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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Culture of a Furnace*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
November 20, 2010
as "Steam Heat Takes Some Warming Up To"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I grew up in the Midwest, Missouri specifically. Out there, temperature extremes are much broader than here in the delightfully temperate Laurel Highlands. Summers are hot and humid. It’s not unusual at all to have a week to ten days of 100+ degree heat, accompanied by humidity that has to be felt to be believed. At the other end of the spectrum, winter will bring the same week to ten days of below-zero cold.

This vast disparity in seasonal temperatures places a heavy load on climate control devices. Nearly everyone in Missouri has a forced-air furnace. Some of the more well-heeled will have a heat pump, the crème de la crème of home HVAC. Moving to Pennsylvania, however, I encountered a real culture shock: Steam heat

You must understand that I had never lived in a house with steam heat. I remember standing in the basement under a maze of pipes with the former owner while he patiently explained how everything worked.

The first thing I had to understand was proper pronunciation . I thought they were RAY-diators, so named because they RAY-diated heat. Not here. I quickly discovered that the proper way to say the word is RAT-iators. No one knows why the word is used this way; probably the same reason one of the bodies of water that flows through downtown is the Stoney-CRICK.

The other conundrum was learning how to use them. With a forced-air furnace, you twist a dial, and the heat comes on. Voila! But with the RAT-iators, you have to go from room to room, lean over until your face touches the iron, and turn a valve. Of course, in the Navy, a valve is either all the way on, or all the way off. That first night, I was up at 1:30 a.m. trying desperately to cool down what had morphed from a bedroom to a sauna. You see, you only turn those valves a tiny bit at a time. Nobody told me that. My response was to turn the valve all the way off, which meant that two hours later, I was up again trying to warm up what was now a meat locker. Eventually, I did get things sorted out.

With a forced-air furnace, the only maintenance is changing the filter once a month. Now, every year I have to go through a process called “bleeding the RAT-iators.” The reason for this is easy to understand, even for a mechanical dweeb like myself. Air in a steam line makes the pipes rattle and pop when the heat is applied. If you don’t want your home sounding like a Civil War battlefield, then you must bleed them at least once a year. I think.

This task requires a tool known as a RAT-iator key. This is a small silver wrench-thingy that you use to open the bleed valve at top of the RAT-iator with the highest elevation in the home. For us, this is the unit in the attic bedroom. That key has become a problem. It’s hard enough to keep track of something that small, especially since it’s only used one day out of the year. So, it’s not so much about where it’s stored, but if I can remember where I put it. Last year, after buying my third key in 5 years, I decided the best thing would be to leave it where I used it. So using a piece of baling wire, I attached the key to the attic RAT-iator. Problem solved. At least that problem.

For most Pennsylvania men, RAT-iator maintenance probably comes second nature. For every job there is a system that works. I’m still looking for that system. It wasn’t until this year that I figured out that I could position my wife downstairs with me in the attic and communicate by cellphone. Before, every fall meant a day of aerobics while I sprinted up and down three long flights of stairs trying to bleed the RAT-iadors.

The good thing is that we all get smarter as time goes on. Even me. And I think I’m at the spot where I can manage our heating system pretty well.

At least until a pipe bursts.
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