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.

Do It Now. You Never Know When It Will Snow

This time last week, the sky was blue. The air was cold and getting colder. My stash of stove pellets was nearly gone, and the refrigerator was looking kind of bare. I had bills to send and packages boxed up to mail. But I didn’t feel like going into town. So I didn’t.

At 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning, the sky was still clear, and the grass was still green. But when I got up at 7, my world had turned black and white. We had two inches of snow on the ground, and it was snowing hard. The light coming through my skylights and windows was so bright, and the untracked snow outside so beautiful, I took pictures and sent them out on Facebook.

My phone rang. Weather alert from Chemeketa Community College in the valley. All classes and campus activities cancelled. It rang again. The guy scheduled to fix my hot tub. “I’ll bet you’re cancelling,” I said. “Yes ma’am,” he replied.We rescheduled for Tuesday. Maybe.

Once again I was snowed in, just as I was in Corvallis in early December. The snow quickly turned to ice. It was worse inland. Deeper snow, colder temperatures. News reports showed a 20-car pileup on I-5 north of Albany. By the end of the weekend, there would be more than 600 crashes, mostly minor, in Western Oregon. But even here on the coast, schools, government offices, and even the outlet mall were closed. Organizers canceled concerts, fundraisers and parties. On Friday, transit buses stopped. The garbage trucks did not come. On Saturday, our mail got stuck in Portland.

Meanwhile, I emptied my last bag of pellets into the stove on Friday and ate a fried tomato sandwich for lunch. Things were getting a little desperate. I was never so glad to hear the patter of rain on the skylights and see drops of water streaking down my windows. Saturday, I was able to drive through the slushy snow-melt to mail my packages, buy pellets and groceries and treat myself to a meat loaf sandwich at the Chalet. Annie and I took a long walk. She barked at the melting snowman family on our neighbors’ lawn and sniffed at a dead robin beside the road.

On Sunday, it warmed up into the 40s. The snow had disappeared, and we were back to rain and wind here on the coast. Hallelujah.

In Portland and most of the Willamette Valley, it’s still frozen. A friend posted a Facebook picture showing the snow in his yard was 15 inches deep. Radio announcers are still talking about closed schools, icy roads, and freezing rain. The only difference between today and December is that I’m on the defrosted side of the mountain.

Other parts of the country have been dealing with snow and ice for months. In the East, it’s an annual occurrence, but they have snow plows, and folks know how to drive in it. Here, everything stops until the ice melts. If you’re not ready, too bad. The next time I say, oh, I’ll go get pellets or food tomorrow, I hope I remember last week and say, no, I’ll go now. Just in case.