Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Money Pit

(Funny movie, though somehow not as funny now that I own a house).

0430, Friday: Suddenly, I'm awake and I don't know why. Warm under the electric blanket but the air seems even nippier than usual -- we keep the house at 68 to 65, natural gas being expensive. Something does not smell right and that's not a metaphor. I lay there, listening for...I don't know what

Comes a tapping on my door. It's Tam. "Are you awake? Something smells funny and I think it's coming from the heat vents."

Oh, goldfish.[1] The blower motor already shut down once last summer after running for two days; the low-bid guys the home warranty company sent knew it was unhappy but it did run once it cooled down and they couldn't replace it unless it was actually belly-up. Could it have died for good? "Probably is. Let's have a look-see." I get up, find my sandals, put on a robe and we check the house. No visible flames. No hot spots in the walls. Attic and basement okay.

About then, the furnace starts up and the blower goes through a longer, louder run-up than usual, runs a few minutes, stops and I hear the burners and draft fan still running. Then the motor buzzes and bumbles and restarts, runs a few minutes longer and the furnace cycles off normally.

Not. Good. The hot-wires smell (actually hot phenolic and motor-winding varnish, but who's checking such details?) got stronger while the furnace ran, too. I set the thermostat to OFF, went back to the basement, felt around the furnace for excessive heat (nope) and popped the covers. Motor/blower assembly is at the bottom, on the intake side,[2] and the blower is hot to the cautious touch.

Rang up my preferred HVAC firm -- they've never tried to BS me and only charge for what they do, unlike the lads the previous homeowner hired, from whom I have a receipt for "changing" a nasty permanent (so-called) filter noticed on the per-sale inspection and which I found they, in fact, did not touch -- and their service allowed as how they would call me at 0700. So I made breakfast and rigged the house to do without heat for a few hours -- tuned on most of the lights, simmered a large covered kettle of water on the range with the recirculating fan going, and set up a heating pad in a couple of layers of towels for Tam's cat. The computer room, home to the gears-and-vacuum-tube monstrosity that "The Adventures..." runs on as well as the slick, silent, modern mil-spec devices comprising VFTP Command Central, stayed plenty warm and my cats consider it to be their room, so that was okay.

I got ready for work and when 0730 (or was it 8?) had come and fled, called the HVAC fixers, to learn we'd not see them until well after the time I had to be at work -- so I left Tam with a blank check and strict instructions to not flee the country with the furnace man, no matter how good he made it sound. Oddly enough, they did not, and by not so very much later, I'd spent most of my budgeted Christmas money without trying (or even being there) and Roseholme Cottage was reported to be toasty warm. (My definition of "toasty" may differ from yours -- then again, I spent one Indianapolis winter in a house with no heat, it being a double with a shared furnace and a neighbor who couldn't pay her half of the gas bill and I could barely manage mine. 65 is warm).

It usually is always something but this one was, at least, resolved in jig time. Not freezing is worth quite a lot to me, really.
1. As in, "carp." Knowing how readily I type letters out of order, the rest is left as an exercise for the reader.

2. "Where they all are," you mutter, but you're wrong -- the double I sort of owned in Collegetown had huge, old round coal furnaces with scary gas conversions, burner rings almost a yard across with a pilot in the middle (Hisssssssssssssssssssssssssss... WHOMP! when they lit). My side had a 50's-vintage Sears add-on blower in the cold-air return but the other side had been "upgraded" in the late 1930s, with a huge horizontal squirrel-cage blower stuffed in the top of the furnace where all the hot-air ductwork exited and a "historical" electric motor hung in a fancy spring mount on the outside, driving the fan wheel with a set of pulleys (about 5" on the motor to 30" on the blower) and a fully-exposed belt. The whole thing flexed and wobbled every time it started and there was one -- 1 -- HVAC repairman in town who would so much as look at it when it acted up; even so, he tended to shake his head, say, "It's a wonder this thing hasn't..." and give low, wondering whistles quite a lot. That place was also my first exposure to tube-and-knob electrical wiring. And lead-and-oakum joints in the drains. And-- well, you get the picture. But it had the second-biggest bathtub of any place I've lived, which made up for quite a lot.


Carteach said...

Lol... Memories!

Hit it here, here, there, then here again... that will jostle the armature just right and it will work for a few more hours. (g)

Reminds me of a fair portion of the places I have lived over the years.
ALWAYS have an auxiliary heat plan!

Anonymous said...

Bummer on the motor. Glad you got'er fixed. yeah, cold can suck goat hiney.

Shermlock Shomes said...

I'd like to see some stats on how often something breaks on the Jewish Sabbath (Look it up if you don't know it, Peeps!) vs. on a weekday when you can get someone over without any great delay.

Anonymous said...

If you had the time you probably could have fixed it yourself. We had a bearing "loose all it's marbles" a few years ago. I figured we would have to replace the entire squirrel cage blower. The local HVAC shop said, "We can sell you just the bearing if you want." $10 (or so, I forget the exact amount) and an hour or so of moving things out of the way so I could get access, finding the tools and fixing it and the wife and kids were cheering (the temperature outside was approaching zero and it got down to about 45F inside even with both fireplaces and some electric space heaters going).

But an hour of my time on the weekend isn't worth nearly as much as an hour away from work.

Rob K said...

You need a wood stove or a kerosene heater -- something that doesn't depend on electricity.

Roberta X said...

As far as I know, the only bearings in the whole setup are the ones in the motor. If I had had the time, I'd've just bought a replacement motor -- a better one than the original, if I could find one that would fit. W. W. Grainger's probably got one, if nobody cheaper does. (And once one has the old, dead motor in-hand, the next step is to find a local electric motor repair shop and just keep 'em fixed: there are not that many parts that actually wear out).

...But with temperatures in the teens and no good way to take time from work on short notice, it's not worth it to me.

Hindsight: The blower/motor combo in these newer, narrow-width furnaces can be bought as an assembly; the motor lives inside the squirrel-cage (and I'm told it can be a PITA to remove). I knew it was going to go out soonish. I could have bought a replacement and had it sitting beside the furnace, ready to go: unfasten and hang the controller PC board out of the way, remove 2-3 bolts and a dozen wires (or possibly just a multipin plug, I didn't look), slide the old one out, reverse the process and taa-daa! Or, as Handsome Dave at work pointed out, I might discover, as he has, that having the stuff ready to go is a sure way to keep the old motor running...

Roberta X said...

Oh, 'twas 0430 ack emma Friday, Sherm. Sunset was better'n 12 hours away. Anyway, I don't give my furnace anybody's Sabbath day off -- this may be entirely unfair of me, as I had never thought to inquire after the cultural and religious backgrounds of my household appliances. --There goes my PC merit badge! (Note to self: Never Mention This To A Too-Serious Unitarian).

(H'mmm -- is my furnace Sabbath-compliant? I'd bet yes. Many appliances are, if you know where to look. Figuring out how to accomplish it is a task for a rare breed of consulting engineer; one of the Science/Culture-type channels had an interview with one, very cool guy).

Turk Turon said...

I agree with Handsome Dave. A corollary (or is it a 'coronary'? No matter!) to Murphy's Law states that, "A part for which you have a spare will never break." I have tested this assertion with great success back in the days when I drove an English sports car.

Anonymous said...

Suddenly this balmy warm winter we've been having doesn't seem so bad. May be less than optimal for finding and performing terminal ballistics experiments on the local herbivores, but it makes for a pretty easy time keeping the nerd ranch toasty, and leaves easy weather for splitting more firewood should winter ever remember it's due here at some point too. 50F out now...might be worth actually wearing a jacket to the store today.

Frank W. James said...

During the 1970's northwestern Indiana had some lulu's of winter storms. My father got snowed in so bad on the last one he had to call the local excavator to come dig him out. Enough of that nonsense he reasoned so during the following summer he purchased an eight ft. wide $12,000 Canadian built snowblower for our 140 hp cab tractor.

Yeap, you guessed it. For the next 20 years we never had enough snow to cover, let alone plug, his drive-way again.

He said however it was just good insurance to buy that snow snowblower that did nothing but gather dust year after year after year.

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Sevesteen said...

I spent the winter before last nursing my furnace blower motor--About once every two weeks it would refuse to spin up, and just growl loudly. It would need a push to get going.

The surprising part was that I remembered to get the motor replaced before next winter...Took digital pictures of the wiring, took out the assembly, brought it to *hometown* Electric Motor Repair, and they replaced the motor in a couple days for $50.

Anonymous said...

Our old gas stove went completely toes-up, so we bought a new one, along with a “pull and dispose of the old one and install the new one” contract. Our local gas company had to do the new hook-up (the old-style connection was no longer up to code). While he was down in the basement he happened to look at our furnace, and 1901-vintage coal-fired, asbestos-covered boiler. Sounds similar to what your old place had, with a gas-fired ring burner shoved into the ash grate sometime in the 1930’s. We were real familiar with the “whooshhh-FWUMPH” ignition system, and I think you could have kept the house warm for quite a while on just the enormous pilot light.

He called my wife down to look at the exhaust vent…totally rusted out (hey, it was okay the last time I looked at it…in the spring). He apologized for having to do so, but “red-tagged” it and shut it OFF. Fortunately it was late summer here in Minnesnowta, and we didn’t need heat. For at least a week or so.

Several thousands of dollars later, including asbestos “abatement”, and we have a new furnace with a circulator pump (instead of depending on convection circulation of the warm/cold water). Part of the fun was watching the guys wrestle the multi-ton (okay, maybe only 4 or 5 hundred pound) old boiler up the back stairs…I never worried about the structural integrity of the stairs before that, and given that they didn’t collapse, I don’t worry about them at all now.

Probably the most expensive new kitchen stove in history, but well worth it. Our hundred-plus-year-old house warms up much faster, burns less gas, and doesn’t give me that queasy feeling every time it turns on.

This was a couple of years ago, just before natural gas prices doubled for the winter. That old furnace was probably all of 30% efficient, while the new one is almost 80% (which would stink for a forced-air system, but isn’t bad for a boiler). The furnace will probably pay for itself in 10 years, but it’s harder to get an estimate on the cost of dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.