Monday, February 16, 2015


When you live in an older house, and it’s winter, and the outdoor temperature is in the teens, the sound of God is the sound of the furnace turning on.

Today, just past 2 p.m., it’s 11° with a wind-chill factor nearing zero. The cold penetrates my home whose windows are not all double-paned.

Mine is a largish detached single-family cottage created in the early 1960s.  There is a multitude of such homes—life-size Monopoly tokens—in Northern Virginia.  Many were built for the blue-collar workers and GIs who populated the area a couple of generations ago, and many have been torn down and replaced with bigger and more modern houses, The homes like mine that  have survived are thoroughly middle-class and growing in value. Their days are numbered. The migration of government workers from Washington, D.C., to the Virginia suburbs is constant and steady. The dotcom companies that have sprung up in my area employ thousands, and they’ve been buying up and tearing down.

The three-bedroom (small) two-and-a-half-baths bungalows plunked down on a third of an acre plot originally cost about $25,000. They were put up when energy was so cheap that trying to build a structure that did not leak heat wasn’t worth the cost. In my house, the windows that I have not replaced with more efficient models allow a transfer of heat that basically attempts to warms my back yard.  The basement where I write is a good ten degrees cooler than the upstairs bedroom, and the only thing between me and frostbite is my ancient gas furnace. 

By ancient, I mean about 25 years old.  I replaced the heating/cooling system when I bought the place in the late 80s. I  had a new roof put in and at about the same time I decided to insulate the basement myself, which helped, but only a little.

About ten years ago, we had a snowstorm that, though mild by today’s Boston standards, knocked down power lines and left tens of thousands of Virginians without heat or electricity. I took refuge in a local motel that reeked of stale smoke and considered myself lucky to find a room. Hotels were booked solid, and quite a few people ended up spending a small fortune huddling five to a room in suburban Hiltons.

I spent three incredibly depressing days in this noxious environment as I waited for the power company to restore service. The guests in an adjoining room had three kids, including a newborn that cried most of the time. They argued in a language I couldn’t recognize and slammed the doors often. When I got back to my home I spent another twenty hours waiting for the house to get warm enough to spend the night. The furnace kicked on intermittently and I held my breath while it did its job.

Now it’s almost a decade later and I’m holding my breath again.

I’ve tried to calculate how many times the thermostat has sparked and started the small electric motor that pushes the heat into the ducts and into the rooms. I hear the click perhaps every three minutes. That’s twenty times an hour, four-hundred-and-eighty times a day, give or take a few.  In the summer, the same mechanism that governs the heat starts and stops the air conditioning, so that in a given year, the heating system operates about 330 days. I’m no math genius, but that means the system kick on about 160,000 yearly. Over a decade, that’s 1.6 million offs and ons.

Jeez. The sheer number terrifies me. Replacing the system will cost approximately ten grand, so I’m holding off.

I’ve woken up in the middle of the night persuaded that something in the heart of my house had just failed. I listen to my heartbeat. Then I hear the welcome click, whirr, woosh. The furnace works.

I give thanks to the furnace god.


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