Ding-Dong, the Pellet Stove is Dead

45f2e-dscn3711Let’s talk about heat. I didn’t think too much about it growing up in San Jose. The old-time gas heater embedded in the floor between the living room and the hall poured out sufficient heat to keep us warm in our three-bedroom tract house. It was also a great place to spy on the grownups because we kids could look through the grill from the hall and see what was going on, especially on Mom’s canasta club nights. The only drawback was our marbles falling through the grate and into the depths when we were shooting them across the brown tweed carpet. Bang, rattle, rattle. Quick, get it out before Dad catches us.

No, we didn’t think much about heat. The outside temperature stayed above 70 degrees most of the time, and it rarely rained. The heater would come on with a gentle whuff, and all was well. Deep inside, the blue flame of the pilot light kept burning. Almost 70 years later, it still works. The fireplace, also a trap for errant marbles, was mainly for entertainment, not for warmth. It hasn’t been lit since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

In San Jose, we thought more about avoiding heat. The temperature crept into the 80s, 90s and 100s from late spring through fall, but ours was a low-tech house. Air conditioning? Open a window. Turn on a fan. (Don’t touch the fan, it will cut your hand off.) That old house with its minimal insulation soaked in the heat. Still does. When I walked in last summer to visit my father, it was so hot I wanted to walk right back out. The only place I could find any relief was on the front porch, and even that was relative. At night, I’d sleep uncovered and backwards, feet on the pillow, trying to get my head as close to the window as possible. My hair almost touching the dusty screen, I was still sweating.

But here on the Oregon coast, heat is an issue, not like in the places where houses and cars are buried in snow. I don’t know how folks in the Midwest and East Coast stand it. Our temperature is more chilly than cold, I guess, miserable, but not life-threatening. When I woke up this morning, it was 46 outside and 62 inside. No big deal, just turn on the heater, right? Ah, but in the forest where I live, heating is funky. Natural gas lines do not reach this far, and few houses have whole-house heating systems. Or cooling systems, as if we ever need that. We have baseboard heaters, cadet heaters, plug-in portable heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces, and pellet stoves. Most houses, including mine, have firewood stacked high and deep for the winter. Shops selling pellets have a hard time keeping them in stock.

With all of these heat sources, a body has to think about heat. Chop the wood, light the fire, fill the pellet stove, turn it on, clean it out, buy more pellets. Turn on the little heaters or not? Don’t forget to turn them off lest you burn the house down. We think about heat all the time. We turn on NPR in the morning, listen to the weather report and groan.

I’ve got five different thermometers in the house, one of them an indoor-outdoor one. I’m constantly checking. Is it warm enough inside? Should I turn something on or off? How cold is it outside? Do I need a coat and gloves or just a hoodie? Dare I sit out on the deck and read my book? Is it going to freeze? Should I cover my pipes? Will I be able to drive to church or the store if there’s ice on the road?

Heat. For years, I have been posting about and cursing about my pellet stove. Yesterday, a repairman declared the old Quadra-Fire dead. Unplugged forever. May it rest in peace, amen. How many hours have I stood in front of that thing reading, writing, thinking, playing my guitar, or gazing out the window, usually with my feet straddling the dog. I singed the back of my old bathrobe getting too close. If I could add up all the time I’ve spent feeding it and cleaning out ashes and half-burnt pellets, it would probably come out to a couple of weeks. If I added up all the time I have spent waiting for repairmen to fix it, it’s probably a year. But now that it’s done for, I’m sad. Forever hopeful, I had just bought 15 bags of pellets and given the stove a name: Charlie. I probably jinxed it.

When Kevin from Airrow Heating pulled it apart yesterday, he exposed the ruined heat exchange mechanism as well as an information panel that said the stove was installed in 1992, six years before Fred and I bought the house. Twenty-five years and change, a longer-than-average lifespan for a pellet stove.

I have ordered a new one, opting to stick with the devil I know rather than try a different system. It’s coming a week from Thursday. It’s going to cost far more than I can afford. I’m going to be doing some fancy financial footwork for a while. A miracle infusion of cash would be helpful.

Meanwhile, I’ve got a patchwork of little heaters that make it almost warm enough. My body is adapting. Right now I’m overly warm in my bathrobe, and my office thermometer says it’s 62 degrees in here. At a jam session Sunday night, I got so hot I had to strip down to my tee shirt.

Am I doing the right thing ordering another pellet stove? I don’t know. But I will never take heat for granted again.

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In search of heat in South Beach

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I have turned into one of those women who is always freezing, whose fingers are icy when you shake hands, who wear three times as many layers of clothing as seems logical. It’s not my age, and I certainly haven’t gotten skinny. No, the pellet stove, the main source of heat at my house in the woods, is defunct again. On the Thursday before Christmas, it developed this habit of starting to light a little fire in the pot and then moaning to a stop. No more fire. No heat.

I cleaned it, scraping out a layer of pellets burned into  rock. Surely that would fix it. Nope. Little fire, moan, darkness. I hit reset 10 times that day. No go. I called the stove guy. Got the machine because a hundred other people are having stove problems around here.

The poor stove had been working overtime for weeks, with temperatures staying in the 30s much of the time. Threats of snow and ice had not materialized here yet but Portland and places not far inland were going crazy, with cars sliding all over in the big freeze. Schools and businesses were closed. A friend in Eugene had no power for six days. Not a good time for a dead pellet stove.

I love small towns for their lack of traffic and crowds and the way everybody knows everybody. I love that I can walk into the post office and Valerie grabs my package from the stack because she knows who I am. I can walk into my favorite restaurant and they know I want iced tea with no lemon. I can park my car by the pallets of pellets at Copeland Lumber, and a guy will start loading them into the Element before I even go in to pay. They know I’m getting 15 bags, 600 pounds of processed wood. It’s all good.

But this no-heat business stinks. You see, we have no gas out here in South Beach, unless you install a big expensive tank, and most of the houses were built without electric heating systems. We have baseboard heaters in some rooms, little “Cadet” heaters installed in some walls, but mostly we heat our homes with wood in the form of logs or pellets. Chimneys sprout from every roof, most with metal caps that swing around in the wind.

We used to have two woodstove shops in town. One went out of business. The other is trying to take up the slack, but there are too many stoves out here, and one must wait for an opening to get service. I was lucky the guy made it out here last Wednesday, after only six days and a chilly Christmas. He took one look and declared that I need a new thermocouple, a little piece that sticks out above the burn pot and enables the stove to light and stay lit. He would have to order one. It would not be here before New Year’s. Looking around at my assortment of plug-in heaters, he sympathized. “Well, you have some heat.”

Yes, enough to stay alive but not enough to be comfortable. Plus I have knocked out the circuit breaker six times so far. My electrical system cannot take the added stress of a plug-in heater plus almost anything else in the kitchen. If I want to use the microwave or toaster oven, I need to go without heat for a while. At least now I know exactly what to do when suddenly everything goes dark and silent. It’s number thirteen on the circuit board. My electrician dad says I can’t keep doing this; it’s dangerous. He says you get 20 amps on most circuits. The heater takes 12.5. That doesn’t leave much for extras, and if the refrigerator cycles on, it’s over. Maybe I don’t need the microwave.

The picture above was taken at 10:21 a.m. The sun was shining outside, and the three-foot-tall electric heater I bought with Christmas money two years ago had been on full blast all night. It wasn’t going to get much warmer.

People who live in snow country are thinking I’m a wimp. It’s not like it’s 30 below. I do have sources of heat. Remember the bedroom I moved out of a couple months ago? I have moved back in because that bed has an electric blanket, and I can’t afford to buy one for the other, larger bed. It also has a baseboard heater that I use reluctantly because it’s too close to the sheets. In addition, it has space on the floor for Annie, who can no longer jump up onto the bed and has decided she is not going to freeze alone.

The master bedroom, pretty though it is, is just too cold. In fact, when I was cleaning out Fred’s clothes after he died, most of his neckties had mold on them. It’s that cold and damp back there.

I have a baseboard heater in my office, too, but I only feel it if I’m sitting right here typing and only on my legs. My hands feel like iced bones with a thin covering of skin.

This morning, the frost-crisped lawn and leaves are edged in white. The sidewalk and driveway sparkle with flecks of ice. My phone weather app claims it’s 35 degrees now but feels like 26. I know it’s worse elsewhere. On the radio, the guy said it was below zero in Bend, Oregon. I’m not going to Bend or anywhere east. I’m from San Jose. I don’t do snow and ice.

Next time I go house-hunting, my first question will be: What kind of heat does it have?

Meanwhile, my neighbor across the street walks around his house in shorts as smoke billows out his chimney. It’s actually hot in his double-wide. Maybe it’s time to go borrow a cup of sugar.

May you be warm and healthy in the new year, and may the world come to its senses.

Making Fire from Sawdust: The Quest for Heat



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I knelt by the pellet stove shaking a colander over a pot, trying to separate the pellets from the sawdust. The pot was nearly full, and I could still see sawdust, so I used a slotted spoon to shake out a few pellets at time and toss them into the hopper. Every time I tossed a few more pellets in, I got more sawdust on the floor, on me, and on the dog, who huddled close for warmth.
Sometimes I missed the hopper, and pellets scattered in all directions. I cursed and rushed to pick them up before the dog ate them. She did eat a few. Tough poops tomorrow. Over and over, I swore to get rid of this stupid pellet stove that took so much work and only went on when it felt like it. I considered selling the house just to move someplace that had a normal heating system.
For those who have always lived in homes with gas or electric heating systems that go on and off automatically, keeping the house at a comfortable 68 or 70 degrees, the idea of a house without heat is unimaginable, but for a lot of people living in rural areas, it’s a reality. Around here, wood stoves are the norm, just like in the olden days.
Usually the pellets don’t come cushioned in sawdust. I had clearly gotten a few bad bags. When I finally gave up after three bags and took the others back, the guy at the lumber yard admitted he’d given me bags from the wrong pile, ones that were supposed to be thrown away. He replaced them, with two more for my troubles. By then, I had taken pictures and prepared to argue for a refund, thinking they wouldn’t believe me. But the guy was waiting for me. He was already aware of his mistake and knew I’d be back. I just wish I’d come back three bags sooner.
Three vacuumings of the pellet stove later, it seems to be working, but there are no guarantees. I’ll do anything to avoid another visit from the serviceman who charges hundreds of dollars to spend hours in my living room, stove parts everywhere, lecturing me on how I need to clean the stove with little brushes every five minute and sift every bag of pellets for sawdust. 
 
This winter has been unusually cold, and I’m going through more than one 40-pound bag of pellets a day. When I was in California for a week last month, Oregon had record-setting low temperatures, down to 14 a couple nights in South Beach. It snowed, and the snow froze into a solid sheet of ice that closed down everything. It was cold. Damned cold. So cold the strings on my bandurria came unstrung. So cold a ceramic bird house outside cracked into little pieces. So cold pipes were freezing all over western Oregon.
God bless my dog sitter, who came from the Midwest and was not afraid to drive in the snow. I asked her to let the dog sleep in the house. The crate in the laundry room was too cold. She wanted to know how to turn on the heat. I explained the pellet stove. She had never seen one before, and it took a while for her to get the hang of it and to understand that when the pellets run out, there is no heat.
When it’s working, I spend half my life warming my buns by the pellet stove. I read, write, make phone calls, and ponder the world within two feet of that warm orange heat. I have the burn marks on the back of my bathrobe to prove it. My dog lies at my feet, soaking up the heat. Visitors remark on how warm and cozy it is.
Yeah, I think, when it works, when it doesn’t start to light, then fizzle out with a sigh as if it just can’t find the energy to make fire. It’s old. It’s worn out. It’s persnickety. And every time I turn around, it’s empty. I think I lose a quarter inch in height every time I carry one of those heavy bags from the garage to the house. This winter, if you put them all together, I must have lifted a couple tons of wood.
Oh, and if the power goes out, which is not uncommon around here in the coastal forest, the pellet stove doesn’t work. The fan runs on electricity. Then I have to light the wood stove in the den, which is a whole other story.
Last night I researched the cost to convert my pellet stove to gas. Apparently you can go the other way—gas to pellets–pretty easily, but pellets to gas is prohibitively expensive. Not only would I have to buy a new “insert” for about $3,000, but I’d have to install a propane tank outside and pipe the gas into the house. Not happening on my budget.
Instead, I’m taking my Christmas money to Home Depot and buying the biggest, most powerful plug-in electric heater I can find, so when it gets cold and Mr. Pellet Stove isn’t in the mood, I can turn it on and be warm. Meanwhile you’ll find me and Annie next to the pellet stove.
Dear friends, if you have a real heater in your house, give it some love. You are blessed to have it.
And if you have suggestions for how to use two buckets

of fine sawdust, let me know.

It’s All About Staying Warm

We’ve had a spectacular run of blue skies and starry nights. No rain, which is surprising for December on the Oregon coast. But it’s cold, so cold. Still frosty in the shade at noon. If there were precipitation, it would be snow. Every day, it’s a battle to stay warm. Here in the trees, we don’t have gas or central heating. Most houses have wood stacked up for winter. I have a woodshed outside the house with a diminishing supply of raggedy wood, which Annie occasionally takes to the lawn for chew toys. She has created a wonderful supply of kindling for me. After she chews it up, I put it in a bucket to use for starting fires in the woodstove in the den.

I don’t light a fire every day. I have other options, including a space heater and a persnickety pellet stove in the den, our main source of heat.
The pellet stove is annoying. It often fails to come on. If it gets too much ash, not enough pellets or is just in a bad mood, it will start up, hum for a while, then decrescendo into silence. When the power goes off, it doesn’t work at all. This time of year, it eats a 40-pound bag of pellets a day. When it works, it’s a beautiful golden source of heat. Annie and I spend a lot of time warming ourselves in front of the pellet stove, taking care not to get burnt.
I love a wood fire. But you have to tend it. If you forget it for an hour, it goes out, so I only use it when I’m feeling ambitious or when we don’t have electricity. The other night I decided to start my fire. I didn’t have my glasses on and had only a dim lamp for light. As the first sparks were starting to shoot out of the kindling, something didn’t look right in there. A piece of wood near the door looked furry. As I looked closer, I realized it wasn’t fur; it was feathers. I had a dead bird in the woodstove. It had made the incredible journey past the chimney captain, down the chimney, and down the long black stove pipe, including a bend near the ceiling. It probably died on impact. I heard no flapping or chirping.
I grabbed a paper towel and took the bird out, carefully avoiding the growing fire. Cradling the bird in the towel, I took the opportunity to look closely. Shyly, I touched it. So, so soft. Possibly a junco or a finch, it had black tail feathers, a gray chest, and a stubby beak. I felt so sorry for it. After a while, I took it outside and laid it to rest in the ivy with a little prayer.
It’s all about heat around here lately. The other morning, I plugged in a space heater in the bedroom because I just couldn’t seem to get warm. Then I went to blow-dry my hair. I had one side of my hair done when the power went out on the whole south side of the house. The circuit couldn’t take the addition of the heater. Now I know: I can either style my hair or be warm. Given the choice, I’d rather be warm.

Never Take Winter Warmth for Granted

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.

Ah, Warm Again

Here in the forest, the difference between being warm and being miserable depends on the state of the pellet stove. If I run out of pellets, brrr. And if one little wire decides to short out one little fuse, I have to put on my long underwear and ski jacket just to be warm. In fact, these days it’s warmer outside than in.

It happened on a Sunday, of course, and in the winter, when the area’s one guy qualified to fix these things is booked solid. Turn up the thermostat. Nothing. Push the reset button. Nothing. Play with the plug. Nothing. The stove was cold and so was I. The little electric heater barely warmed a square foot right in front of it. The cold laughed at its puny efforts. I cursed. I thought about moving to a house with a real heater. I daydreamed about warm air coming through vents at the flick of a switch.

I dreaded having the stove guy out, not just for the expense and disruption of my day but for the lectures he inflicts on his customers. On and on. “Now, Sue, take a look at this. . . ” I know. Just fix it.

It was the worth the lecture to have him come out this morning and fix the stove before the walls started to mold. He rearranged his schedule and gave me the “poor woman living alone” discount (not that he said so, but I can read). Now a yellow-orange flame burns hotly in the newly cleaned window as the fan pours out heat. Annie the dog and I jostle for space in front of the stove. Ahh, warm again.