Monday, January 14, 2008

When a house becomes an igloo

The day before guests were set to start arriving for the biggest party we’d ever attempted to throw, my wife Kara and I came home to find our first floor entirely without heat. Apparently, we had done something to anger the universe, like not inviting it.

“What’s the thermostat set to?” Kara asked, casting a suspicious eye on me as she hugged her jacket tighter. I have been known, on occasion, to turn down the heat without the express written consent of other parties in the house, parties who think that a heating system should regularly be cranked up to such a degree that it can perform other duties, such as browning potatoes on the kitchen counter.

“I swear, it wasn’t me this time,” I said, looking at the display panel on the thermostat. It was registering 49 degrees, a temperature perfect for preserving meat but not marital relations.

I pulled together all of my knowledge about heating, cooling and refrigeration systems to perform a complicated diagnostic procedure known in the business as “flicking the thermostat and cussing.” After that, the only thing left to do was shrug, cuss a little bit more and call a professional.

I’m always a little hesitant to call in for backup. Contractors can pretty much do anything they want once they’re invited into your home, like old college friends and vampires. But this was an emergency, and we were feeling fortunate to have a cavalry to call.

As we waited for the repair van to show up, icicles began to form on our vast collection of remote controls, each of which has exactly two buttons that we ever actually press. The temperature continued to drop. Packs of wolves tracked elk across our couch. While we had been intending to vacuum the entire house just before the party, it was becoming increasingly evident that we’d need a Zamboni instead.

After the contractor showed up and poked around for a few minutes, he used his best funeral director voice to inform us that we probably had a frozen pipe in our baseboard system.

“I expect there’s already some damage. We’ll have to get in there and warm up the pipes individually to flush out the blockage. It’s 600 dollars for the first two hours, 250 for each hour after that,” he said. “And we’ll probably have to cut into your walls.”

A single tear froze on my cheek. But without switching to a heating system based on whale blubber, we saw few other options. As the contractor and his crew worked in the basement, I went back to cleaning while Kara chopped vegetables in the kitchen with her jacket on.

Few things in life are universal, but it’s a pretty fair indication that good things are not happening when a contractor working in your basement comes running up the stairs and barreling through your kitchen, yelling, “Follow me and bring towels!”

The blockage and corresponding burst pipe had been in our laundry room. When the pipe was heated up and the ice melted, gallons of water poured onto the floor, down the wall and into the basement. As we ran into the laundry room to discover our newly installed (if somewhat shallow) indoor pool, a house spider surfed across the floor on a dryer sheet.

The water, having been enclosed in our heating system for quite some time, had a distinct aroma.

“It smells like asparagus pee,” Kara’s friend Curry, who had come early to help us get ready, observed as she draped towels over the mess. Fortunately for us, the cleanup went pretty smoothly. The contractors fixed the pipe in short order. We have yet to find out if our homeowners’ policy will cover any of the expense, but it has been my general observation that insurance doesn’t cover things that actually happen.

At least the heat was on before party time. Next time, we’re inviting the universe.

You can cuss and flick Mike Todd at


  1. Man, I had to reach for a sweater just to read the post!

    At least you always knew that even if you didn't get the heating fixed you could have made it an "Eskimos & Penguins" theme party, plus you'd never be short of cold beer.

  2. Oh bless your hearts!

    And by the way, "asparagus pee"? Classic! Perhaps the most descriptive terminology I have ever heard. I almost feel like I was right there... ;)

  3. yup and that stupid insurance never does cover things that actually need covering.. Freezer go out, lose over 1000 dollars in meat, it's not there problem. Wind blow your roof off, well that's an act of god, so not their problem.

  4. JL -- Dang, man! You should be a party planner. It did actually help keep the beer cold, too. Maybe we shoulda had ice sculptures.

    Queen -- Thanks! I was trying to decide whether to keep that line or not. If it's cool with you, maybe I'll run my vegetable/urine references by you first to make sure they work.

    Burf -- Funny how that works, right? At least your money's in good hands.

  5. I cannot WAIT to own a house. Glamorous and totally awesome-sounding.

  6. I love how you can still smile amidst distaster . . . or, at least, you can keep your readers smiling!

    Great post!

  7. Haha, I want to form a band called "Asparagus Pee."

  8. Dude, that should never happen. How old IS this house, anyway? I grew up in an ancient one with HWbaseboard heat and we never had that happen. And my dad was militant about dialing the thermostat back at night so the system just sat there all night long until he got up or the house cooled enough to call for heat. Our current house has the same style system, albeit with a much more modern boiler (just installed last February.)

    Asparagus... back in 89 a co-worker created a fictional character called Sid Snott, British lead singer of the punk band Asparagus P!ss. He had a great routine all worked up, it was hilarious.

    Good luck with the heat, and leave the thermostat alone. It's more efficient that way.

  9. Kimu -- My whining gets out of hand sometimes, but it's actually pretty fun most of the time, except when something goes wrong, which is always.

    Michele -- Hey dude! Good to see you. I'll quit lurking at your hangout and start commenting.

    Andy -- If you do, I got the cowbell covered.

    Jim -- The place is only twelve years old, but the pipes run next to uninsulated concrete. The heating dudes told us it's more efficient to keep the house at 65 rather than dropping it to 55 when we're not here. You buy that? I dunno. But I don't have much choice. And I'd also totally buy an Asparagus Piss album.