Oh, the joys of homeownership.

As noted in the previous entry, Jessie and I went out of town for two weeks. One thing I didn’t note in the previous entry, because I didn’t think about it, was the state of the coal-hopper in our new house.

Yes. Coal-hopper. I’m still shocked too.

We discovered that the house was coal-heated when we first inspected it. The then-current owners had actually converted the house to coal from some other heating system, saying it was dirt-cheap to power and provided them with ample heat. They have, in fact, converted their new house to coal as well, because they like it so much. Did I mention before that the previous owners were weird?

At any rate, the house is powered by a coal furnace. We didn’t get a manual for the furnace when we bought the place, but the owners were at one point to meet with us before we went on vacation to impart their wisdom on the operation of the heater. Unfortunately, we had to take care of replacing the car the day that we had scheduled to meet with them, and then we never managed to reschedule, so we never got any instructions on how to manage the furnace or any vital information about its operating parameters.

Information like, say, how quickly the coal-hopper typically empties under standard operating loads.

Last night, we went out to the house to deliver another load of boxes, and the place was frigid when we entered. We could see our breath even once the front door had been closed, so immediately we knew the fire in the furnace had gone out, and I went into the basement to restart it. While I was down there refilling the hopper, Jessie called for me to come up and have a look at something that might suggest restarting the furnace right now was a bad idea. I returned to the living room, and Jessie pointed to an irregular dark patch on the carpet that most definitely hadn’t been present when we left. On closer inspection, we found that it was a patch of ice, near the base of the radiator.

Now, here I must digress for a moment and once again say that the old adage, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” has never been more applicable to anyone than me. The realtor said that the heater was a “forced air” heater, which I thought meant that the furnace piped superheated air through the radiation system, which heated the pipes to a degree that they radiated heat, which is what one expects a radiator to do. So, if the heater ever went out, no biggie. The house would be cold for a while, but it would warm easily enough once I got the fire started. Turns out I was almost right, or maybe he was almost right. The radiators had water in them, not air.

Of course, everyone should be able to guess where the story goes from here. Some time during our trip out of town and the subsequent work week of hell, the furnace ran out of coal. When that happened, naturally, the fire died. The temperature then dropped sharply over the last few days, to below the freezing point. The water, without heat, quickly froze in the pipes, and four of the radiators cracked. One actually didn’t just crack; it burst. The third bedroom, thankfully the one with the hardwood floor, had a thin sheet of dirty black ice covering most of the floor, and a four-inch-by-one-inch section of the radiator itself had broken free. Thankfully, the two in the carpeted bedrooms were actually undamaged. This was all quite a shock to the both of us, neither of whom had ever lived with a coal furnace before.

I called the insurance company last night, and in forty minutes I have to call them again to actually speak with the claims department. Then I have to load up the car with boxes again and take them out to the house, along with the camera and space heater I’ve borrowed temporarily from Bennie. The camera is for getting pictures of the damage, and the space heater is so I can work without having parts of my body freeze in the process. Fortuitously, the insurance company called as I was making this post, and they said that frozen pipes are covered under my policy. In fact, frozen pipes are the only times under which this sort of thing is covered. so we’ve managed to get this under our policy. They’re going to have an emergency clean-up company contact me in the next few hours, and I’m going to call a plumber and schedule actual repairs, the bill for which I can forward to the insurance company for reimbursement.

While I’m at it, I’m going to switch to an electric boiler. Filling the hopper last night and cleaning up the ash generated a huge volume of dust, which Jessie’s lungs just won’t handle well because of her asthma. It’ll be more expensive in the long run, but as my friend JonBuck said the other night, there’s no way to put a price on peace of mind.