Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 5, 2010
A chilling personal experience has taught me that gas boilers tend to malfunction at the start of winter. After enjoying an idle summer of kicking back in the cozy utility room, our boiler resents being called back into service. Short, squat and stubborn, it sits there mocking my struggle to force life into it.
Our boiler went on strike as soon as temps dipped into the 20s. The pilot light went out in the middle of the night, shutting off the heat to our house. On that cold morning, I had to resist my wife’s urging to pull up the covers, reach for the phone and dial the plumber: “Help!”
I thought the problem might fix itself. Like the natural born mechanic I am, I hoped that the evil spirits inhabiting this gas-burning demon would be appeased if I only supplicated myself to them.
The next night, I performed a boiler vigil: I got up in the dark, stumbled downstairs stark naked, and placed my hands on the cold, dark boiler. My supplications involved the physical contortions necessary to light the pilot, which boiler designers place in impossible positions just to humiliate homeowners like me.
I knelt down on all fours, fumbling with the lighter while holding in the critical red button. That’s when I noticed the cat gazing down from her perch with a look of utter contempt. Cats have this look down pat, especially when their pitiful owner is on hands and knees, naked on the utility room floor. Talk about plumber’s butt!
The next cold morning, I referred to the troubleshooting guide in the owner’s manual and decided the problem was a defective thermocouple unit. I bought one at the plumbing store and installed same through a tremendous challenge of digital dexterity. Only later did I learn that such contortions were unnecessary because of a procedure that the plumber later shared as a closely guarded trade secret that I was sworn never to reveal.
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With the thermocouple painstakingly installed, I switched on the boiler and ta-da! it worked … until 2 a.m. Again I was on hands and knees, just me and the cat, working overtime. The next day, certain that my problem was a malfunctioning flue, I replaced it at some cost and effort, but to no avail. For several more nights, it was just me and the cat. Finally, in defeat and desperation, and with pleas from my frigid (I mean, frozen) wife, I called the plumber.
After applying a plumber’s stethoscope to the inscrutable boiler, he diagnosed that it was in critical condition and suggested I order a new one. I finally realized that the evil spirits possessing my boiler would not be exorcized no matter how many naked prostrations I made, and so the new boiler was ordered.
Unfortunately, it would not be delivered for a week, so I had to rely on the wood-burning parlor stove in our living room, which I fed 24/7 just to keep us warm enough not to have to wear gloves at the dinner table. I became truly appreciative of the firewood my son and I had laid in over the summer.
I also gained tremendous respect for the Romans, who invented central heating millennia ago. They piped hot air from wood-burning furnaces beneath floors like today’s radiant floor systems, and used this technique to heat their bathhouses.
Our boiler is supposed to heat our tile floors, just like the Romans did, and there’s nothing like bare feet on warm tiles when the system works. When it’s not working, bare feet don’t appreciate cold tiles, especially when it’s 10 degrees outside.
Through this ordeal, I came to envy the Romans, whose central heating systems were probably more dependable than mine. Emulating them, I’ve taken to wearing a terry-cloth toga when I get up to check the pilot. The cat looks on more approvingly and the boiler’s evil spirits have taken pity to issue a modicum of heat.
The new boiler was finally delivered Thursday. It sits in a cardboard crate outside on our deck while we await the plumber’s return from a holiday trip. I gaze at that a crate with unbridled affection for the warmth it will one day provide. Meanwhile, I dutifully keep the old boiler flame alive as if it were the Tomb of the Unknown Plumber.
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