Recollections of home heating

Part of my renovation of my house was to replace the furnace with a modern furnace.   The old furnace was a gas furnace about 30 years old that replaced something even older.    I didn’t intend to replace it at first but during the middle of the major renovation (during the winter) a furnace technician recommended replacing it because it was about the end of its life anyway.   I had called him out because the pilot light stopped staying lit (it was old type that kept a flame on all the time).  I was in the mood of modernizing and the newer features seemed attractive.     In hindsight I probably would have been better off just keeping the old one.

The old furnace was of an older inefficient design that burned inside air with an open flame that you can see when looking up from the lower part.   Much of the hot air just went up the chimney and the burned air needed to replaced by sucking into the house cold outside air (somehow).

Despite the inefficiency, it presented hot air to the registers although due to the design of the house there were hot spots and cold spots.    In particular, the master bedroom was typically hard to heat while the bathroom and kitchen were typically very warm because they were directly above the furnace.    For example, the register for the bathroom was set near the ceiling and opposite the sink, and the hot air made an effective hair drier.

The renovation would have solved the cold bedroom problem because I eliminated the interior walls making the entire top floor into one room.  This eliminated the need for the ineffective horizontal duct to deliver heat to the bedroom.

If anything, the new renovation would have been perfect for the old furnace.    But I got the new fancy one instead.

The old furnace had a strong fan that I kept at the highest speed to keep air circulating and I liked the white noise to block outside noise.   It also had a simple heating logic.   Either the fire was burning or it was not.    I think it worked ok.   Even though it was inefficient, this is a very small house so that the difference probably doesn’t amount to a lot.

The new furnace has far more intelligence.   The thermostat gradually heats up when needed.    Rarely if ever do I feel the chill-chasing heat that I enjoyed with the older furnace.   The thermometer says it is doing a good job at keeping the right temperature, but it doesn’t feel the same as the old furnace with the same setting.    Luckily and completely coincidentally, I have direct vent fireplaces that deliver the intense heat when standing nearby and unlike the furnace the fireplaces are situated where that heat is more welcome.   I don’t have a major complaint about the heat.

My bigger complaint about the furnace is the fan.  It has a super intelligent fan.  It is a fan fully capable of blowing with the speed of the old furnace but even though I set the fan to be always high, it virtually never uses this highest speed.   Instead, the intelligence of the furnace makes itself known by its randomly changing the fan speed.   It decides on its own logic when to speed up and slow down.   Even when I manually set the thermostat to a radically different temperature, it takes many minutes before the fan changes speed.

I guess this fan speed logic has something to do with the efficiency.    But in this case, I’d rather just have the fan full blast all the time for the air circulation and for the noise.

This is especially a problem at night.   Even in the deep winter at around 3 or 4 am, the fan goes almost completely silent for about an hour.  I guess because there is no movement in the house the air has stabilized to the point where there is little need for heat.   The silence wakes me up and it keeps me up.   For a long time (I mean years) I couldn’t figure out why my sleep would be so interrupted.  I slept well until then and when I would finally get back to sleep I had a very hard time getting up when I was supposed to.   But in the hour around 3 am I would be wide awake.     I finally figured out that the silence is what woke me and what bothered me.   I fixed that by getting a standalone large air cleaner that when in its “daytime” setting produces a similar fan noise as the furnace.   In particular this fan never changes its mind.

So I have come up with effective work-around solutions for what I lost when getting a new furnace.  The fireplaces for spot heat, and the air cleaner for constant noise.

The above descriptions provoke some additional thoughts.

The first thought is about why did I wake and could not sleep at 3 am when the furnace fan got quiet?   I live in a relatively quiet neighborhood and it is especially noise free at that time of night.  It is a very good silence.  I would think I would be pleased to have that kind of silence all the time.   Instead I felt anxious.  The silence was spooky.

One explanation is that we are prone to power failures and perhaps my mind is thinking there is a power outage.  Certainly the first thing I do when waking is checking the green-glow LED of the smoke-alarm to tell me it still has line power.    That is not necessary because the FIOS Internet connection battery will start beeping if the power goes out.   Despite the reassurance and now the luxury of complete silence I still can’t sleep.   I still feel spooked.

It occurs to me that perhaps I have a reason to be spooked.   I’m spooked by the intelligence of the furnace.   Unlike the old furnace that turned on and off abruptly in a clearly mechanical way, this furnace speeds up and slows down and settles on different speeds for reasons that defy explanation.   It will be slow even when it is pumping out heat, it will speed up even when the thermostat says it doesn’t need more heat.   In short, it really starts to seem like it has a mind of its own.

It is like there is another living being in the house.  I can sense that something is up with that being and my staying awake is probably my subconsciously wondering what it is thinking.    This is just a stupid furnace and yet it is doing something a little too organic.   This may be a aural equivalent of the uncanny valley paradox for machines that become more repulsive when they approach lifelike appearances.  There is something similarly uncanny by the fan that changes speeds all the time.

This discussion also reminds me that it seems I have always had a obsession about furnaces.   For everyplace I rented, the part I remember most is the way the furnace was unsatisfactory.   There is probably some kind of psychological condition describing an obsession with furnaces and I’m probably a borderline case.    No furnace is perfect enough for me.

After writing yesterday’s post comparing a steam-engine fireman to data warehouse ETL, it occurred to me that I had some experience as a fireman.   During my childhood, we moved into an old farmhouse that was heated with a coal furnace at least for one winter.   We had a truck deliver a load of coal into a part of the basement for holding the coal and that was the fuel for the winter.

There was centrally located furnace that burned the coal.   That’s all.  It was a steel box that burned coal and exhausted the fumes through the chimney.   The box would get hot and heat the air, ducts directed the heated air to rise to vents on the first flow.   This was called gravity heating.   There was no fan.  Heat distributed purely because heat rises.    The second floor was heated by having grated openings in the floor to the first floor ceiling so that the heat would continue to rise.   The second floor had children’s bedrooms.  A good night’s sleep required good heavy blankets.

Gravity heat had zero fan noise.   In the early part of the evening when everyone went to bed, it would be quiet enough to hear the fire itself as some coal cracked or tumbled.   More than the silence was that the silence was never interrupted by an unpredictable switching of the fan to restore some thermostat setting.   There was no thermostat.

Gravity heat had excellent heat on the first floor.  The vents on the first floor were excellent sources of spot heat.   The metal of the vents were hot enough to burn if you touched them.

I can imagine that this experience occurred at just the right age for me to make it into the standard from which to judge all furnaces..    We didn’t have the furnace long.  We replaced it after a year or so because a coal furnace has some downsides.

The biggest downside is that the fire goes out at around 3 am in the morning.   In order to get the house comfortable enough to wake up in a couple hours, someone has to go to the basement and start a new fire.   That’s when I had my experience as a fireman.

For a steam engine fireman, the challenge is keeping the fire steady at just the right level: not too hot and not too cool.    This required regular feeding coal.   This is impractical for a house so we instead would feed the fire with fresh coal before going to bed and then try to wake up before that fire went out so we can add more coal while there were still some flames.    I don’t think that happened very often.   I certainly have a lot of memories of trying to start a new fire with old newspapers, kindling wood (that became increasingly hard to find) and a lot of frustration at being so cold.   This probably occurred somewhere around 4 in the morning.

Once the fire started, I’d go back to bed and have a devil of time to get up because of the returned coziness of the house.

A coal fireplace is a lot of work.  We were human thermostats who went down and changed the fuel level.   We did the heavy and dirty work of moving coal and cleaning up afterwards.   I guess the experience came at a time when I learned that it is normal to expect that something as basic as heating a house would require daily work.

The part I dreaded most was when the fire would go out and need to be restarted.   At first there is a childhood fascination of starting a fire, but that got old quickly.   What annoyed me was that we’d run out of kindling wood and unlike the coal we didn’t get that supply delivered.   We had to find something that would easily catch fire from burning newspaper and burn hot and long enough to start the coal to burn.   Initially, this was easy with access to a wooded lot with old fallen branches but that was exhausted pretty quickly.   At one point I recalled complaining that there was no more kindling wood to find.

I try to recollect that experience.  We had plenty of coal, but the trouble was trying to figure out how to get it to start burning.   I think that experience left a lasting impression on me in terms of appreciating what it meant to keep a fire going.    The analogy I made in the previous post about comparing a coal fireman to a data warehouse ETL makes a lot of sense to me.    The challenge of ETL is when the fire goes out and despite having plenty of fuel you need to improvise to find a way to restart the fire.



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