a chimney that was inspected and found to be sound not more than a year ago. It involves the inspection of “readily accessible” components and nothing more than common household tools. Your sweep is not required to gain access to the interior of your chimney, but he or she will inspect everything possible to ensure that your chimney is safe.
*National Fire Protection Association