A hot battle rages anew on the cold front: When to give in to warmth of the furnace

Saturday's Hero

November 11, 1995|By ROB KASPER

SOME FOLKS turn on their furnace as soon as it is cold enough to wear heavy winter coats. I agree, sorta.

I believe it is time to fire up the household furnace when you start wearing winter coats inside your home.

Our house reached that state this week. Until then family members had been keeping warm with solar heat. Namely, if they were cold, I told them to find a spot in the house where the sun was shining and to sit there until the circulation returned to their extremities. I also preached hope, reminding all that tomorrow will be a brighter, warmer day. This is called my theory of the inevitable warm front.

The trouble is that even if a warm front, like the one predicted to swing through today, warms up parts of the sunny side of the house, there is always the "dark side" of the abode. There the sun never shines, the teeth always chatter, and the temperature peaks at 58 degrees.

There is also the difficulty of staying warm at night, when the sun has gone into hiding. Lately our tribe has been gathering in the family room and wrapping ourselves in thick blankets. You can get quite cozy when you are stretched out on a couch watching television wrapped as tightly as a tamale. But if you have to move, even slightly, your tamale gets frosty. Thank the Lord for remote control!

My furnace-lighting goal this year, and every year, was to hold out until Thanksgiving. My motto has been: "Light no pilot light until the last drumstick has fallen." One year I made it all the way into December before I succumbed to familial outcries and turned on the heat.

But early this week, the temperature dipped into the 20s, it snowed a tiny bit and the house moaned in protest. Technically, this noise was probably caused by the contraction of metal ducts as the "hot side" of our rowhouse cooled down. But I've lived in this house a while, and I understand its language. It was saying "Turn the heat on cheapskate or I'll bust open a water pipe!"

Heeding this call, I went to the basement and prepared the furnace for another heating system. In furnace talk, we have a gas-hot-water system. This means that the natural gas comes in the house, goes through a meter, then travels to the furnace where the gas burns, heating up water. The heated water is pumped to radiators throughout the house, warming the structure and keeping icicles from forming on water pipes and family members.

This system is fine, except for the part about the gas going through the meter. As the gas meter clicks, I have visions of dollar bills being sucked from my tight fists and floating to that utility that, like a would-be starlet with an identify crisis, keeps changing its name. ("Like, I used be BG AND E, then like I was BGE for a while. And now, like, I am thinking I'll be BGEPEPCO.")

Some folks believe in keeping the pilot light in their furnace going the year 'round, even in warm months. Folks tell me heat from the pilot light, the small flame that ignites a larger conflagration, helps keep their basement dry.

Maybe so, but I don't turn the pilot light on until frost is forming inside of the living room windows. With me, this is a matter of principle, the principle of being a cheapskate.

Before I turn on the pilot light, I vacuum the insides and outsides of the furnace. Cleaning the furnace is similar to an archaeological dig. You never know what piece of the past basement life you are going to uncover. In prior years I have found long-lost, tiny toys, including an arm that once belonged to Batman. This year I found a walnut shell behind the furnace. Squirrels? Kids using my good hammer to crack nuts in the basement? Best not to know.

As I was cleaning, I spotted a crack in the cement that sealed the furnace exhaust pipe to the chimney. Fumes from the furnace are supposed to travel through the pipe, up the chimney and out to the wild blue yonder. I had just read a newspaper story telling how some folks in Essex narrowly escaped death after a bird's nest had blocked their furnace exhaust pipe, causing their home to fill up with dangerous carbon monoxide fumes. I knew there was no bird's nest in my chimney, I had checked the chimney last week when I was up on the roof. But I didn't like the look of that crack near the exhaust pipe down in the basement.

So I walked over to the neighborhood hardware store and the guys there told me what I needed to repair the crack was some furnace cement. This stuff turned out to be black, and gooey. It warned its handler to wear gloves and eye protection.

Furnace cement was from "the dark side" of basement life, but it only cost $2 for a small cup. Once I put on protection and picked up a putty knife, it was fun to smear the dark goo around.

Earlier in the day I felt depressed. Here it was almost two weeks before Thanksgiving, and I was going to turn on the furnace.

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