*When The Furnace Dies*
By: sasquatch
14 March 2011

For those of us who live in climates where winter temperatures spend weeks below zero degrees F, a furnace is more than comfort on a cool night. It's health, safety, and protection for preps. And in my AO of Minnesota, Murphy lives in furnaces, knocking them out by the dozens during cold snaps.

In January 2011, my furnace died. At 38 years of age, the original furnace had actually been repaired only once since we moved in 9 years ago, when the blower came loose. This time, the blower woke me at 4 AM, screaming. I killed power to it, waited, then powered it back up. It ran awhile, then screamed. It repeated the procedure until the screaming was constant, then it shut down for good.

I started calling contractors. On Sunday morning, $200 is normal just for the visit, and for the hourly rate. Most contractors have an emergency dispatch number, and the tech calls back in an hour or so. The first one to call back wasn't interested in the work.

The second outfit to respond took 45 minutes to call, and 45 minutes to show up. Then he showed me the cracks in my furnace heat exchanger with his digital borescope (Gotta get me one of those!). The heat exchanger is the core of the furnace. At 38 years, there was no repairing or replacing the part. I had to replace the whole furnace.

While waiting for the sales guy, I did a little shopping. My little propane tent heater would not be adequate, so I picked up a Mr Heater Big Buddy propane heater (on sale for $100... nice to have... ice fishing so popular here!). It uses 1 or 2 1# propane bottles OR (with optional hose and regulator) a bulk propane tank. Four D cells to power the fan. I also picked up an oil-filled electric radiator.

The radiator comes with an "anti-freeze" setting. It maintains the room temperature at 44 degrees to prevent freezing pipes. Freezing pipes = flooded basement + big plumbing bill + major cleanup where I keep my preps.

My strategy to keep the house warm for the next 24 hours:

  1. Baking. Gas oven heats up the house, so it was lasagna for dinner. Oven was left on low heat all night, door closed.
  2. Bathtub. Filled with hot water, kept the bathroom a bit more comfortable.
  3. Electric Radiator. In basement, under water pipes. Shop fan set on low to circulate air.
  4. Ceramic space heater upstairs.
  5. Big Buddy to preheat bedrooms before sleeping. Initial fire-up set off CO detectors. After that, no issues, other than gas consumption and battery drain.
  6. Kitchen cabinet doors under the sink left open, to prevent pipe freezing.
  7. Electric blankets for the kids, in conjunction with down comforters.
  8. Ceramic heater in my room, down comforter on bed. A bit redundant, as bundling makes for a warm bed. Wife slept closer to the heater.


Furnace particulars:

I had the sales guy run the numbers for both 90% and 95% efficiency furnaces. With energy rebates, the difference was only about $400. So we got the 95%, with programmable thermostat (with override), variable-speed fan, 3-way gas valve (more gas for colder weather) and flexible filter. I can use any 20x25 filter or combination up to 5" thick. Included with the installation was a ton of new sheet metal duct work, combustion air intake (PVC), new exhaust pipe (PVC!), and condensation pump.

They actually have to run the exhaust out the side of the house. Not much extra heat remains (not going through PVC!), and we get icicles outside on the end of the exhaust.

After 4 weeks, we're still getting used to the new equipment. When the blower spins up to maximum in the morning, it gives my wife the heebie-jeebies... Oh, and also wakes her up. As a native Minnesotan, to me that sound is the sound of comfort... doesn't bother me. I still think the condensation pump is weird, though.

And I have a big propane heater in my preps now.

The downside is that the expected life for the thing isn't much more than 15 years. It will take about half that for the thing to pay for itself.

We were fortunate, in that the only deprivation we suffered was the furnace itself. Had we lost electrical power and gas service, we'd have been in serious trouble. This is grist for the long-term mill, as solutions for these challenges will require serious investment.

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