Me, a Snowstorm and the Heating Guys: Two days in “Hell”

First, let me say that I know absolutely nothing about heating systems or hot water tanks or blowers or boilers or valves or thermostats. And anything involving electricity totally freaks me out. Changing a light bulb makes me nervous.

So, it is not surprising that I panicked when the heat stopped working a couple of weeks ago.  I was alone at the house with our two dogs and one cat. Ray was on a business trip and a frigid March weather system was bringing snow, ice and falling temperatures into the mountains of Asheville.

Actually, the heat didn’t totally stop working.

Even before Ray left, we knew we had a problem with one of the two ways we heat our house. We have pipes running through our floors that use heated water to warm things up.  I’m sure there’s a better way to describe that, but I’m doing the best I can here.

Skip, the floor heating guy, had already told us that his best “guess” was that we needed either a) a new blower in the boiler or b) a new control panel in the boiler or c) a new boiler.  Ray had previously decided to try the new blower first and it was on order.  I, of course, didn’t know a blower from a boiler.

We also have an electric heating system that is supposed to be used when the floor water heating system can’t handle the cold temperatures or when it isn’t working.

See how complicated this is getting?

So, without floor heat, I turned on the electric heating system.

The upper level was fine.  The main level, kitchen, living room and dining room, however, were not. It was getting colder by the hour. I called the electric heat company we had used before. Their technician couldn’t get here until the following day.

So I called Skip and learned that the blower was in and he could come over right away to fix the floor heat.

Day 1 in Hell:

Skip showed up, happy and smiling. He had the new blower and seemed to be looking forward to doing his manly stuff as the snowstorm loomed.

He had been to the house before, so he proceeded downstairs to the basement’s “utility room” with its tanks, pipes, valves, switches and other scary stuff. I call this room Hell.

I didn’t accompany him since I like to avoid HELL at all costs.

This is not my “hell”, but it’s similar

Four hours later, Skip was still in the basement. I wondered what he could possibly be doing. We have a TV on our lower level. Was he watching a movie?

I thought I’d better check on him, so I descended into HELL.

It was worse than I thought.

The blower wasn’t the fix he had hoped for.  “It’s inconsistent”, he said.

What’s that mean?

Asking a question was a BIG mistake. Skip happily began explaining the ins and outs of the boiler (which is called a Munchkin, believe it or not) and its connection to the water tank, the valves, the pipes and the thermostats.

30 minutes later, I was dizzy with information.

All I really had to know is that the boiler was integral to the workings of the system and it wouldn’t stay running.

The house had warmed up by several degrees while he worked on it, but it wasn’t going to continue to work through the day and evening.

“Do you want me to show you how to trick the boiler into coming on so that you can have heat tonight?” he said.

I should have said no.

Did you know that there is FIRE in the boiler?  That there are electrical wires pretty close to that fire? And that the fire has to be sparked into burning? And that air helps it spark?

Skip showed me how to turn an Emergency switch on and off (something I never hoped I’d have to do in my lifetime) and then how to hold my finger over an air intake switch INSIDE THE BOILER while looking closely into a little hole to see if the FIRE catches and burns.

This is the actual switch I had to touch. Scary, huh?

Just come down here once in a while and see if it’s burning , he said cheerfully.  If not, go through this routine.

Was he kidding?

The boiler was burning brightly and the snow was falling heavily when Skip left the house.

After he had pulled out of the driveway, I went down to HELL and the boiler was eerily quiet.

I steeled myself to try the “trick”.  The dogs were looking at me like… do you really know what you’re doing?

Eureka! It worked! For two minutes. Then the flame went out and the boiler died. Even though I forced myself to go down to HELL three more times that evening, it never worked again.

The floor began to get cold. The electric heat limped along. I wrapped myself in heavy blankets and went to bed.

Day 2 in Hell:

“Steve” showed up in the morning, pulling into our snow covered driveway. Actually, I’m sure Steve wasn’t his name, but I’m also sure I could not have pronounced the Russian equivalent.  It was obvious that our communication would be somewhat hampered by the fact that he didn’t speak much English. I glanced outside into his truck. No one else was with him.  It was just me and him.

I tried to explain the situation. He smiled and cut me off.

Where is unit? He asked with his heavy Russian accent.

What unit?

For heating.

Oh… outside under the deck.

No … where is inside unit?

There’s an inside unit? I guess it’s down in the basement.

Where is basement?

Obviously, he hadn’t been to the house before, so he wasn’t the guy who had installed the thermostats a few months ago. I had a bad feeling about this.

I led Steve down into HELL, where I glanced at the dead boiler.

Ah, here is unit. I work now, he said dismissively.

I saw him pulling off the front panel of a large ugly tank of some kind. Inside were multi-colored wires, lights and other assorted scary looking things.

Four hours later, I wondered if he was downstairs watching a movie.

Here are other snippets of our conversation during the day.

Him: Where is instruction book?

Me: For what?

Him: For thermostat.

Me: Should I have that?

Him: Yes …you should have.

Thankfully, I did.

Me (several times over several hours): How’s it going?

Him: Going very good.

Me: Are you going to be able to fix it?

Him (while reading instruction manual):  Yes … I fix.

Me: Are you ever going to leave?

I really didn’t say that last thing out loud.

Finally, Steve told me that everything was fixed. I didn’t understand his explanation, but I think he mentioned something about a burned coil (burned?) and “bad installed” thermostats.

By that point, all I cared about is that I had heat and Steve was leaving.

The outside temperature was nose-diving, the snow continued to fall, and the living room was getting warm and toasty.

I had a pleasant evening snuggling with the dogs in front of the TV, watching the snow, and drinking several glasses of pinot noir.

I didn’t return to HELL that night and I hope I never have to return there again.

Cathy Green