When I moved into the Huh House in the Fall of 2013 I knew part of the package deal was a home heated by fossil fuel oil fueling baseboards with forced hot water. For those green minded urbanites blessed with geothermal units, Eskimos harnessing ice in igloos, and others not in the know, that means I had a giant rusty oil tank in the basement that fed into a 25-year-old untempered, behemoth boiler that pumped scalding hot water through copper pipes to radiate out much needed warmth during Northeastern/Mid-Atlantic winters. We shall call her Bessie.
Bessie actually supplied all the hot water, which is exactly how I learned how searing the temperature of untempered, oil boiled water can be during my inaugural new home shower. How does little ol’, non-HVAC, non-plumbing, me know for sure the boiler was untempered? From Plumber Kevin (not to be confused with Plumber Jim) who came to fix a pinpoint leak in one of the non-copper, cheapo pipes in the basement, not long after I moved in. Thanks previous DIY-ers for those gems! He was one of the first of the ever growing chorus to puzzle, “Huh. Wonder why they did that?” Turns out not putting any kind of temperature control on a boiler might be a bad idea. Increases the propensity of your shitty pipes to spring leaks….. And not so coincidentally the chances of going from lukewarm water to third degree burns with a shower knob turn of 1/100th of an inch. Guess I didn’t need that layer of skin anyway. What kind of professional doesn’t put such a thing on, even back in 1989? Like so many other previous installs here at the Huh House, it turns out it was a nonprofessional. I know, shocker.
Lucky for me, I got to soon shake the hand of this particular DIY-er because he happens to be living two doors down and his sister built my house. He was quick to inform me he installed Bessie so I shouldn’t hesitate to give his door a knock if I had trouble. He’s a lovely man who takes his snow blower to my sidewalks, but there’s a legit reason I changed those locks the very day I moved in. You never know who might still have a key. For clarification, his sister was the original owner, not from whom I purchased (another tale for another time). Apparently, when the land was sub-divided in the 80’s he and his two sisters built houses all in a row. He’s the only one still in the neighborhood. Right now, I’m going to keep my I binge watched ‘Big Love’ when I had free HBO sister-wives conjecture to myself. Be still vivid imagination! I could go off on a long tangent about my colorful neighborhood replete with an old German lady so Uber-German she has German Shepherds and a likely un-medicated bi-polar housewife known to call the fire department when she gets lonely. Or at least that’s the Uber-German’s reasoning when she relayed the tale of men with pick-axes charging off the ladder truck, only to return to the truck 10 minutes later. But no! It’s time to get back to the real excitement. HVAC units! Tantalizing!
I never actually had a real problem with that ancient behemoth other than the first time I tried to turn the thermostat on after moving in. The unit failed to kick on after a year of sitting unused. I don’t blame her. My aging joints need a little coaxing into action after a rest too. There is that difference that my joints aren’t highly combustible though…. So…….
The nice oil lady that had come out to set up my account, and scout the property for delivery clearance, had run through some basics with me briefly. This included pointing out the reset button on Bessie for such an occasion as not firing. A big red button. I was always taught NOT to push the Big Red Buttons. Especially ones with warnings like “ONLY PUSH ONCE”. Well. Fuck. I should Single Woman Up and at least try it once before I cry wolf to a repairman, right? I flicked the button and literally ran to the other side of the basement, hurling myself into a fetal position, while visions of EVERY Michael Bay movie EVER ran through my head. I quickly realized I had not become a Top 11 at 11 news story as the fool that had flattened her neighborhood. A beat later, I realized I had also failed at the primary mission of kicking Bessie into gear. A five minute argument with myself ensued, questioning whether I had held the button long enough for it to work or if I wanted to tempt fate and fire again. We all know I’m a bit of temptress by now. I steeled my nerves, held my breath, bit my lip, and pushed, intent on holding that Big Red Button down for a countdown from 10. You know, like New Year’s. Or for a planned TNT detonation that levels a skyscraper. Whichever….. Behemoth Bessie kicked on at 4.
Bessie and that untempered hot water roasted my house even when I kept it set at 65º. Turns out the oil lady was right when she told me not all heat is created equal. The only other quirk about Bessie and the system was that it needed to be bled completely of air during its annual cleaning or the trapped air bubbles circulating made it sound like a rainstorm inside the walls whenever the heat ran. The first time I heard it my best friend Google had to assure me there wasn’t a world within a world situation happening in my walls with an angry rain god flooding the drywall. Bessie never gave me any real problems beyond those few hiccups. She chugged away faithfully, churning tirelessly as the Polar Vortex entered the lexicon and swept down the jet stream, giving the Mid-Atlantic frostbite.
Replacing Bessie was nowhere near the top of the Huh House Improvement List. I figured I would just wait until her final death rattle and then worry about it. Replacing the Golden Girls era pink countertops was scads of steps about Bessie. I’m sure it’s not a shock by now I’m not really a “pink” kind of girl. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as I approach my 4th House-aversary, it’s that the planning wish list doesn’t mean bupkis. I certainly didn’t anticipate needing a new sewer ejector pump and I’m a Type A, anal, organized planner about such things. Wasn’t even a blip on the radar. What was on the radar? Hideous pick countertops and refinishing the dog claw scratched hardwood on my stairs. Windows that weren’t sealed proper like by DIY-ers. Ants in my dishwasher. When other people whom have never owned a house talk about their “must haves” list in HGTV mode I nod and smile politely but on the inside I’m cackling maniacally, straight up put me in a strait jacket style, because I know the truth and I know there’s no way the uninitiated will believe me. My stairs are still scratched. My kitchen counters still look coated in Pepto-Bismol. But Bessie is gone. She got a cheap gold watch retirement gift instead of waiting for the death rattle.
So, if Behemoth Bessie was treating me all right, why put her out to pasture? Did I mention the Polar Vortex? How many out there know the pain of paying for hundreds of gallons of a fossil fuel over which wars are fought? Just like US involvement in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, it mostly came down to oil and money. Bessie got caught in the crossfire, got her Purple Heart and honorable discharge. When I set up the account with my oil supplier the smarty pants planner in me went with the monthly budget plan of paying a set fee every month, and having regularly scheduled deliveries, rather than having to scrounge up $600 to $800 a pop for a fill and having to keep checking and call on my own when the tank was running low. That fee, which also included free service and cleanings, etc, was $220 a month. Your jaw. Pick it up. In a temperate year this totally would have worked in my favor because the company would have cut me a check back for any overpayment if the actual supplied deliveries amounted to less than the total budgeted. DID I MENTION THE POLAR VORTEX??? My ass certainly never got that check. I actually ended up owing a little extra because POLAR VORTEX. But you know…. climate change isn’t a thing or anything. I know. My leftie, liberal, likes science and for real facts, senses are tingling too but my duly elected (A-hem) leader proclaims it a HOAX so it must be true. I digress.
Still, I probably would have continued with Bessie and the oil tank for a few more years knowing that the coldest of cold snaps to hit the region was an anomaly not likely to repeat year after year unless the New Ice Age truly was upon us. With no small amount of irony it was the probably-not-a-polygamist-but-who-knows-for-sure DIY boiler neighbor that fired the first shot at Bessie. He came to me one day all neighborly with an offer. A UGI gas line already runs down our street. If several neighbors agreed to run lines from the street to their houses at the same time, the cost of pipe installation would drop dramatically for everyone. I declined at first. I had just replaced half the windows in the house. The Polar Vortex was over, tulips were pushing up. Then I paid another budget fee of $220. And another as the steam of July set in. Did some research. Realized I would be paying about $20 that time of year with natural gas. Got out the calculator. Drank some wine. Realized I could save at least $1500 a year. Gulped the wine. That’s pink countertop money! In the Bubbles and Budgets of it all I swallowed my pride, put on my sensible cap, and went a few doors down to ask “Is this still a thing I can join in on?” The even greater irony? Probably-not-a-polygamist-but-who-knows-for-sure DIY boiler man’s former occupation? Oil delivery man. Yes. Gears. Click them on into place. Ding that bell and flick on those light bulbs floating overhead. He’s probably the reason I didn’t have gas in the first place.
My initial thought was to give Bessie an internal plumbing makeover. Then Tiny Logic Person in my head cleared her throat and patted her clipboard. What’s the sense in a $3K conversion to a unit that could keel over in the next few years? Why not do it with a new unit so we don’t have to worry about it for another 20 years? Oh, Tiny Logic Person. On paper she was absolutely right. She had no idea The Winter of Our Discontent and Disgruntlement was about to befall.
Stay tuned for Part Two: The Winter of My Discontent and Disgruntlement to learn all about how I met a salesman named Paul whose dad had a glass eye, reached a Single Girl Home Owning Boiling Point because incompetence is never cute and I’m not going to let it go just because I’m a girl, restrained myself from punching multiple people in the throat, and had to unleash some Angry Typing on the world!