Count rates may reach very low levels in production processes with low defect levels. In such settings, conventional control charts for counts may become ineffective since the occurrence of many samples with zero defects would cause control statistic to be consistently zero. Consequently, the exponentially weighted moving average (EWMA) control chart to monitor the time between successive events (TBE) or counts has been introduced as an effective approach for monitoring processes with low defect levels. When the counts occur according to a Poisson distribution, the TBE observations are distributed as exponential. Although the assumption of exponential distribution is a reasonable choice as a model of TBE observations, its parameter, i.e. the mean (also the standard deviation), is rarely known in practice and its estimate is used in place of the unknown parameter when constructing the exponential EWMA chart. In this article, we investigate the effects of parameter estimation on the performance measures (average run length, standard deviation, and percentiles of the run length distribution) of the exponential EWMA control chart. A comprehensive analysis of the conditional performance measures of the chart shows that the effect of estimation can be serious, especially if small samples are used. An investigation of the marginal performance measures, which are calculated by averaging the conditional performance measures over the distribution of the parameter estimator, allows us to provide explicit sample size recommendations in constructing these charts to reach a satisfactory performance in both the in-control and the out-of-control situation. Copyright (C) 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.