Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Emergency management in the old house.

The last few weeks have been exciting on several levels, most of them bad.

Our first class premier emergency was when the boiler (furnace) was incapacitated. Of course, it was a really really cold week for that to happen. Ironically, the heating system failed because one of the "hot water" baseboard radiators FROZE. When it froze, it split the pipe and leaked water all over the kitchen floor.

For those who have never seen one, a hot water baseboard is just a copper pipe with a bunch of aluminum fins pressed on to increase surface area.

Of course, the great irony is that part of my heating system actually froze. It did this because the kitchen in general is poorly insulated, and the kitchen addition is even worse. When we first moved in, we discovered that the kitchen used to be much smaller. They remodelled by chopping out the wall that separated the kitchen from the porch, and then closing in the porch.

This produced a very unsatifactory end result from an energy standpoint. The old porch was a huge monolithic block of cement about 8 feet wide and 16 feet long. This now serves as the floor in the kitchen addition (just below the vinyl and plywood). The problem is, cement is about the worst imaginable insulator. So, if I were to measure the floor temperature over that part of the kitchen today, when outside temperatures hover around the freezing mark, the floor will probably measure less than 40F. When I came home the other day, there was a big scrap of foam insulation laying on the floor over by the sink.

Perhaps I left this out and just didn't remember. I really missed out on the "neat and tidy" genes, so this is a real possibility. When I queried my wife, she said she put it down so her feet wouldn't freeze off doing the dishes. That seemed completely legitimate, so we just leave it there now. I was also relieved that it wasn't just me being messy again.

That huge cold slab of cement is also what killed the copper pipe/radiator. The boiler only runs intermittently, based on if the thermostat is happy or not. When the weather got well below freezing, and even below zero Farenheit for a time, the cold cement block froze the radiator during a long off cycle.

To repair it, I turned the water on again (briefly) to that circuit and water gushed out indicating precisely where the leak was. I turned the water off, removed the cover and stripped off enough aluminum fins to get access to the split in the pipe. This is where I made two critical and incorrect assumptions. First, I assumed that the place where the water gushed out was the only leak. Second, I assumed that the radiator was made out of garden variety 3/4" copper pipe. It turns out that it's slightly bigger than regular 3/4 inch copper pipe, and it was only through heroic and creative measures that I successfully soldered a patch into the pipe. McGuyver would have been proud I'm sure.

The big and fatal assumption was that there was only one leak. Once I really filled the pipe and pressurized it, it leaked at several places, and I also discovered that it had been patched before. At that point I threw in the towel and just turned the kitchen branch off permanently. Hey, the kitchen was freezing cold before, and it's freezing cold now but it doesn't leak. It's all getting replaced, so I didn't want to invest any more effort than necessary.

Once we could run the boiler without flooding the kitchen, life hummed along without interuption for almost a week. Then the electric water heater conked out. The overtemperature reset button kept tripping. I would reset it, we would have hot water for half a day, or a day, and then trip again. Replacing the overtemp device with a new one produced exactly the same result. This took several days of fiddling around to diagnose the problem and rewire the water heater. Since my wife showers before I do in the morning, she took the brunt of the cold showers, since I could reset the button and it would work again for my shower. Did I mention my wife is a saint?

About the same time the water heater failed, the potential buyers of our city house asked us to fix 8 piddly silly things, two of which were non-existant problems. Christina did make a few grumbly noises about working on the other house when we barely had a furnace and questionable hot water, but all of those issues were eventually resolved. The absence of hot showers in the winter time makes me grumpy too. We signed the papers today and officially sold the other house house. Now we can dump all that equity onto our debt and get closer to having NO payments. Won't that be strange? We're not there yet, but we can see it from here.

The last emergency was the lack of firewood. Specifically, the lack of cut, split and dried firewood. We had a substantial amount of wood completely prepared for the wood stove. But because of the very cold weather and the very poor insulation, we went through the wood at a furious pace. I kept waiting for a break in the weather, since it's not that sexy to be cutting, splitting and hauling firewood around when it's sleeting and snowing. Eventually, the weather won out. I had to shovel a path to the log pile, shovel a foot of snow off the log, hit the log a few times with a sledge hammer since they were all firmly frozen to the ground, roll it over to the splitter, do the hydraulic magic, throw it in the trailer, then stack it on the porch. None of that is as much fun when the weather is crapola.

While it is fun to use the word emergency to make it more dramatic, these events were really more like minor inconveniences. Yes, the boiler quit. But we still had a wood stove, a way to cook, and lots of friends that would have taken us in until it was fixed. We had lots of skills and resources to deal with the problem. If nothing else, we could have thrown money at it until it worked again. Yes, the water heater went out, but we still had running water and other means to make hot water if really needed.

Much of the world lacks even basic resources. I read a fascinating article about a guy who developed a simple solar oven for use in third world countries to reduce the need for fire wood and the ensuing deforestation. His design used "low cost", locally available materials, or so he thought. It's based on two cardboard boxes, one larger than the other so they nest, some plastic or recycled window glass, some aluminum foil and poof, you have an oven that can boil water. The space between the two boxes is stuffed with scrap newspaper, or straw to provide insulation. But in one of the classes where he teaches people to build and use these ovens, a woman appologized for not bringing materials, saying that she would have to save up all her disposable income for at least a month to acquire two cardboard boxes in good shape and some aluminum foil. Next time you see a cardboard box, be thankful for what you have.

Those of us with lots of resources have a God given obligation to be generous in every way that we can to share with those who have less. We also bear a huge responsibility to not waste these very finite resources, even if they are easily affordable to us at this moment.

That's stewardship.

Finest regards,



David said...

Hear Hear for stewardship!

Hopefully we will be able to come see your place sometime... perhaps when that cement work goes on.

troy said...

We would happily give you some hands on experience with the cement work.

Be careful what you wish for!



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