It was a Christmas miracle.
I had little hope. I had been waiting since September when I first got the idea and made the the initial call to replace the evil pellet stove fireplace insert with a gas fireplace insert. My father had been urging me for years to convert to gas. I always told him I couldn’t afford it. Now, in the wake of his death, I realized one day that now I could.
I had been fighting the pellet stove for 21 years, almost a third of my life. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you have witnessed my struggles. For example, check out https://unleashedinoregon.com/2018/01/16/ding-dong-the-pellet-stove-is-dead. It was not just buying and hauling the 40-pound bags of pressed wood pellets, using a bag a day during the winter. Every couple weeks I’d show up at Copeland’s Lumber in Newport, surrounded by male contractors and home renovators, and ask for 15 bags. $84.75. It never changed. A couple of muscular men would load them in the back of the “Toaster,” sometimes two bags at a time, but those men didn’t come home with me. It was pretty good exercise moving 600 pounds of pellets into the garage and then bag by bag into the living room.
The original Quadrafire insert required frequent cleaning, as ash and sawdust piled up. It was a messy job. Annie fled as soon as I brought the shop vac in. It also required frequent repairs. Igniters died. The ceramic pot cracked. Because this was our main source of heat, we spent weeks in a cold house waiting for parts and repairmen. Yes, we had portable heaters, but they never got the house warm enough. Finally the 25-year-old pellet stove died for good. I called Airrow Heating in January 2018, thinking maybe I could get some kind of electric heat installed.
Airrow is all about ductless heating systems. I couldn’t afford it. I opted to buy another pellet stove. The evil I knew and thought I could afford. The Napoleon model from Canada, which the Airrow guys–not pellet stove specialists–ordered for me, got terrible reviews online with good reason.
Within the first week, the faux bricks behind the fire cracked. Within the first year, the igniter had to be replaced three times. The buildup of ash and rock-hard clinkers was extraordinary. When I tried to vacuum it out, ash spread through the room. It’s still in the crevices of my piano. I breathed it in, and my hands, arms and clothes were blackened.
Toward the end, the pot kept filling up with half-burned ash. Then it overflowed like a volcano, creating little fires where there was not supposed to be fire. One night I was reading on the love seat nearby when a spark landed on my arm. Sparks were flying everywhere. In a panic, I unplugged the beast and beat out all the sparks, leaving black burn marks on my carpet and a rapidly cooling house. Not fun.
That pellet stove cost $6,000, almost as much as the ductless system I could have had. I should have just left the fireplace open and used electric heaters. Or burned wood, like many of my neighbors. One of the hazards of living alone is that you have no one to counter your possibly bad decisions. I regretted every day with that pellet stove.
When the pellet stove died yet again soon after Dad’s funeral, I said, basta, enough. It was less than two years old, barely off the warranty. I didn’t care. I called Coast Hearth and Home. The owner came out to measure and suggest options. Soon I was signing a contract for gas fireplace insert. The insert itself was not as expensive as I feared, but I knew it would be a big deal. We do not have natural gas in this part of the woods. One must buy or rent a propane tank and keep it full. One must also run a gas line under the house from the appliance to the tank.
This turned out to be a long process of multiple visits by the gas company, the Coast Hearth guys and the county inspector. You need permits for all these things. I quickly learned the meaning of “green-tagged” and “red-tagged.” Green tag good, red tag bad.
The Coast Hearth guys, the only such company in the area, are super busy this time of year. The propane company, Ferrellgas, is based in the Willamette Valley, and its workers only come here one or two days a week. They book two to four weeks ahead. I needed to get a ditch dug. I needed to get inspections. The gas guys delivered the tank, but I had to wait two more weeks for a different guy to put propane in it. At last, my set-up was green-tagged. But then, when everything was finally assembled, there was a gas leak. Red tag. Back and forth. Fireplace guys. Gas guys. I got to know them quite well.
On Christmas Eve, Roger from the gas company came. I told him the leak had been fixed. He said, no it’s still leaking. I will not cry, I told myself, envisioning the process going on until at least New Year’s. But then Roger went out to the truck, got his toolbox, and set to work. I was his only coastal customer that day, and he was not going to leave without getting the fireplace going, even though he said according to company rules he was not supposed to do this.
And it worked. Green tag! The portable heater that kept knocking out circuit number 13 is now unplugged, and we are warm. The fireplace glows with blue and gold flames. There’s no crackling of real wood, no burning wood smell. The flames always look the same, but it is beautiful, and when I go out, I will not come home to a cold house because the stove is out of pellets. No more coal-miner face and hands from cleaning the pellet beast.
I gave away my last seven bags of pellets to a grateful neighbor who gave me a bottle of champagne in exchange.
I’m writing this on Christmas Day. It has taken four months to reach this point. Last night Annie was stretched out by the fireplace, soaking in the warmth. Thanks, Dad. You’re right. This is better.
Merry Christmas, one and all. Be warm and happy.