Saturday, December 29, 2012

In the bleak midwinter...

We had a few days after the end of term and before our regular road trip to Virginia to see Aimee's parents, and during that time I went over and over my to-do list of pre trip preparations, so our house-sitter Marsha would have an easy time of things. I checked over all the household systems again and again, brought down feed for the sheep, filled all the water containers, and generally obsessed compulsively in order that we might have a good trip without worries. Aimee did much the same, and in the end we left poor Marsha with a veritable dissertation of instructions, running to three pages, single- spaced, with email addenda.

It was all for nothing. A storm blew up a day and a half after we left which cut power to the house. Marsha was asleep at the time and so didn't notice. When she awoke, the oil furnace was out and wouldn't re-start, leaving an eight-foot 115 V baseboard heater next to the living room windows as the only heat in the house. She emailed to us down in Virginia, and waited, the house getting colder, for us to respond.

Eventually we did of course check our email, by which time it was 55 degrees F in the house, and certainly cold enough outside to freeze pipes. We called right away and, after running through some furnace trouble-shooting procedures over the phone unsuccessfully, gave instead verbal instructions for using the wood stove.

Wood stoves are tricky, and unless you've used one before, indeed, unless you've had lots of practice in using one, you may not be able to make it work for you very easily, which is why we have our house-sitters use the oil furnace instead. It's one less thing for us to worry about while we're away.

But needs must. I walked Marsha through the lighting process, step-by-step, and gave tips on what to expect from each shape, size and type of log. There followed a few anxious hours during which we waited to make sure she was getting the hang of it. We were pleased to see that she managed quite well and when we next called back, the house was up to 65 degrees F. We breathed a big sigh of relief. The pipes at least were saved.

There was also the small matter of one or another of the ewes having somehow walked off with one of the two water tank heaters accidentally attached, cutting heat to one of the two water tubs. The tank heater was nowhere to be found, the sheep having hidden it carefully in the snow. This meant the sheep would run out of water in  a day or two.

Then we saw the weather reports: giant winter storm "Euclid" was barreling across the southern states with torrential rain and tornadoes and would become a nor'easter if it followed the predicted trajectory. (Apparently winter storms have names now, just like hurricanes. I'm not sure this is a necessary elaboration.)

That was enough for us, on top of the furnace and animal woes. Christmas would have to be cut short this year.

Aimee's family were good enough to reprogram their entire holiday, and so we had Christmas dinner and present-opening on Christmas Eve, and by 8.30 am on Christmas Day Aimee and I were back in the Camry heading for points north, Euclid thundering along about 24 hours behind us.

We had good weather for driving ahead of the storm, and slowed only by fog in Virginia, had our own Christmas dinner in a south Indian restaurant somewhere north of Hartford, Connecticut, and bedded down comfortably in a Baymont Inn for the night. By 1pm the next day we were home.

At home things were fine. Marsha had it up to a toasty 68 F in the house, and the stove was burning brightly. She gets the official 2012 Learned to Use a Wood Stove in the Shortest Time Award. But then being cold concentrates the mind, I find. You'll do anything to get warm again.

We quickly sorted the animals and a supply of firewood for the coming storm. The tank heater had resurfaced and Martha reconnected it, so all we had to do was top off the tubs. I then repeated the immediate fault diagnosis for the furnace, resetting the programmable thermostat, then pressing the red reset button on the primary control, all to no avail.

What was wrong with the furnace? This is admittedly an older unit, circa 1987, but it sees so little use that we assume it needs little maintenance. It hasn't been run for more than a few tens of hours a year since we got (mostly) done with our giant insulation and air sealing project a few years ago. In that time we've burned only about 70 gallons of oil. The house is now so well insulated, we can keep it nicely warm with the wood stove and a small electrical heater, and so the only time we use the oil furnace is when we have a house-sitter, or when the wood stove goes out while we're away for the day, and we want to rewarm the house quickly.

The next day, as so-called Euclid was raging all around us, I went online and pulled the various manuals and perused the DIY blogs and videos to get good information to run through a deeper inspection/fault diagnosis process. I'd never worked on a furnace before, and wanted to learn as much as I could from the experience.

I removed the whole burner unit and took it upstairs to my workbench to get a better look at things. Back in the basement with a flashlight, the first thing I noticed was that the small anteroom to the combustion chamber where the burner tube sits was filthy, full of soot and debris, so I vacuumed that out with the shop vac, recovering a good two pounds of soot and burned dust. I examined the main filter and fuel pump screen and found both to be dirty. I pulled the burner nozzle and decided to change that too.

That was as much as I could get done because the heating firm with the parts store is, of course, several miles away and the storm would hit overnight. Hoping to salvage a little Christmas spirit, I made mince pies and fed the wood stove and gave the sheep extra hay. Aimee started a jigsaw puzzle and we watched TV in the warm as the storm blew up.

The next day we had a winter wonderland in the dooryard.

Only about eight inches of snow, not such a large storm really, but some blowing and drifting had piled up larger drifts here and there. The sheep were nice and warm in the barn, but to judge by the layer of snow on their backs, some had even slept outside! Sheep don't really care too much about storms.

I did experience that signature Maine moment where you try to open your front door but can't because of a snow drift, but the town plow had been up the road and so we weren't by any stretch of the imagination "snowed in." I got busy with the Kubota tractor and soon had the driveway clear and the various vehicles shoveled off.

The firewood pile is getting low, and so we'll need to get a little more in, but what we have is nice and dry, good quality ash from our own land. There's another three rows behind this one, enough to take us through February. I'll find another cord of dry somewhere on Uncle Henry's or Maine Craig's List.

I used the Land Rover to get to the parts store, but even that wasn't really necessary. The roads were fairly clear by 10 am.

I bought a new filter, screen nozzle and main gasket and came back and fitted them and put the whole thing back together and bled the system, but it still wouldn't light. Back to the parts store again with the electrode/nozzle unit, to have the electrodes checked. They were fine, so I bought home a new primary control. That didn't do the trick either. Finally, after checking for spark across the springs, I realized the igniter transformer was fried. And of course, thinking back, that should perhaps have been the first thing I checked, because, well, there was a power cut, followed by (I found out later from the parts guy) a power surge as the power came back on. More than enough to fry a 25 year-old transformer that's been kept in a damp basement.

One last quick trip to the parts store, a last flurry of parts-fitting and wiring, and the machine fired up. It burned a little wild to begin, of course, because the combustion chamber was filled with unburned fuel, but soon settled down.

I don't mind that I bought all those extra parts. If you think about it, now we have a fully-serviced oil furnace, with brand new wiring and electronics. Not a moment too soon, because it's supposed to get down to - 10 degrees F next week at night (- 24 degrees Celsius).

The furnace should now be good for several more years of use. Indeed, I think the only thing that will kill this old system is the rust. the basement is damp and the sheet metal housing is rusting.

What would be nice now would be to get a secondhand unit from a retrofit job somewhere with a dryer basement and switch out all the rusty panels.

I think we dealt with all these emergencies rather well, even if I do say so myself. Thinking ahead, we had good back-up plans for home heat, and, of course, a sturdy and clever lass for a house sitter who could rise to the occasion. We kept up with the weather forecast and so were able to dodge the storm. And we had good skills to fall back on for fixing the furnace.

All's well that ends well.

Just another winter on the farm.

Chris­ti­na Ros­set­ti, 1872, 

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.


  1. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Mick and Aimee! Sorry to hear your trip was cut short but that all is well at the Wormerlippi farm. We are getting our first snow of the season tonight in Rhode Island and it is beautiful. Big heavy flakes that make the world a wonderland. I drive buy one of our local farms every morning and am amazed that the cows and other animals do not seem to be affected by the cold. I am in awe of nature....and your unbelievable technical skills. Stay warm and enjoy the winter in Maine. Looking forward to a new year of Mick stories! Love the cat in a bag.

  2. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Mick and Aimee! Sorry to hear your trip was cut short but that all is well at the Wormerlippi farm. We are getting our first snow of the season tonight in Rhode Island and it is beautiful. Big heavy flakes that make the world a wonderland. I drive buy one of our local farms every morning and am amazed that the cows and other animals do not seem to be affected by the cold. I am in awe of nature....and your unbelievable technical skills. Stay warm and enjoy the winter in Maine. Looking forward to a new year of Mick stories! Love the cat in a bag.


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