Posted by: Rob | October 17, 2008

Out with the Old and In with the New

We bought this place in 1996. The detached two car garage was equipped with an older model natural gas fired radiant heater. It stood on the floor and its flue ran up to the ceiling, through the attic and out the roof.

It operated with a pilot flame and was equipped with a quaint thermo-mechanical temperature control with settings for “Cool” and “Warm”.

It worked well enough in the early years, keeping the garage toasty warm. It seemed to require a minimum of maintenance. Every fall, in preparation for the long, cold winter, I would give it a once-over inspection prior to firing it up. Generally, the pilot would light after a few minutes. I would spin the temperature control up and down a few times to “exercise” it and let it run a couple of cycles before setting it to minimum.

After all, its main purpose was to keep the temperature of the garage above freezing. It didn’t have to be room temperature and the place is by no means a sauna.

As the years passed, the old heater started getting fickle. On more than one occasion I would enter the garage only to be greeted by an icy atmosphere and a stone cold heater. In all cases, the pilot had gone out.

I initially rationalized this as perhaps being due to strong winds, drafting down the chimney and snuffing out the pilot.

When I began to have difficulty re-lighting the pilot I obtained a replacement thermocouple and installed it. This solved that problem. For a time.

About four or five years ago, I decided to pull the heater out, take it all apart, clean it up and see if that would improve or, at least, stop its reliability decline. That too seemed to work. For a while.

At the start of last winter, when the temperature began to consistently be below freezing, I attempted to fire up the old heater. The pilot wouldn’t stay lit. I re-lit and re-lit and re-lit the pilot but as soon as I released the gas control, the pilot would go out. I took the thermocouple out and inspected it. It was relatively new. I made sure that it was in the pilot flame. And still the pilot would not stay lit.

All of the past indignities and frustrations accumulated over years of dealing with this heater boiled up. I became angry and…slightly irrational. I probably uttered a few choice profane words and then stood up and gave the thing a mighty kick.

Shit! That hurt! I was only wearing old running shoes and kicking the steel box of the heater with a running shoe clad foot did not herald anything but pain for my big toe.

Which, of course, only spurred my anger on to greater heights.

I looked around, eyes lighting upon my old ball pein hammer. Grabbing it up, I proceeded to teach that heater a lesson in respect. In short, I beat the shit out of it.

After working through my aggression and anger, I surveyed the heater. It was now a forlorn looking piece of junk. The front and side panels were all caved in and there were holes punched in the top grid. An old saying I learned in my youth came to mind.

“If you can’t fix it, fuck it, so no one can fix it.”

I heated the garage all last winter with a little electric heater. If we hadn’t had cats to keep warm, I may have abandoned the heating idea altogether and accounted for losses in the spring. The electric heater was highly unsatisfying.

This winter will be different. I have just finished installing a new, modern heater. It’s made by Reznor. Rather than sitting on the floor (taking up space), it’s suspended from the ceiling.  It has an electronic ignitor and a fan to push the heated air throughout the garage.  I had to do some renovations to the wall because the new heater requires electrical power. It also needs a low voltage thermostat.

Off and on it took about a week to complete the installation but it is now up and running. It’s probably oversized for the building, but it keeps things toasty warm. And it has a quick recovery too.

While the new heater has many things going for it (one of which I hope is lower natural gas consumption due to no pilot flame) I realized this morning that in the event of an electrical outage it wouldn’t work at all.

The old heater just needed natural gas and, typically, in any big utility outage the natural gas always stays on. So if there was an extended power outage in the middle of winter the garage, at least, would have stayed warm. Not so any longer.

Maybe there was something to be said for old and simple, eh?

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