Turning On Furnace Gets Cool Reception


            This has been the fourth year out of the last five when my furnace didn’t want to work in the fall. Who can blame it, really? My internal energy source also goes out this time of year.

            My house is heated by water—not steam, but hot water that circulates through radiators. Downstairs it’s the nicest, most even heat I’ve ever had. On the second floor … well, it doesn’t get to the second floor. It used to. There’s one radiator up there, and it compares to the others the way a weak early January sun compares to a clear August day when the sun strips your skin off.

            My furnace dates back to the mid 70’s. According to my research, that makes the boiler just middle aged, by hot water furnace standards. But I’m also middle aged, and some days I can barely make it down the stairs to where the heat is. Has my furnace been eating donuts for breakfast, ice cream for lunch, and Mountain Dew for supper, the way I did before my wife beat me into submission? Is it possible it needs … I don’t know … maintenance? (For those who don’t know, maintenance is that stuff other people do in their homes. I’ve been meaning to try it.)

            Speaking as a person who once had a sink trap explode in his face, I feel very strongly that my best approach to home heating systems is to not touch them. Still, there are times when I’ve had to, and those times usually ended badly.

            In the spring I have to shut the furnace down, which isn’t much of a problem. Power equipment often shuts down when I touch it.

            In the fall I have to start it up, and that’s where the trouble begins. Starting the pilot light? That involves natural gas, and matches, and me. I’m pretty good at putting out fires, but I’m also pretty good at self-first aid, and I’d rather not do either in my own home. I used to wear eye protection when lighting the pilot, but after thinking about it I’ve taken to putting on a full face mask. People look ridiculous without eyebrows. Also, I’ve had this mustache for forty years … that’s my longest successful relationship.

            About half the time the pilot, after lighting just fine, refuses to stay lit. Cursing doesn’t help. That usually means I have to replace something called a thermocouple, or thermalcouple, or thermoscoffee, or something like that. By which I mean someone else has to replace it. I try to cycle through all my family members, so they don’t get too tired of me.

            This item apparently—and I’m just guessing here—couples things thermally. Once it’s up and running we proceed to stage two, which is figuring out what else doesn’t work. Once it was some doodad electrical thingy on the side of the furnace, which apparently does … something. But, when it’s not the pilot light, it’s usually the thermostat.

            I just had my thermostat replaced for the third time. This is apparently unusual, which makes me wonder what I’m doing wrong. (Could it be it’s not my fault? Maybe, but I gotta go with the odds.)

            This year the pilot started just fine, with no burned hair smell in the basement. Then I turned on the thermostat and—surprise!—the heat kicked right on. It heated the place up to 68 degrees, then kicked off. Then didn’t come back on again.

            Naturally, I checked the pilot light, which was just fine. It was the only warm place in the house. Being a methodical person, I then went to the thermostat and dialed it all the way back and forth about twenty times. The heat came back on, and I declared to everyone who would listen that I had fixed the problem.

            You take your victories where you can get them.

            Then it shut back off, leaving me faced with the challenge of turning the thermostat like a ship’s wheel every time we needed heat. In the dead of winter, in a house that old, that would mean duct taping myself to the wall at night so I could set an alarm and reach over to twist the heat on every half an hour.

            I’m not sure that old wall would hold me, and the dog already thinks I’m crazy as it is.

            So I spun what I call my 911 Wheel: brother, dad, step-dad, coworker, stranger on the street who seems to have some mechanical aptitude … and it landed on my son-in-law. He’s a mechanical genius, quite capable of fixing or maintaining anything. When I win the lottery I plan to make him my chief engineer, if he’ll let me call him “Scotty”. I just don’t know if he can do the accent.

            In theory there’s a happy ending: Thanks to him we now have a working heat source in our home, outside of building a fire in the bathtub. (Not that I’ve ever done that—and by the way, pull the shower curtains away, first.)

            But now I have a programmable thermostat. In theory, that’s an improvement.

            In practice … now I have something that can break down mechanically and electronically.


  1. Yeah. Don't touch the radiator.

    1. We have a tray on top of the radiators, which holds water to help humidify the house. Sitting on the lid of that tray during winter is actually one of the nicest places in the house.

  2. I would be perpetually confused trying to figure out things like furnaces.

    My dad, on the other hand, finds such things easy.

    1. Same here. Much as I love writing, it's not the most practical job in the world.

  3. I've never heard of a furnace that uses water for heat. Interesting. I would never attempt to light the pilot light or even change a filter.
    Radiators? Interesting again. I can, however, open and close heat vents with little effort.

    1. It's pretty much just like steam, only hot water instead ... as for the pilot light, I learned from necessity!