Furnace is fodder for hot competition with Old Man Winter


November 20, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Hope everyone enjoyed the recent spell of unseasonably warm weather. My furnace has been responsible for it.

Two Saturdays ago, in a moment of weakness, I hollered "uncle" and fired up the furnace. Virtually ever since then it has been warm enough outdoors to dry your shorts in the back yard. That means, I guess, that I have to chalk this year up as a victory for Old Man Winter.

Every year the Old Man and I try to fake each other out. He tries to lure me into lighting the furnace right after Labor Day. I try to hold out until Thanksgiving, which in my mind is the official opening of the heating season. One year I didn't turn the money-sucking machinery on until December.

When this furnace competition began, some 15 years ago, there was some logic involved. I lived alone in a rented house, and wanted to save money on utilities which I had to pay for. Now that I have a house of my own and a family, saving money is out of the question. Especially on utilities. After the meter readers visit our house in the winter they are in a very cheery mood. It makes me think they have a side bet with other meter readers on who can land the largest bill.

So like a lot of competitions, the one between me and the Old Man has continued long after common sense dictated it should stop. In other words, the furnace-lighting business has become a point of manly pride. It is a test of toughness. That is one of the things I tell family members who complain about being cold.

I also tell them the freeze warnings are part of "a passing front." And I promise "It will be warm again real soon."

On weekend afternoons if family members holler about being cold I tell them they should "get in touch with the environment." This means they should sit in the sunlight.

Lately while others have been jollying it up during the warm weather, I have been analyzing what went wrong this year. How I got tricked into lighting the pilot light, paying for all that gas, when it was warm enough outside to wash the car.

My analysis shows that I was softened up by a series of frost warnings in October. It seems like every night in October that I watched the late news, the weather person was saying "Get out the blankets tonight."

I ignored these repeated media reports about frost and freezing pipes, but they took their toll on my resolve. By mid-October I had pulled the garden hose inside and turned the outside faucets off. Usually I wait until Halloween to do that. But after last winter, when an outdoor water pipe burst, sending a torrent of cold water as well as the frozen faucet flying onto the back porch, I have become cautious. My analysis shows that another reason I chickened out and fired up the furnace too early was that I am getting older and I scare more easily.

One of the fears that ran through my mind as I debated about turning on the heat, was the possibility that when I turned it on, the furnace wouldn't work. A younger man wouldn't worry about that. He would believe that furnaces are on earth to make our lives easier. I believed that once. But then, in my first house, a furnace-cleaning crew broke the limit switch on my gas forced-air furnace. I am not sure what the device does, but I do know when my limit switch broke, there was virtually no limit to my repair bill.

Later when I moved into a rowhouse, I discovered the world of hot-water radiators. Radiators provide wonderful heat. But they have pipes filled with water that can break, right above your dining room ceiling. When this happens you have to call both a plumber and a plasterer.

Memories of these furnace foul-ups brought me to my knees. I crouched down near my furnace and vacuumed the dust and grit off the silent burner. I oiled the motor and the pump that pushes the water through the pipes. Still crouched in a submissive position, I lighted a long wooden match and pushed it toward the long-dormant pilot light. It came to life. And after 10 minutes or so, I cranked the thermostat up to the ridiculous setting of 75. The house never gets this warm in the winter. But this was a test setting to make sure the heating system worked

The fire in the boiler leaped to life. Hot water began moving through the pipes. I only found one leak, and it was a small one, which somehow healed itself. As the house warmed up, the gas meter clicked away. At least that is what I thought the noise was.

Come to think of it, it might have been Old Man Winter laughing at me.

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