Near-death furnace is better than being frozen stiff any day

February 16, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD

Here are four words you don't want to hear when you come home from work on a frozen evening in February, with the wind howling and two feet of snow on the ground: "The heat's not working."

Beg pardon?

I had just walked in the door. My coat was still on. My work bag was still swinging from my shoulder. I felt a headache coming on.

"The heat's not working," my wife repeated.

She was wearing two heavy sweaters and sipping hot tea. The house was cold enough to hang meat.

In that instant, we looked at each other and silently communicated the horrible thought we had managed to push from our minds for the past several winters: This is it. The furnace is officially dead. We're all doomed.

This was followed by a full-blown anxiety attack, because the furnace had been on its last legs for some time and now it looked like we'd have to shell out thousands of dollars for a new one.

In fact, our furnace may well be the oldest furnace in North America. It looks like something you'd come upon if you were touring Benjamin Franklin's childhood home.

So we called the heating guy, and he was kind enough to stop by a couple of hours later, by which time the house felt like an ice floe in the Bering Strait.

For the next 30 minutes, he worked on the furnace, shaking his head sadly from time to time.

That's something you never like to see: someone working on your furnace and shaking his head sadly.

Finally the furnace roared to life and the heat kicked on, and the heating guy stood and snapped his metal tool chest shut.

Then he said the sweetest words you could ever hope to hear when you have a 200-year-old furnace: "You can probably get a few more years out of this thing."

I swear, I could have kissed him right there.

But he probably would have freaked out and thought it was some kind of Brokeback Heating Customer thing, so I didn't. Anyway, he ruined the whole mood seconds later when he said: "But you should probably go get some carbon monoxide detectors. Just to be on the safe side."

Well.

Let me tell you something: When the heat guy starts talking about carbon monoxide, that tends to get your attention rather quickly.

The deadly gas, also known as CO, is created whenever fuel is burned, and the heat guy explained it could be emitted by the old furnace through a crack in the pipes. And since it's odorless and invisible, you wouldn't notice it until it was too late, with "too late" meaning you were already dead.

Having spent most of my life trying to avoid death, I went to Home Depot that night and bought two CO detectors at 30 bucks a pop, which seemed like tip money compared to buying a new furnace.

As instructed, I put one in an upstairs bedroom and one downstairs in the family room and tested the 85-decibel alarm, which sounds like what you'd hear if you smashed a showcase at Cartier.

Then I started thumbing through the CO detector's "User Guide," which should really be called the "Disclaimer Guide."

Sure enough, one page of the User Guide begins like this: "CO alarms have limitations. Like any other electronic device, CO alarms are not fool-proof."

Terrific.

And from there, it sounds like it was vetted during a brainstorming session by the staff of the Harvard Law Review:

"CO alarms have a limited operational life ... CO alarms will not work without power ... CO alarms can only sense CO that reaches the CO alarm's sensor ... CO could be present on one level of the home and not reach a CO alarm installed on a different level. ... "

Then there was my personal favorite: "CO alarms are not a substitute for property, disability, life or other insurance of any kind."

So basically what the User Guide was saying was: Don't blame us if you come home one day and find everyone dead from carbon monoxide fumes.

To which I would respond: Don't blame you?! Don't blame the manufacturer of the CO detector?

Who am I supposed to blame, the cable guy?

The mailman?

Correct me if I'm wrong here. But wasn't the whole purpose of buying your product to ward off the Eternal Sleep?

Believe me, if anyone in my house checks out from carbon monoxide, it won't be the pizza-delivery guy we take to court.

But enough talk of doom and gloom and lawsuits.

So far, the furnace is working just fine, and we have yet to be jolted by the piercing alarm of the CO detector, signifying that death is mere seconds away.

So it hasn't been a bad week at all.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com.

To listen to podcasts featuring Kevin Cowherd, go to baltimoresun.com/cowherd.

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