I watched in horror as sparks shot out of the pellet stove, landing on the carpet and the sofa. These bright balls of fire are a good thing—when they stay in the stove. They mean my heat source is working, turning the cylindrical wood pellets that look like rabbit droppings into lovely orange warmth. Soon the fan will turn on, sending heat throughout the house. But today, I had to turn it off in a hurry. Better to be chilly than burn the house down.
I often stand in front of the stove, soaking it in until I have to move because my thighs feel as if they’re burning. The dog lies between the sofa and the pellet stove for hours, cooking out the cold she accumulated during her night in the laundry room.
When the pellet stove is off, my house quickly chills to 60 degrees, lower if it’s snowing outside. A person can survive in that temperature, but it is not comfortable. I know I’m a California-raised wuss. There are families dying in minus-zero temperatures elsewhere because they can’t afford to heat their homes and government assistance has been cut. I heard on NPR about one person whose toilet water froze. That’s cold. Compared to that, my pellet stove not working is merely an annoyance.
I do have baseboard heaters in the bedrooms, but two are blocked by furniture and the ones I use only heat the rooms they’re in. A little wall heater hidden behind the kitchen china cabinet shoots a dusty band of heat straight across the kitchen and nowhere else. If the power goes out, I can light a fire in the woodstove in the garage-turned-den, but that only heats the den, and it requires constant maintenance. Still, it’s heat. I won’t die.
The pellet stove, my main source of heat, is an undependable creature. Officially, it’s a pellet stove insert, shoved into what used to be the fireplace. I don’t know how the former owners kept warm without it. It’s black, half-moon shaped, gold-trimmed with etchings of mountains and trees on the side doors and a clear front door that lets you watch the fireworks.
A diva of appliances, it needs frequent cleaning. Otherwise, ash builds up and it refuses to work. Pellets drop from the hopper into the clay pot and sit there until the igniter is in the mood to light them on fire. It takes a while. First it hums for about 10 minutes. Then it clicks and lights the first pellets or turns off and waits for you to push the reset button and start over. Eventually you wait a month in the cold until the county’s stove guy comes out to spend all day taking the stove apart and cleaning each little piece of metal while explaining how you have to do a better job of maintaining this baby. It’s a lot like the hygienist warning you to floss more often.
If the stove does light, first one then another pellet, then a bunch of pellets turn red and pop up like popcorn until they’re shooting like fireworks. It’s beautiful, but there’s no heat yet. Eventually an orange tongue of flame begins to burn in the pot. Finally the fan comes on. That’s when I rush to stand in front of the stove, often with a book in one hand and a glass of iced tea in the other. But for the burning thighs, I would stay there all day. The dog spreads out below me, resting her feet on my feet.
Yesterday, the pellets were running low. I brought in a bag from the garage, cut open the top with the big red-handled kitchen scissors and started to pour. Suddenly pellets were coming down everywhere. A pellet avalanche poured out of a big hole in the side of the bag. Pellets sprayed around the hearth, the sofa, the cabinet, my feet, and all over the top of the stove. “Shit!” I said, hauling the dog out by her collar before she could start eating the pellets. They look like food to her. Then I started scooping up the pellets into an empty cottage cheese container. Of course I was dressed to go out and running late, but this couldn’t wait.
As I was scooping, I noticed the sparks. Pellets had fallen through the front grill into places they didn’t belong. Now they were lighting up and shooting out as I dodged and stomped, thinking any second my carpet would catch on fire. Or maybe I would catch fire. I turned the stove off. I unplugged it. It continued to roar and shoot out sparks until gradually the fan slowed, the pellets darkened, and the stove went off.
The house had not burned down, but it was full of smoke. My smoke alarms, which have new batteries, didn’t make a sound. They wail like the end of the world when I cook pork chops, but they didn’t do a thing when I had an actual fire creating actual smoke only a few feet away.
Sigh. Mechanical, I am not. Put the smoke alarms on the list for when Prince Charming in a tool belt shows up.
I went to my appointments, loving the warmth in my car so much I might never have come home if gas didn’t cost so much. I came home and vacuumed out the pellet stove, plugged it in, turned it on, and held my breath. Pellets dropped, they lit up, the fire started, the fan came on, and, praise God, the fire stayed in the stove. As heat poured out, the dog took her place on the warm carpet.
That was Tuesday. Today it only took three tries to get the stove going, which is good because it’s snowing.
But I don’t trust that thing. Never take winter warmth for granted.