Warm spell lets furnace rest after not-so-hot start

November 05, 2005|By ROB KASPER

This weekend's expected 70-degree temperature is terrific news for those who love to rake leaves in the great outdoors and for those who hate to heat our vast indoors.

As regular readers of this space know, every year I try to put off turning on the furnace in my Baltimore rowhome until Thanksgiving. It is a way to save money on heating bills, and over the years it has become, depending on which family member you ask, either a sign of character or proof of mental illness.

This fall it has been so warm that I am considering delaying the fire-up date even longer. Maybe I will wait until the CEO of Exxon-Mobil and his fellow energy company execs agree to funnel some of their blockbuster third-quarter profits back to homeowners facing whopping increases in winter fuel.

A glance at the 10-day forecast shows that the temperature is supposed to stay in the 60s and 50s for a while. This toasty weather is a bonus because my furnace has shown some reluctance to start the heating season.

I found this out when the system got a test run. It is a gas-fired hot water system, which means that the house warms up or at least becomes less frigid, as heated water circulates through radiators and feeder pipes. During the test run, the hot water did not remain in the pipes. Some dripped out from joints. These were new joints between new sections of pipe, a side effect of our kitchen renovation program.

If you are into pipes, and when you have spent as much time in the basement as I have, you usually are, you would have to admit that these were fine-looking specimens. They were copper with hints of bronze, and had a lovely sheen. When I have a little free time on my hands, I have been known to walk back to the furnace and admire the pipe geometry.

They are less than gorgeous, however, when they leak. These leaked because the solder in their joints did not hold.

I have always regarded soldering as a magical process. You get to fire up a propane torch, which heats up a pipe joint that has been brushed with soldering flux. As soon as the flux bubbles and turns clear, you touch the tip of a roll of soldering wire to the seam and move the torch away from the solder. When the alchemy works, the wire melts instantly and is drawn into the joint, forming an unbroken ring around the joint.

In this case, however, the ring at the joint was imperfect in several places. This often happens to me when I solder. But I had not done this work. A real plumber who was having a bad soldering day did it.

There was also another problem. Once the furnace was ordered into action, the hot water heater stopped working. Both use natural gas. The stream of gas coming from the gas meter was so weak, that it could not support both the furnace and the hot water heater at the same time.

So while workmen scratched their heads and figured out what was wrong, the house had no heat and no hot water. Put another way, for a day or two we lived like hillbillies. And just to complete the picture, we had a toilet, a refuge of the renovation, sitting on our back porch. Moving to a motel was looking pretty appealing.

Eventually it was determined that the source of the problem was clogged pipes connected to the gas meter. The clogged pipes also appeared to be causing the faint odor of gas I sniffed when I walked near the gas meter.

So I called Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. When you call BGE and mention gas odor, you get a quick response. A workman came right out to the house and replaced pipes that were filled with rust. I am not sure how gas pipes get rust. It might have stemmed from the great water main break of 1985. Then a 30-inch water main erupted, creating a massive hole in the intersection of Park and Lafayette and flooding neighborhood gas lines with water.

Once the BGE guy replaced clogged pipes with new ones, the furnace and the hot water heater were able to function. But lately with all that warm sunshine during the day and sweaters at night there had been no need to call the furnace into action.

Next week when the energy company honchos appear before Congress, they will probably say that their huge profits are actually good for us. If instead they say they are going to share their newfound wealth by marking down the price of winter heating fuels, I'll fire up the furnace in celebration. But something tells me that before that happens, both my furnace and another fiery place would have to freeze over.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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