Cold snap turns up the heat

November 09, 1996|By ROB KASPER

I BROKE DOWN and fired up the furnace yesterday. It made me melancholy. Any year that I light the furnace before Thanksgiving is a downer for me. My wish, in the tight-fisted tradition of Scrooge, is to spend as little money on heat as possible. That means keeping the furnace fires quiet, including the pilot light, until family members refuse to believe that wearing sweaters or sitting in the sunshine will keep them free of frostbite.

When the proverbial puff of smoke signaling my surrender went up the chimney yesterday morning, the outside temperature was close to 70 degrees. That made the sting of defeat even sharper. According to forecasters, the warm air would soon be followed by an enduring cold front and, shiver-me-radiators, the possibility of snow flurries!

So like a losing candidate trying to put an upbeat spin on a concession speech, I tried to accentuate the positive aspects of my furnace-lighting experience. I took comfort, for example, in the fact that my tools, the long wooden matches, the can of 20 weight oil, and the radiator key, were where they should be. When you have to hunt for the tools to do a job, you begin to ask yourself, "Should I really be doing this?" This type of inquiry is anathema to a do-it-yourselfer.

I needed the long matches to start the pilot light that sits deep inside the Slant/Fin Series 100 Gas Boiler that I call "the furnace." It doesn't look like any of the furnaces of my youth. Those were massive combustion chambers that dominated basements and bellowed in the night. My modern furnace is green and, if it weren't for the pipes sticking out of it, might be mistaken for a short metal file cabinet, the kind found sitting next to an office desk.

Still, that furnace has made some memories. Yesterday, as I fired it up for another season, I remembered the January back in 1981 when the furnace and our firstborn were just a few weeks old. The new furnace started leaking, and there we were, in below-freezing weather with a new baby and no heat. I tracked down a plumber in South Baltimore who, when his wife heard about the newborn, pushed her husband out the door and to our house, where he quickly replaced a leaky gasket. "When I heard about that baby I wouldn't let him sit here," she told me on the phone. Good old South Baltimore.

The kid and the furnace are still with us. The kid has grown into a teen-ager. The furnace has remained the same size and, unlike the teen-ager, is content to stay in the basement, even on weekends.

I used the can of oil to lubricate the pump that propels hot water through the pipes. The label on the can says this is special oil, for use in lubricating small motors. I use this oil only once a year, and when I found this can sitting on the workbench ready to be called to its yearly lubrication duty, it gave me confidence that now was the proper time to put those 10 drops of oil on the pump bearings.

The radiator key showed up in a cup of junk I keep on our bedroom dresser. Finding this small metal gadget in the cup pleased me for two reasons. First, on the home-heating front, the discovery meant I could quickly go about the business of bleeding the radiators. Secondly, on the domestic relations front, finding the radiator key was proof of my contention, hotly disputed by some members of the family, that keeping a junk cup on the bedroom dresser is essential to the smooth operation of a household.

After the boiler in the basement had been running a while, heating up the water and sending it upstairs to the radiators, I went around the house carrying an empty coffee cup and a radiator key. I enjoyed this ritual bleeding of the radiators. This releasing of trapped air is done to make the radiators heat more efficiently.

My key fit snugly over a valve at the end of the radiator. My coffee cup went underneath the loosened valve, catching the stream of water that shot out of the radiator. The quick shot of water was a good sign, meaning that air, the culprit in this drama, had not taken up residence in the radiator, cutting down on its warmth and efficiency. A valve that hissed air, while technically a bad sign, also gave me some satisfaction. The hissing meant I was forcing the harmful air out of the radiator, and letting the benign hot water rush in to fill the void. Good was forcing out evil, the evidence was right there in my coffee cup.

Back in the basement, I checked the furnace, it not only looked fine, it also sounded the way it should. Every furnace I knew made distinctive sounds. The gigantic gas-burning forced- air behemoth I grew up with in St. Joseph, Mo., bellowed each time it started its cycle. My uncle's oil furnace roared each time it did xTC battle with the Chicago winter. My Baltimore furnace, a modern warrior, hums as it heats. And yesterday as I put away my tools, it was humming, its familiar, heating-season work song.

Pub Date: 11/09/96

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