I’m on a mission these last few weeks. I know we’ve talked about it before, but this is my furnace.
It is very old. It is bigger than Utah, takes up just about the whole basement, and it works great. It’s an old gravity furnace. It has no fan or electrical parts, so I have heat when it the power goes out, and if our bills are compared to our neighbours, it’s actually pretty efficient, which shocks the hell out of me because it can’t be true… but we’re not spending much more than them. It makes no noise, except for the tiniest little gentle and friendly ting-ping sound of the ducts expanding when the heat comes on, and because there’s no blower, it doesn’t even dry the air out the way a forced air one does. In short, I love this furnace, and up until the last winter, it’s been as reliable as your favourite grandpa.
Last winter though, there were two really scary days (because not having heat mid-winter in Canada is scary) when the thing died, and even though it was simple to fix (Joe did something with a screwdriver the first time, and I thumped it Fonzie style the second) it was also scary because it’s not really a repairable furnace. If we can’t fix it, it can’t be fixed, because the minute a repair guy gets look at that he’s going to be obligated to "lock" it for safety. (I don’t necessarily buy that – I think they’re just scamming to sell and install new furnaces some of the time.) If that happens, we’re suddenly obligated to buy and install a furnace on their terms, not ours, and at a time we don’t choose. That didn’t sound good, so as I type there’s an energy auditor here to figure out what we need, and dudes, I’m getting a new furnace.
This makes me happy, partly because I won’t have to worry that the extended lifespan of the beast in the basement will run out on a Saturday morning in January when it’s -40, because as cheap as this one is to run, the new one will be cheaper and have much, much lower emissions, which is fantastic, and because as much as I love my furnace, it is old, and it does have a hard time keeping up when the weather is really cold… which, as I may have implied, is most of the time here. (We put our heat on only when absolutely necessary and that’s usually 8 months of the year. October to May.) It also gives us the option to someday install central air conditioning, which isn’t possible with a gravity furnace.
The downside is huge. First, and I’m sure you might know this. Furnaces are not cheap. Mine is particularly not cheap, because it’s a shocking thing to have extracted from your home and takes some special handling, and because gravity furnaces work entirely differently than forced air does… I need to have ducts installed throughout the house. Gravity furnaces are essentially big fires – with ginormous ducts that run from it. Two big ones go in the bottom of the furnace, and about six come out the top. Cold air sinks (is pulled down by gravity) through big returns in the house down to the bottom of the furnace,
and it gets heated in the big fire and warm air rises through a central "chimney" which has a few runs to some other rooms, but mostly pumps out heat into the center of the house.
Modern forced air though, has cold air returns in the middle of the house and the heat at the edges… which means that even though my house is full of ducts twice the size of escape tunnels dug out of Sing Sing… none of them are any good and they have to chop up my house and install a whack of them, which is sort of thrilling, because when this is done, we will actually have something that we’ve never had before, which is the absolute decadence of heat in every single room in the house. (Megan’s room is one of the unheated ones, as is my office. We’re both pretty pumped.)
The down side to this is that people are coming into our house, they need to move things, go into all rooms, shift furniture, climb in the attic, cut holes in the walls and floors…. and really, I don’t know if you’ve gathered anything from this blog over the years, but I have a really tiny house (like… 1100 square feet) and four of us living here (it was five before Amanda moved out) and it only has two closets in the whole building (built before closets were popular) and I’m not at all the organized minimalist who would do well in this sort of set up and… I can’t stress this part enough.
I have rather a lot of wool.
I’ve spent a week gutting the hell out of the house, destashing (some of my buddies have scored huge) and getting rid of anything that I can to make room for the new ducts and make it possible to move furniture around. I’m living in fear of the moment they tell me to move the wardrobe in my office and that means moving everything in it – and that means emptying it into another space that doesn’t have space and…
I hope this is worth it.