I know that I’ve been one of winter’s biggest cheerleaders, but c’mon already—we’re in the middle of a dozen days in the low teens, which have been layered on top of a bunch of nights that have been below zero. Yes, that’s right. Sub-zero. There were no degrees outside. I’ve turned into that forgotten Popsicle that gets lost in the back of the freezer, all white and freezer burned and stuck to the wrapper. Everything on me feels so dry and flaky, I am now almost completely reptilian. My wife probably wouldn’t be at all surprised to get up one morning only to see my molted doppelgänger curled up under the covers. Just add a pair of glasses and stick a cup of coffee in the flaky hand and nobody would know the difference.
No matter how cold it is outside, we still keep the furnace locked at sixty-eight degrees and it should make sense that sixty-eight degrees would feel the same no matter what it is outside, but it doesn’t. In spite of all the modern insulation we crammed inside the thick walls, the colder it is outside, the colder it feels inside. On most evenings, I’ll find my wife standing on the fireplace hearth, trying to absorb every wave of heat that blows out of the thing. I’ll dodge around the room trying to catch some spare wafts of heat that could be coming my way, but there is more than one way to keep warm. The house has other tricks up its sleeve.
We have one of those fancy on-demand water heaters, which is great because there is an unlimited supply of hot water. During this Icelandic winter, it was not at all uncommon to find one of us under a thirty-minute shower, trying to bring our core temperature up past that of a rainbow trout. Last night, Mrs. G. went into the shower only to have the steaming hot water instantly turn ice cold, which brings up the one drawback of a fancy on-demand water heater. There is no back-up hot water. Not an ounce. I could tell something was wrong because as she was standing there wrapped in a towel and dripping ice cold water on the floor, I could hear noises coming from the basement that sounded as if someone was trying to jackhammer a hole through the concrete wall.
I ran down the stairs into the basement, losing a slipper along the way, and while the water heater fan was running, the exhaust pipe was cold and the unit was making that horrible sound. I also smelled gas, so I flipped the off switch and shut the whole thing down. As abstract as it sounds, these three pieces of the puzzle could only mean one thing, so I fetched my slipper and walked up the stairs.
I quickly threw on a pair of unlaced boots and put on a jacket, which were visual cues for the dog that it was playtime, so he was all excited to go outside and fetch something. We went outside, but after a quick pee about ten feet from the front door, the bitter cold sent him back inside, where he watched from the window. I swear I could see him cupping his paws in front of his mouth and blowing into them.
I trudged through the fresh snow, wishing with each step that I had taken the time to lace-up my boots, and walked around to the side of the house. Sure enough, the vent had frozen shut, and I mean frozen solid, with six-inch long icicles hanging off of it. It was dark and freezing cold, but I stuck my hand up into the metal bonnet and used my fingernails to chip away at the ice around the flap. If this were a horror movie, this was the sort of action that never ends well for the person with their hand up the dark, cold, metal object.
Here’s the technical part of what went wrong—the small amount of exhaust condensation that occurred when we washed the dinner dishes had instantly frozen, much like one of those experiments they show on The Science Channel. This sealed the vent flap with an icy gasket. When the water heater kicked on for Mrs. G’s shower, the exhaust gas had nowhere to go, so the burner shut off—but not without making a brief, yet rumbling effort to fart open the vent flap.
I came back inside and got a binder clip and then went back out and snapped it on the bottom of the flap. This gave the flap a bit more space, so now it wouldn’t freeze shut. This only happens when it’s bitter cold; so once it warms up to—oh—ten degrees, the clip will come off. When I went inside to tell my wife that it was fixed, our lights and the lights in the entire neighborhood suddenly went out. It was pitch dark everywhere I looked.
I was standing there in the dark hallway, my wife was standing in the cold, dark bathroom, and the dog couldn’t have care less. He was still waiting for his biscuit because in his dog-brain, he went outside and peed and that warranted a biscuit. Gimme what’s mine, biped.
The lights popped back on within a few seconds, so I went downstairs to try the water heater. It came back on without a hitch. Later, I felt a little guilty while taking a nice, hot shower, but only a little. My sister (who lives about five miles away) sent me a text telling me that her power had blipped off, and she wondered if mine did too. I felt better about this because a part of me was thinking that my water heater escapades had somehow blown out the neighborhood.
As the night grew colder, all three of us went to bed around ten o’clock, with the dog unsuccessfully lobbying for a piece of the comforter. The thermostat had automatically set itself to the nighttime temperature of sixty degrees at nine o’clock, but the house holds heat well. Normally the furnace won’t kick on at all overnight. With the lights out and the water heater drama behind us, I fell soundly asleep.
Well, at some point while I was sleeping, I heard the furnace. Normally the house will hold whatever heat it has until the thermostat cycles back on at 6:30, but when I heard it pumping heat, I woke up thinking I had somehow slept late.
It was only 5:00.
I opened the front door to let the dog out, and it felt as if I had walked into a wall of ice. I checked my phone and it was eight degrees below zero. Our freezer is set at zero, for pity’s sake.
Enough is enough. This was the icicle that broke the camel’s back.
The snow was nice when we cut down the Christmas tree in late November and it was pretty on Christmas morning and yes—it’s been a lot of fun going snowshoeing in the crisp, fresh air. Heck, I’ve even enjoyed snow blowing the driveway and watching the sunrise over the fresh snow but I’m officially done with it. The breaking point came last night when I had snow packed around my ankles, with my bare hand shoved up a frozen aluminum vent and that breaking point was kicked in the groin this morning, at 5:00 am (EST), when it was nine degrees colder in my front yard than it was in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The first day of spring is just a few days away and for the first time that I can remember, I’m counting the minutes until it gets here. Winter? Here’s your hat, here’s your coat, there’s the door. See you in December. You’ve just overstayed your welcome.
©Rick Garvia 2014. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited.