Friday, January 23, 2009

The Winter Rules

It’s been a few years since we experienced an extended cold snap like the one that froze toes and closed schools last week. So long, in fact, that I forgot the rules:
1. Start the cars
2. Run some water
3. Let working boilers run.
Simple, right? The results of ignoring those rules are pretty simple, too.
1. Dead cars.
2. Frozen pipes.
3. “Boy, the house sure is cold this morning.”
First, the cars. With no school on Wednesday, we stayed holed up for much of the day, with just a couple of quick trips in Megan’s car, with the heater fan running full blast, full-time. My car, the trusty old green machine, stayed dormant from Tuesday night until Thursday morning, when I decided to go out and get things running in anticipation of an interview I had later in the day.
Back before the days of electronic ignitions and other automotive advances too complex for me to explain or understand, I would spend hours at the end of every day making sure at least one of our vehicles would start the next morning. My backyard neighbor and I shared a mixed and fancy collection of heat lamps, battery chargers, ether cans, jumper cables and other tools in that effort. If neither of us was able to get a car running, we’d spring into a frenzy of activity, often involving small explosions, electrical shocks, skinned knuckles and muttered curses until something ran
And so it went until spring.
With today’s easier-starting vehicles, it just takes something simple, like starting the car and letting it run for a few minutes the night before to ensure a charged-up battery on super-cold mornings.
But I didn’t
The battery on Megan’s SUV (our “new” car that’s just six years old with only 133,000 miles) was dead, and the neglected Trooper was just plain too cold to go.
Over the years, I’ve let my collection of car-starting tools decline, but I still own one. The phone.
A call to mechanic Mike Tarleton, who’s participated in the rise and fall of several of my old beaters, got quick results, along with a reminder that it’s never wise to brag.
“It’s probably because you talked about your car getting close to 250,000 miles in the paper this morning,” he chided.
“Well,” I thought. “At least somebody’s reading my column.”
But he started the cars and all was least until the next morning.
Remember rule #2? Some genius (not me, this time) thought it would be a good idea to route the pipes going to our kitchen sink into the west-facing wall, which does a dandy job of insulating them from any interior heat they might otherwise receive. The solution is to open the doors of the cabinet under the sink and leave a trickle of water running.
I forgot to do that, too, What I did remember, though, was how much you miss a working kitchen sink when you don’t have one.
Of course, opening the cabinet doors wouldn’t have done much good, thanks to my neglect of rule #3.
Our house is heated by a boiler that, when it’s really cold and really windy, runs constantly. There’s something about a gas-fueled, steam-filled pressure vessel roaring day and night in the basement that makes me a bit uneasy. I’ve considered something safer, like a homemade nuclear reactor, but haven’t gotten around to building one. So, on Thursday night, I decided it was time to do something and turned the thermostat down, way down, until the boiler finally shut off. Megan got up to start the coffeepot that next morning, then came back upstairs, where I was still buried under the blankets.
“It’s cold down there,” she said.
“I know, I turned the thermostat down last night,” I said brightly.
“Am I supposed to be able to see my breath in the kitchen?” she asked.
Galva plumber Terry Anderson was quick to respond as I bleakly tapped and tinkered with the cold boiler. He surveyed the situation, listened to my story, and casually pushed a little red button.
Whoosh. Hallelujah!
As a card-carrying member of the Cliff Clavin Know-It-All Club, I know I should be able to explain exactly what I did wrong and what that little red button did right. And hopefully, I’ll remember to push it if it ever happens again. But, right then, I was too relieved to ask as I went back upstairs to count the days until spring.

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