Monthly Archives: December 2011

My Basement Monster

The pipes in the house were bumping and thumping and making all kinds of scary noise. It sounded like a monster was chained in the basement, trying to escape. That turned out to be a fairly apt metaphor too.

I spent hours trying to bleed the air out of my boiler heating system. The air wasn’t even supposed to be in there. I’d had a special bleeder valve added to the system awhile back so that air would automatically escape. Yet there the air was.

More alarming than the noise was the monster’s breath. Sporadically, steam hissed out of the bleeder valve in a menacing blast.

It puzzled my furnace guy. He never saw the steam but he didn’t doubt me. He thought that the air in the boiler water was a sign that the bleeder valve wasn’t working anymore but he couldn’t explain how it still allowed steam to escape.

He showed me how to bleed the system manually. It was a time consuming process involving water trickling through a hose into a bucket, watching bubbles of air escape. The procedure was complete when there were no more bubbles.

The noise you’re hearing is just air in the system, he told me. Get the air out and you’ll be fine.

He promised to check on the cost of replacing the bleeder valve. It was solid brass. The metal had become very costly lately.

I trickled out bucket after bucket, watching air bubbles rise. They were endless.

The noise continued. Once or twice a day I caught the monster breathing steam again. I’d been warned that the boiler could crack if there was too much steam. That would mean a whole new furnace. I cut the power to the boiler and kept on bleeding it.

The bubbles were endless.

The house got cold.

I turned the boiler power back on. I kept burping the monster.

The bubbles were endless.

At one point the controller box began to hum loudly, so loudly that I was afraid it was some kind of alarm. I swatted it with my hand. It stopped humming.

Ah, percussion maintenance works again, I thought.

The next morning I found that the boiler no longer responded to the thermostat.

I told all of this to the furnace guy.

Keep bleeding, he said.

It was getting cold out and he was handling a lot of calls from his customers, working into the evening day after day. I’d always known him to work this hard. He’d been born into the business that his father had started in 1950 and he’d been running it himself for over a decade.

That night the boiler steamed and thumped with reckless fury.

Turn off the boiler, he said. It could crack. Do you have another heat source? Can you stay warm? You must need a new controller. I can’t get one until the morning.

The controller would be about as expensive to replace as the bleeder valve.

And the furnace guy’s labor and expertise were appropriately costly too.

The next day he showed up with a new pump.

I was talking with some of the guys, he said, and we decided the real problem is that the pump is failing. The heated water isn’t being distributed well through the system. The boiler water is overheating because it doesn’t get far so sits and cooks. That puts air into the system and makes steam.

He swapped out the pump. This part was about half as costly as either of the previously proposed solutions.

The house began to warm again. And it was quiet. The banging stopped. There was no more steam. The controller worked again. The monster morphed back into a quiet house helper.

I’m grateful that my furnace guy listened to my description of what was happening. The boiler neither thumped nor steamed while he was present, just meekly kicked in. Except for the bubbles in the system, everything had seemed to be working.

His listening skills had paid off.

I’m grateful that he kept thinking and didn’t just charge into the first solution that presented itself, or the second.

Both solutions would have been expensive and neither would have fixed the problem.

His years of experience with problem solving had paid off.

I’m grateful that he’d shared the problem with others in his field and considered their ideas.

His professional network had paid off.

The most valuable component of the service he’d provided wasn’t a new pump, it was himself.

Over the past year I’ve been saddened to hear many people devalue the labor and experience of other workers with no real understanding of the requirements of the fields they deride as overpaid. I pray this type of mass derision and contempt never falls on my furnace guy or the others in his field.

Because as expensive as the labor was for my boiler service, it could have been much worse. There is no basis for expecting omniscience from a problem solver, ever. Human beings are often inventive and clever but no one can truthfully call any of them perfect.

The best and closest substitute for troubleshooting perfection that we can have is a process that includes patience, knowledge, thought and respect.

Those attributes carry a necessary cost but such a process is what the best troubleshooters must rely on if problems are to be actually solved.

Image from Flickr : “fallrod”

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