I shivered while donning an industrial quality dust mask and a pair of nitrile gloves. The house was cold because the furnace had been off for a full two hours. Having taken all the precautions I could, I pushed ahead with the job at hand; the weekly cleaning of ash from the pellet furnace which heats my old brick house.
In April it will be twelve years since my husband, Arnie died suddenly. Two days into my grieving, I had realized that I needed to learn how to maintain the furnace. This had always been Arnie’s job, so I didn’t have a clue. Arnie wasn’t around anymore to tell me what I needed to know. I was horrified. Searching the house failed to turn up a user’s manual. No one in my circle of friends had a furnace like mine. All the local businesses that sold and repaired furnaces had never seen a Canadian-made Traeger pellet furnace.
Tammie, my reference librarian daughter found a manual for my furnace on-line. Taking the copy she’d printed for me, my son-in-law Mike, carefully guided me step-by-step through the process. We learned the ash needed to be cleaned out once a week. Once a month the face plates had to be removed to clean the heat exchange tunnels. Ash, soot and creosote blackened my hands, arms and face, staining my clothing.
Last week as I cleaned, I thought about all the many problems this furnace had given me. Each year was something different. A nail jammed the machinery, having to replace the control board fuse daily until replacing the faulty auger motors. Two or three memorable times unburned pellets completely filled the fire box. Once, the house filled with smoke and the face plates became gooey with creosote when I didn’t tighten the bolts sufficiently.
I rolled my eyes remembering the times I had cleaned the furnace when it was still too hot. Once, I couldn’t get the furnace to restart, resulting in a pricey service call to be reminded about the reset button. Another time resulted in a creosote fire in the pipes leading to the chimney. I reflected, “Even though the house gets cold, it’s better to turn off the furnace and wait two hours before cleaning it!”
Throughout all the difficulties, I have remained loyal to my pellet furnace, but I know of a difficulty looming ahead I cannot control. The pellets for my furnace come in forty-pound sacks. I buy six tons each year. I’ve been throwing them into my basement and stacking them with a little help from friends and family. Each day as I fuel my furnace, I pick up the sacks, cut them open and pour them into the hopper. I have arthritis, especially in my hands, feet and shoulders.
Restarting the fire, I sat down on a stool and wondered while waiting to see if the fire ‘took’, “How long will my body be able to do this?” When I was a little girl Daddy would joke about having to “Holler Uncle” when we wanted to beg for mercy or admit defeat while still fighting. I debated, “I can still heft the sacks, but my hands hurt. Does that mean it’s a good time or reason to admit defeat and “Holler Uncle”?
Because I am a practical person, I’ve been slowly, systematically improving my house and property ever since Arnie died. I don’t want to sell it yet, but I want to make it desirable for when I do. Few buyers would want a messy, hard to care for pellet furnace like my Traeger. Reluctantly, I am turning my thoughts toward shopping for a new gas furnace.
Somehow it makes me feel better thinking of buying a gas furnace as an investment, rather than a nod to the fact that I am getting old! I smile to myself. Now that the fire has taken hold, I stand up and flip the furnace on. The house is still icy cold, but by the time I take a shower to wash the black soot off my skin, the bathroom registers will be blowing warm air.