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Too Cold in Here

December 22, 2013

Sunday morning, I woke up at 6:30, my usual time.  I was intending to start the day with a shower and breakfast.  I was looking forward with pleasure to both.  Instead, I immediately noticed that it was very cold in the house.  Off I went to the next room to look at my new digital thermometer.  It was -35 outside.  That was okay.  It was 14 inside.  That was not okay.  It was supposed to be 20 in the house, not 14.  I abandoned my plans and switched to finding out why it was so cold instead.

In the basement, my furnace was sitting quietly, but not producing any heat.  It has a red light that flashes when it’s got a problem.  It was flashing one short and four long, a code of 14.  I checked this a few times to be sure.  I keep the manuals for the furnace in a brown envelope next to the furnace.  When I read the manual, I found that code 14 means “Ignitor lockout”.  The ignitor is the heating element that lights the gas.  I’ve seen it glow brightly many times when the furnace was starting up.  Something was wrong with the ignitor.  The next thing I did was to reboot the furnace, meaning that I switched off the power to it for a minute and then switched it on again.  The red light went through its startup sequence, stopping at another code that meant that the ignitor failed to light the gas.  There was no glow at all.  According to the manual, it tries this several times before going to code 14.  I knew at that point that I needed to get somebody in to service the furnace, and that it had to be soon.

My first call was to the company that installed the furnace.  This was fifteen years ago, but I had called them once before about a year after they installed it.  That service call didn’t cost me anything because the furnace was still under warranty then.  It wouldn’t be, fifteen years later.  I also had heard that that company had been taken over my a national chain a few years ago.  Still, I wanted to try them first.  It was about 7:00 by then.  Their voice menu gave the name of the national chain, but the woman who answered the phone already had my name, my address, and my service history for that furnace.  This sounded pretty good to me.  She was very sympathetic.  Then she told me that they could have a service man at my house tomorrow.  I told her that it was 14 in here, and that I needed somebody now.  I said I’d call somebody else.  She asked if she could keep the appointment open in case I couldn’t find anybody else.  “No”, I said.  “I’m going to call somebody else”.

I need some heat in this place.  I opened the oven door and turned on the oven.  Downstairs, I plugged in a small electric heater that I normally use for my sun room in the spring.  I wonder if the gas is on?  I checked the water heater.  Yes, the pilot light had a small flame on it.  The gas was working.  The problem had to be with the furnace ignitor.  Upstairs, I checked the heating companies in the Yellow Pages.  All of them had emergency numbers.  I picked one that was located only a few blocks away from me.  The woman who answered the phone took down a few details, and then informed me that I’d be paying overtime rates because it was Sunday.  “That’s fine”, I said.  She told me she’d page the on-call service technician.  In a few minutes, he called me back.  He wanted to know my location, the make of my furnace, and what I thought was wrong.  After I told him that, he said he’d be there within two hours.  I was impressed!

That would be around 9 am.  I had two hours for my shower and breakfast.  I was still in my dressing gown.  It was nice and warm where it covered me.  Breakfast went normally, except that the butter was so hard that it wouldn’t melt properly on my toast.  I was sitting on the toilet when I heard the door bell ring and ring.  It was only about 7:30.  It was him at the back door.  He was wearing large boots, a snowmobile suit with a hood and two toques, tracking snow into the basement.  I didn’t care.  It was clean white snow.  He sat down in front of the furnace, lifted off the cover, removed the ignitor and handed it to me.  Then he got a new ignitor from his tool case, installed it, and tested the furnace.  There was a nice bright glow and the gas flames started.  That was all he needed to do.  When I examined the old ignitor, I saw a fine break in the element.  That was the problem.

It took him longer to write up the bill than to fix the furnace.  I asked him if I was the first to call.  “No”, he said.  “There were five others before you but they all cancelled when I called them”.  “Why would people call a whole bunch of companies and then cancel all but one of them?”.  I couldn’t explain it, but I did say that I wouldn’t do that.  He chided me for not calling them for a routine cleaning and furnace check in the summer.  He told me that they would have detected the ignitor problem then, and that the part would be a lower cost when it was not an emergency call.  Too late, but maybe I should do that next summer.

It was all over by 8 am.  I was very pleased with the whole thing.  The furnace was running normally again.  The house was slowly warming up.  I could resume my plans for the rest of the day.  It was going to be a good day after all.

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