Friday, December 24, 2010

The machinery of heat: drudgery

Last week offered another lesson about the fragility of systems.  It's the kind of story which means diving deeply into homestead mechanisms in a geeky yet unpleasurable way.  It reminds me of just how far we have to go.

Once again, we lost hot water.  Our hot water heater's pilot light went out, and the tank's water grew cold.  In late December, in Vermont. 

"Again": here's the problem.  Some of our house is digital, such as the broadband router.  Some is pre-industrial, like the wood fires which heat the home.  In between those epochs lies the twentieth-century hardware setup for hot water, which is lodged in the basement.  

Off in the northeastern corner, mounted on cinderblocks, stands an electric pump.  The tall, gray cylinder draws water up from the well slightly above the house, then feeds it into a Rheem Fury.  The Fury also stands on cinderblocks, and is also a cylinder.  It takes the well water, then heats it up, using propane from our tank and electrical power from the grid.  It holds the warm water, until pumps from upstairs haul it up to kitchen or bathroom.

Just writing this suggests the complexity of structure: multiple units, multiple connections, segmented flows each depending on others.  External forces are key: the well, to supply water; the electrical grid, for power.  

Like a lot of 20th-century tech, it's good when it works, and a mess when it doesn't.  

The damned pilot light is impossible to restart without professional help.
  • Item: if the house electricity goes off, the pilot light goes out.
  • Item: if the propane tanks gets low, the pilot light shuts off.
  • Item: if the wind is high, out goes the pilot.
Restarting the pilot means crawling on one's belly upon the concrete basement floor, in order to reach a metal-edged, hand-chomping slot helpfully located on the water heater's bottom.  Above the slot is a how-to decal, written in stilted, jargony style.  It tells us that a tough, plastic button needs to be pressed down, hard.  At the same time a cantankerous plastic knob must be turned... just so.  (Before doing this we need to let the thing sit for 5 minutes, to allow gas to seep away.)

Holding those two buttons takes one hand; with another hand one must light and a match.  Said match needs to be driven deep into that metal-fanged, too-narrow slot.  Deep into the cold dark, goes my hand and then my fingers, match shaking as it inches past several metal lines, while the smell of gas all around invites visions of combustion.

If I do all of that correctly, ever button turned and pressed, the match shoved into the dark bowels... the pilot light glimmers, then dies.  If we follow the decal's instructions, we do this several more times.  Usually the pilot light dies time after time.

Why?  Some a complicated series of additional problems are described by specialists.  Too much air in the works.  Weak couplers.  Thermocouplers are cranky, air persists in lines way later than it should, other electrical connectors need kludging together.  We're not really sure, and they aren't fixable.  They do require the intervention of a specialist.  

We call the company, perhaps on a phone line which is the only working electrical item in the house, if it's a power failure.  An hour later some doughty, much put upon technician arrives.  After coaxing a vehicle along our dangerous drive, they stomp downstairs and then take up to 15 minutes and a modicum of cursing to coax the little flame into life, bringing my family back to the 20th century.

So many dependencies.  Such specialized skills.  Layers of hardware stretching between our colonial and postmodern competencies.  Yes, we could learn all of this, given a lot of time.  Or, yes, we could replace it all, given substantial funds.  Our entire homesteading enterprise runs smack up against these blockages, these knots of frustration, built of intertwined decades.

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