The furnace goes on

the homeowner starts to burn

November 29, 2003|By ROB KASPER

I HAVE surrendered. The puff of smoke has gone up the chimney. I have lit the family furnace.

This year I thought I might be able to hold out until Christmas, but this week's piercing winds and plummeting temperatures forced me to abandon my cheap-guy pose and finally turn on the heat.

Another factor figured in the decision to fire up. One of the kids will be coming home from college for the weekend. Even though he, like most college students who are back in town for this holiday stretch, will probably spend more time visiting friends than lounging in the abode, I nevertheless wanted the homestead to be warm and welcoming, not cold and forbidding.

It hurt me to do it, but I turned our thermostat up, not to the usual 60, but to a toasty 64 degrees. If that is not hot enough for the kid he can go sit in the sunshine by the window and warm up like cats do. That option, of course, is available only if he gets out of bed before the sun goes down, an event that has about a 50-50 chance of occurring.

Like a lot of folks who heat their homes with natural gas, I have followed news reports about its dwindling supply and rising price, hoping to see some sign that I won't have to take out a loan to pay this winter's heating bill. Just this week, before I turned the furnace on, I was heartened by a news report stating that Interior Secretary Gale Norton believed that there is this mother lode of natural gas, enough to supply energy for every home in America for three years, buried on a deep shelf in the Gulf of Mexico.

I was hoping that this ocean of Gulf of Mexico gas would start flowing into Baltimore this winter and I could celebrate by turning the thermostat up to a toe-warming 68 degrees. But my spirits dropped and so did my thermostat setting when I read the fine print.

It turns out that there are what the secretary called "significant technical challenges" to overcome before that gas would show up in Baltimore or any other American city. A big challenge is drilling wells that are 15,000 feet deep to reach the gas. What the drillers really needed, the secretary seemed to be saying, were huge tax breaks, the kind that were in the energy bill that died late this week in Washington. It seems that no energy can flow until tax breaks do.

Abandoning hope for a Gulf of Mexico bailout this winter, I put on a sweatshirt and went to work on getting the home's gas-fired water-heating system ready.

I did a lot of dusting, but it was manly dusting. Popping off the bottom panel of the furnace, I stretched out on the basement floor and vacuumed the dust and debris that had accumulated underneath the furnace's gas burners. Before sticking my hand in the furnace, I double-checked to make sure the thermostat was turned off. If the burners suddenly kicked on, I would be a deep-fried duster.

Next I oiled the water pump and motor attached to the furnace that send the heated water coursing through the system. Then I snapped the thermostat on, watched the burners glow and prepared to bleed the hot-water radiators.

Bleeding the radiators, removing air trapped in them, is one of those annual household maintenance tasks that generate mixed emotions. I dread it because it signals the start of cold weather. But I like its familiar feeling of ritual.

Some radiators can be bled with a screwdriver. But to minister to mine, I fetched the radiator key from its warm-weather resting spot, an empty mint julep cup. Then I moved around the house, starting on the lower floors and working to the upper levels. Stopping at each radiator, I used the key to loosen a valve at the end of the radiator. Like a farmer milking a cow, I held a paper cup at the valve, waiting for the water to squirt through the opening, a sign that the trapped air was gone and the radiator would heat efficiently.

The water flowed quickly to the radiators on the lower floors. But up on the top floor, the lair of the boys before they went off to college, the pace of the water was slow, and rooms were surprisingly quiet. Since the radiators are positioned near the windows, there was time to stop and ruminate as the dusk deepened and the water worked its way upstairs.

I recalled that one night a mouse took refuge in one of the radiators. I went after the critter with a lacrosse stick, but, thanks to narrow passages of the radiator, I couldn't touch it. The mouse just sat in the radiator, smiling. For about an hour, it was a standoff. I finally coaxed the mouse into a trash bag and took it out to the back yard to dispatch it.

The sound of water sputtering out the radiator valve interrupted my rodent reverie. The last radiator had been bled. The heating system was ready for another winter. I put the key back in the julep cup.

I felt pretty good about having the house prepared for cold weather until I got back down in the basement and heard the "click, click, click" of the gas meter. I felt my wallet grow lighter. Maybe next year my Gulf of Mexico gas will come in.

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