Monday, March 01, 2010

Out Of The Furnace, Into The Fridge

When we moved in to Chateau Stevie it had a boiler made as one of a batch, the rest of which were installed on RMS Titanic.

It had, I think, been converted from oil to gas in the far distant past, and had probably run flawlessly for thirty plus years before we saw it. The outside was rusty, and the coil1 would give only about one minute of hot shower water even with a lo-flo shower head, but it worked, sorta.

Admittedly we had to heat the top floor with electric heaters on account of the bloody plumber doing the plumbing "Genaro Fashion2" and relying on some sort of goodwill to move water out of the furnace-pipes-downstairs baseboard radiator-pipes-furnace circuit via a T-fitting and into the upstairs pipework.

What actually happened was that the vertical pipe would get hot, but no water would flow because there was no reason for it to do so.

One day the furnace gas valve required a tap with a Brummy Screwdriver3 to get it to open and provide us with life-sustaining heat and I finally had to admit we were in trouble. A quick check showed that we had hit the usual watershed: four grand in the savings account. Whenever we manage to scrape that amount up (which takes years BTW: no power earner me) something will come along to wipe out some part of the domestic infrastructure worth exactly that amount. It's sort of the universe's way of telling me exactly what my worth in the scheme of things is. One time it was a driveway that broke up and a hundred feet of fencing that fell over for example. This time it was a decent hot water system to replace the hope-anna-prayer job that was then sitting in the basement.

We had the Stevieling in the house by then, so I knew that keeping a furnace that might one day malfunction catastrophically was Not On. Accordingly we had fitted a "state of the art" Slant Fin furnace and a fifty gallon separate water heater, and had the installers create two pump-driven zones with proper valving for the upstairs and downstairs heating circuits. I still remember walking upstairs into warm air for the first time since we closed on the house, and the first post-water-heater-installation shower I took, five minutes after the last plumber left the house, which featured the luxury of being able to dawdle for more than one minute in the stream of hot damp.

The next day, which happened to be Thanksgiving Day, the brand new, state of the art furnace wouldn't fire up and the house was ice-cold.

I poked and pried and discovered that I could, by tapping hard on the flue vent, persuade the thing to open and the furnace to start. I spoke to the installer and said that since I could get the thing started manually, and since we were going out for Thanksgiving Day dinner that day, I could spare him sending out a team on Thanksgiving Day if he would set us up for a fix at start of business on the day after, Friday. He was very happy and promised that would be done.

Naturally, Friday rolled on and at 10 o' clock I called the installation company to find out what the hell was going on. The woman who answered the phone began her side of the conversation by asking "Do you have a service contract?" to which I answered "No". She then told me she couldn't send anyone out unless I had a contract with them. I then explained in increasingly harsh tones that I had a warranty, that the unit was less than 48 hours old and that if someone didn't come round and fix it at once I was calling the better business bureau and my lawyer, in that order. Someone came around noon and replaced the automated flue vent required by NY state law, the servo motor of which had malfunctioned, closing off the flue and thus triggering the fail-safe on the igniter.

The bloody thing malfunctioned every single year with the same fault for the first three years (the warranty period) and the same process of arguing with Ms. Service Contract or Nothing followed by threats followed by a late night visit by a "specialist" who would replace the same motorised flue vent was gone through each time. After the third replacement, the "specialist" said that legally the unit had to be fitted, but it didn't have to be used. The flue could be left open. The reason it is closed is to prevent backdrafts filling the basement with carbon monoxide, but the furnace also has a sensor to shut it down if it detects that happening (and it has on a couple of occasions when I've had a high-velocity fan blowing out of a basement window). So I had the unit deactivated.

The next failure, a couple of months later, was a carbon monoxide sensor shut-down caused by a freak windstorm, and the "specialist" showed me the secret restart button not included in the instruction sheet the installers left for me.

Then the warranty went out and the price quoted for a service contract by the installers would have put a man on the moon so we parted company. The furnace got clever and started chewing through thermocouples every year.

The thermocouple is a little copper tube that pokes into the pilot flame and tells the electronic gas valve that the pilot is lit so it can turn on the main gas jets when it wants to. When the thermocouple breaks, it breaks in "do not start" mode and the furnace does what it's told. The first I know of it is usually when I get home and enter a freezing house. "Why is it so cold in here?" I will ask, and get blank looks from the shivering women lying in wait.

This time I got up on Sunday morning, wandered about the house crashing into things and generally trying to get the old body started properly, and was ambushed by The Stevieling who said "The thermostat is set for 70 degrees but it is only like 60 in here. Is this normal?"

Now, in all the years she has lived there, she has been through several "cold house" moments and she knows darn well it is never "normal". This was just her trying out her mother's circumlocutory powers.

I went down into the basement, covered in sawdust and bits of wood from a frenzied attempt to dominate wood with power tools in a World Gone Mad the day before. I reasoned that it was possible that all the activity, including a high-throughput shop-vac doing duty as a dust collector, could have tricked the sensor into sniffing the dreaded carbon monoxide so I pressed the secret button in full expectation of hearing the boiler fire into life.

It didn't.

I wasted a few minutes taking the cover off the furnace and poking things in the hope Magic Poke Cooties would fix things, then stood up and did the Rage Dance while improvising a rap composed of my very best third order Words of Power.

Mrs Stevie said "Call the guy who always fixes it for us", so I did. This was a self-employed heating engineer who did a bang up job of restarting the damned furnace two or three times in the past and didn't charge a limb of any kind for the privilege.

He denied ever visiting us.

Since he wouldn't actually discuss things until we had resolved that, Mrs Stevie was forced to join the conversation (she was the only person who'd ever met him). He finally allowed as how he might have worked on our furnace, but said he was in semi-retirement now and couldn't help until Monday at the earliest.

Mrs Stevie then went and found another firm who agreed to come over4 and left for organised religion with The Stevieling in tow. I had to go and dismantle my production line so the furnace guy could actually get into the basement (which is filled floor to ceiling with crap everywhere there are no tools, workmates supporting tools, router tables on workmates or floor-standing tools). Since I was frantically trying to build a replacement top for the Jewelry Display Case of Annoyance, it was all very tiresome and I explained how tiresome it was at length, to the air in a monologue consisting largely of my very best fourth order Words of Power, as I moved, folded and dismantled various tool set-ups.

John the Furnace Guy came in, took the furnace apart, installed a new thermocouple, reassembled the parts5 and lit the thing, then presented his bill, all in a trice6.

I apologised as I paid him, but he said his bank had no problem cashing tear-stained checks, and since he always took the precaution of putting in ear plugs before presenting his invoice his hearing hadn't been damaged by my shrieks of dismay.

  1. American domestic furnaces often feature an internal coil that is used to heat a separate water circuit, typically used to provide the domestic hot water supply
  2. There're four ways of doing things: The right way, the wrong way, the hideously dangerously and/or uselessly wrong way and The Genaro Way. This is an ordered list
  3. A pipe wrench
  4. Mrs Stevie has a knack for finding reliable people on the strength of the briefest conversations, though I'm not certain threats are involved in every case
  5. And had none left over afterwards
  6. Defined in this case as just under an hour

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