Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Warm Thanks

The other night, we came home to a cold house. The heater was supposed to be on, and the house was supposed 68 degrees, but it was only 60 degrees upstairs. Now, I know you people from Minnesota are laughing at me right now, but just bear with me. That’s cold for us Californians. Anyway, the thermostat appeared to be working, and it seemed to think that the heater was on, but it wasn't. I pushed it up to 75, and still nothing.

I announced to my wife that I would need to "go take a look at things" to which she rolled her eyes and groaned. She does that sometimes when I announce that I need to fix something. I never know why. Anyway, out I went to the circuit breaker panel and flipped the heater’s breaker back and forth. Nothing.

Unfortunately, that was all I had. I was out of ideas. Why hadn’t that worked? What now? Hmmm… There was one other thing I might be able to do. I could go look at the actual heater in the attic…

So, up the stairs I went, ladder in hand. My wife saw me with the ladder and immediately got that look in her eyes that you get when you see a sad-looking homeless dog shivering in the rain. It’s her “Marc is going up a ladder again,” look of pity. The look is always followed by her grabbing the phone and keeping her fingers poised over the 9-1-1 buttons. I pretended not to notice her lack of faith in me.

I set up the ladder under the access hatch, closed my eyes, tried to mentally block out all the previous ladder related falls, and then up into the attic I went. I made it up successfully, and flipped on the light. There it was. The beast, sitting docile, not making a sound. If you have never seen a forced-air heater in an attic, it resembles a large sheet metal box. There are no levers, no knobs, no digital readouts, and no hatches. There are, however, 200 wires that go in and out of the box from approximately 87 different places, but that’s it. There are absolutely no large buttons that said “reset” or "push here if the heater is not coming on when it's supposed to." Believe me, I looked. Those would have been helpful, but I guess heaters don’t have those. Since the act of staring at the heater had exhausted all of my HVAC repair knowledge, I was at a loss.

As I sat and stared at the unit some more, wondering what to do next, it rumbled to life. I had not touched a thing. I would like to believe that my superior mechanical troubleshooting skills were sensed by the unit, and deciding it was no match for me, it acquiesced, but who knows with this type of thing?

I contemplated my options. Now what? Do I take credit for this, or do I tell the truth? Since a lot of my fix-it projects end less than impressively, I could use a win. Most of the time, whatever I was trying to fix stays broken, and I end up inexorably damaging something else expensive in the process. So do I go down the ladder and score some serious man points? My wife knows far less about our heater than I do, meaning she is vaguely aware that we own one, and I happen to know a lot of impressive mechanical terms. I could march downstairs and announce that I have masterfully handled the repair. I had immediately recognized that the McGruder valve was sticking, the Johnson rod was off-center, and the dual-chamber mixing system was all out of whack. I took care of all that, and while I was up there, for good measure, I also recalibrated the framisator valve and oiled the falangee nut.

I could pull it off. I would look like a stud and she would brag about me. It felt wrong, though. Partially because my folks raised me not to lie, but more importantly, I had the distinct sense of foreboding that any claim of HVAC mastery would come back to bite me in the butt. I could picture being asked to take a look at one of our friend's heaters in the dead of winter, with their kids freezing in the house.

"The repair guy said it would be two days, but the baby is so cold he's looking a little blue."
"Oh, don't worry, I'll send Marc right over. He fixed our McGruder valve the other night in 30 seconds! I guarantee he'll have you warm again in no time!"
"Uh, honey... There's something I should to tell you."

After some quiet deliberation in the attic, morals and good judgment got the better of me, and I went downstairs to tell my wife that it was working again, and I had no idea why. She just said, “I’m glad you’re not hurt.”

Huh. I never know why she says stuff like that.

Anyway, my decision to go with the truth was validated big-time the next day when my wife called me to say it wasn't working again. If I had gone with the "I fixed it" charade, I would have been chastised for not doing an adequate job and expected to rush home and perform my magic again. Since I went the honest route, I was able to handle the situation with two simple words: “Call Al.”

It was Saturday, and Al the HVAC guy couldn’t be there until Monday, so we were going to be without heat for two days. They turned out to be the two coldest days so far this year, where the temperature got all the way down into the mid 40’s overnight. (Insert Minnesotan laugh track here). Luckily, our California home was built with a decorative fake fireplace in our living room. It’s the kind of fireplace that is supposed to be used pretty much only when you have guests over for the Christmas party. It is permanently behind glass, has ceramic log-like features, and you light it by flipping a wall switch. Basically, it’s an indoor gas barbeque with a window. We fired that baby up, and it somehow managed to keep the lower part of the house livable (by California standards) for the weekend. We bundled up with extra blankets at night, and made it through the frigid weekend by the skin of our teeth.

Al arrived two days later, and the moment he stepped in the door, the heater came on and worked normally. Al, being a professional, said the same thing I did. “I have no idea what’s wrong.” He poked around for a while and said he would order a part, just in case. I think it was the McGruder valve… just as I had suspected. Maybe I could be an HVAC guy after all.

Al and the mystery part won’t be back until after the Thanksgiving holiday, so we’re on our own for the big weekend. We have lots of family coming to stay with us, so we have our fingers crossed for the heater to keep magically working, but I’m a little worried. It quit again yesterday, with the forecast for last night at 25 degrees. In sheer panic mode we managed to get it running again by flipping some breakers back and forth. We were warm last night, but I get the feeling that McGruder valve isn’t going to last much longer.

If it doesn’t though, we’ll still be thankful for the fireplace.

And the walls.

And the roof.

And each other.

And if we happen to get cold and start feeling too sorry for ourselves, we’ll just pause and remember those American men and women who don’t get to be home with their families this year.

Our soldiers are out there, on foreign soil, without heat or A/C in climates far more harsh than anything we have in this country. Even in Minnesota. None of them get to kiss their kids goodnight tonight, or share a good meal with their parents tomorrow, and many of them don’t even have walls or a roof, either. I tend to think about things like that a little more during the holidays, and it helps me keep our little heater “problem” in perspective.

I really don’t have a worry in the world.

So to all our soldiers out there, from all of us here in our lukewarm house, we say, “Thanks.” When we count our blessings tomorrow, you’ll be at the top of the list of things we’re thankful for. God bless you all.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2010 Marc Schmatjen

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