Monday, March 30, 2009


Those of you who live out west — and by that I mean anything farther than, say, Ohio — will NEVER EVER EVER have this problem. But maybe you'll still laugh about it with me.

I finally did laundry today, after ignoring the growing piles all last week, and laundry around here is an all-day experience. (There's the lugging of overstuffed baskets down from the third floor to the basement, for starters, which I figure is worth at least five pounds of weight loss a year, but I digress.) It's been chilly outside, too, so the heat has been on all day, and every time I've tromped down to the basement the boiler has been roaring away.

I love love love love having steam heat. Having a nice toasty radiator to put my toes on in the middle of the winter (preferably while I'm reading a book and eating a stack of cookies) is one of my most indulgent pleasures. The gentle gurgle-pop-hiss and creaking floorboards when the steam comes into a radiator is a warm, reassuring sound. The air in the house doesn't get quite as dry as it does with forced hot air. Plus, radiators just look cool. And ours are spray-painted silver.

Of course, this means we don't have central air conditioning in the summer, which isn't a happy thing. It also means we have to monitor the water levels in the boiler — there's an automatic system shut-off and an automatic water fill that kicks on if not enough water is in the system, but it's a good idea not to have to use the safeties. We also have to flush the system once a month or so during heating season, which involves turning off the heat, waiting an hour or so for the steam to condense, opening a spigot to drain the disgusting rusty water into a bucket, carrying the bucket up the basement stairs, emptying the bucket down the driveway, and repeating the spigot-bucket-driveway routine until the boiler is empty — three or four buckets — before shutting off the spigot, opening the fill valve to refill the boiler, and turning the power back on to the heating system.

The whole boiler arrangement looks like it belongs in a dark dank cobwebby Depression-era cellar: pipes and pressure gauges and levers and switches and safety valves, along with a deep roaring noise when the heat's on high. But really, most of it's less than ten years old (except for the pipes). We use natural gas instead of fuel oil, so there's no spilled-petrochemical smell, and the basement is well-lit and relatively clean. The girls love the system-flushing days — they come downstairs and ride their tricycles around the basement while I lug buckets of water up the stairs. And I feel like I know some elusive secret about the inner workings of the house. (Do you know what a Hartford loop is? Right.)

So back to laundry day.

I went down to the basement at about 5:30 to switch loads of laundry, noticed that the heating system was off — hooray for slightly warmer weather! — and checked the water level in the glass tube on the side. It was a little low, so I moved the lever to open the fill valve ever so slightly (don't want to shock a hot boiler with a gush of cold water) and left it open while I put in another load of laundry. This is something I do pretty often, and after the laundry is taken care of I check the water level again and turn off the valve and go back upstairs. Today Scott happened to come home while I was downstairs, and he brought his gym clothes home with him, and he came down to the basement while I was doing laundry, and we started talking, and then we headed back upstairs.

Fast forward an hour.

We've eaten dinner, we've talked about the day, and we've moved into the living room to have family home evening. Scott mentions that he turned off the radiator at the front door downstairs because the valve was leaking, and we should add that radiator valve to the list of valves to replace this summer.

And then I hear a drip, drip, splash...drip, drip, splash and go to investigate, and the valve on the radiator in the dining room is leaking too. I run for a towel, clean up the smallish puddle, get a bit grumpy because I can't turn off this radiator — the shutoff knob has long since broken off — and then I realize that I left the water on downstairs.


The little trickle of water from the open fill valve had filled the boiler and crept up the steam pipes all the way to the second floor.

You know how I said it usually takes three to four buckets to drain the boiler? I lost count along the way, but it was at least thirteen buckets. And the water pressure was high enough that by the fourth or fifth bucket the drops that had splashed out had made quite a sizable puddle on the basement floor.

The kiddos thought it was great fun to have the whole family in the basement together. Rode their tricycles around, rocked tandem-style on the rocking horse, asked lots of questions about the vast quantities of water that were sloshing around in various buckets. Beth was so inspired by the festivities that she went upstairs to go potty not once but twice in a span of about 40 minutes.

And yes, we finished our family home evening. The lesson was on repentance: When we make a mistake, we say we're sorry, we do our best to fix it, and then we try very hard not to do it again.


Rebecca said...

I could never have a broiler....this would happen far to often!

Markie said...

I'm with Rebecca! But, I do love the idea of you being so intimately involved with the nitty-gritty of home-ownership.

Danika said...

I did this once too! Although gratefully that was a rental. The neighbors who shared the duplex were totally panicked. I'm with you though, live and learn!

Sam and fam said...

You are just too nice to your boiler :). We shock it with cold water all the time. I didn't know you were supposed to turn off the heat before you flush the boiler either. Hmmm... oh well, our boiler is still truckin 30 years later. They don't make 'em like they used to :).

Reggs said...

You fixed your boiler, did the laundry AND did FHE?
I think you are a superhero. :)

Maryanne said...

I'm with Reggs. We would have had some tense moments, maybe some yelling and FHE out the window. You're awesome.