Monday, October 20, 2014

Heat? What heat?

Anyone who thought we came up here to relax, retire, and generally be lazy needs to spend a day or two taking care of 7 cabins and 2 motel rooms...

We only have one more weekend before the cabins close. And we had managed to get through the summer without any major problems. Sure, minor stuff like water closets almost falling off, and toilets backing up, know, minor stuff. Until Saturday night...

It started out innocent enough. I got a call from the guests in Aspen saying that the heater wasn't working right (it was about 11:30). That furnace is a bit flaky, so I thought nothing of it. I couldn't get the pilot to stay lit, so I gave them a pair of space heaters. It's a small cabin and that was more than adequate.

When I got back, Debbie said she thought maybe our furnace pilot had gone out. It had been very windy and that sometimes happens. About that same time, I realized that the oven wasn't preheating...and the burner on the stove was only about 1/3 lit...Uh-oh!

We run on propane, which means that the tank gets filled periodically. We have a remote sensor that is tied to the supplier's office. When the tank gets below a certain percentage they come and fill it. They call it "keep fill" or some such jargon. Works well–especially in the winter, when you don't want to tramp through drifts all the time to check the tank.

But now there wasn't any propane getting to the house–and at least one of the cabins. And the temperature is 32ºF and dropping. And we are full. And one of the cabins has a 5-month old baby in it. Don't panic. Check the tank to see if there is propane. Flashlight in hand, I trudged out to the tank. The gauge says 50%. Check the valves. They're open...Now you can panic! Not really.

I went back to the house and grabbed the business card for the supplier. There was a cell phone number for after-hours. It's now 11:56. Mark answered the phone on the second ring. I explained my situation. He asked if the valves on the individual cabins were open. Yep. I told him about the dying and disappearing flame on the stove and the pilots.

He told me he would get somebody out here...

Meanwhile, I was thinking what it could be. Perhaps some debris from the supply line had blocked the hose somewhere. That happens with older copper piping and propane. And some of our lines are old. Mentally, I mapped out the supply chain. Aspen is fed from Birch, which means that Birch also was without heat. But so were we.

It's now about 12:15, so I didn't want to wake people up to see the extent...but Cedar's water heater (the only one with a propane water heater) was in the shop. I could check that and see if they were without heat...yep. It's out, too.

That means I have 7 units without heat, plus us. Two of the units are on a separate tank, so they are unaffected.

12:30, still no answer from the propane company. I call again. Voice mail. I leave a message sounding a bit stressed, as you can imagine.

1:00, still no answer from the propane company. What to do...the temperature is still dropping. And there's a 5-month old baby out there with no heat.

It's almost 1:30. I'm going to have to wake up Max and get his input. The phone rings. It's the propane company. They had decided that the gauge must be defective and they had someone coming out to look at it. But he lived in Lutsen–a half-hour away.

2:00. He arrives. We go out to the tank. He hits it with a rubber mallet. Sounds empty. But the gauge still says 50%. He taps the gauge lightly with the mallet. Nothing moves. Still says 50%. He checks the valves. Everything is open. He loosens the bleed screw a bit. There should be the hiss of escaping propane and that nasty smell. Nothing! Just then I notice something I hadn't seen before. Off to the side, not obvious in the thick darkness, is an old-fashioned pressure gauge. It reads 0 pounds of pressure. The tank is empty! At 2:00 in the morning.

Steve (the propane man) says he will go get the tank and we'll fill the tank. Then we'll have to knock on every door and re-light the pilots. He suggests that while he gets the truck I make a list of what needs to be re-lit. We don't want to leave stove pilots unlit...

By now it is 2:30. He arrives with the truck at 3:00. But, how do we get at the tank without him having to back up and have those noisy beepers wake everybody up? Where he would normally park is taken by guests' vehicles. We figure out a spot. Very close to a cabin bedroom : ( But it will only require a very little bit of backing up after the tank is filled. Best option in a bad set of available options...

Steve starts filling the tank. Or tries to. The gauge (the actual pressure one) doesn't seem to be moving. And the fittings are icing up. Not normal. He trudges over to the truck, checks the meter. One gallon. Thats' all the tank would take. One gallon. And it's 3:15 in the morning. And the temperature is still dropping. And there's a 5-month old baby out there...

Off comes the propane supply hose. He looks at the fill valve. It looks fine. Nothing blocking it. He goes back to the truck again and comes back with a long chisel-looking thing. He places it on top of the fill valve, pushes it down, and it releases. He reconnects the supply hose, presses the remote to start the truck's supply. The pressure gauge on the tank starts to move. The icing around the supply valves begins to dissipate. Whew!

But now we have another problem. The supply truck is almost empty. After all, it's Saturday night and they had been using it all day to fill up tanks...But he managed to get 325 gallons in. That will last us quite a while, so we will get through the weekend easily.

Steve disconnects the supply hose, we struggle back through to the truck. In order to rewind the supply hose, he needs to haul the hose down the lane a bit. Without getting it caught on all the various junk that is on the path to the tank. And as quietly as possible. Then he needs to back up without hitting the cabin porch behind him or taking out the kiln on the other side. All without being in reverse with those horrendously loud beeps going on any longer than necessary...

Success! I only counted 40 beeps. But at 3:45 in the morning, that seemed like a million. And loud!.

Now the fun part. I have to wake up every guest (at almost 4:00 AM!) and tell them they don't have any heat and that I need to relight their furnace...The first one I did was the one with the baby. Praise God! They had brought along a space heater and were using it. I relit their furnace and stove pilots without the baby waking up. What an answer to prayer!

Next cabin. They had noticed that the furnace was out at about 11:30, but thought it was too late to call me! He had tried relighting the pilot himself, without success. So when I said I needed to relight it, he laughed. Until I did. : )

And so it went. One cabin requires you to climb underneath–but it also has a gas stove with pilots. So I still needed to wake them up. Another one was stubborn and wouldn't light right away. I finally got it lit (or so I thought). Last cabin. It was being stubborn, too. It's at the end of the line, so there was a lot of air in the line. When it finally lit, I absent-mindedly said, "The most beautiful sight in the world!" The guest laughed. Laughed. At 4:15 in the morning!

Did I mention that this whole time Debbie has been praying? I attribute the good response of the guests to her intercession. And people were thinking we came up here to relax and get away from the pressures of life!

Footnote: The cabin that I thought I got lit? Well, it didn't light! They called me at 8:30 to let me know. Poor guests! At least this is the cabin with a wood stove. They had lit the stove and it was starting to warm the place. I tried again from the top side to light the furnace. No dice. I clambered under the cabin. This cabin is not a pleasant one underneath...and the furnace is a tough one to access the pilot light. It took me about 10 minutes to get it lit. The pilot would spit and sputter. Finally it lit. I turned the valve to allow the furnace to come on. Success!

I climbed out and apologized to them for the trouble. There response was priceless, "That's ok, you probably had a worse night that we did." Understatement of the year!

The amazing thing? The people who were closest to the loud beeps were the ones I had given the space heaters to. When they checked out, he told me that they slept wonderfully well. The space heaters had kept them "snug as a bug in a rug" and they hadn't heard a thing! How's that for answered prayers?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a story! It's great that your HVAC company does after hours services; after all, it's an emergency. Steve looks like he had handled worse things before, which is he knew outright why the gauge wasn't moving. At least you guys were able to sleep warm that night. Thanks for sharing!

Harvey Chapman @ Liberty Comfort Systems