When the Furnace Dies and it’s Twenty Below Zero

furnace dies

When the Furnace Dies

From the smell I knew there was a problem. I’ve had this house for 9 years, and every winter I’ve worried about the furnace. Would this be the year that it konks out? Turns out the answer to that question was, “Time’s up buddy!”

My house is over a hundred years old. There is Civil War era plumbing in the basement and every different type of wire and tube that has been used for conducting electricity since Benjamin Franklin started playing around with lightning. When I bought the place in 2009, the house inspector looked at my furnace and smiled.

“Whoa, I’ve never seen one like that before!”

“Is it bad?”

“Naw, that thing is about three times bigger than what this house needs, it should never be strained and might even last you forever.”


The smell emmanating from the registers was that of “burned electrical motor.” I’d smelled things like “boiled broccoli,” and “burned fur” and the furnace had always survived, but this felt different. I ran down the stairs and turned the thermostat up to 90. If the furnace was still alive, it would go, “GA-rumpity-rumpity-rumpity, GA-rumpity-rumpity-rumpity….”

I waited.

Seconds ticked by.

The furnace failed to roar to life.


I grabbed my broom and went down into the basement. The broom was to carve through the thick cobwebs like Indiana Jones has to deal with. There’s a spider the size of an Ostrich living down in the darkness I think.

I shuffled over to the furnace. It was hot! I pried off the two outdoor covers and looked inside. There were flames! That was good. I kind of figured the house wasn’t going to freeze as long as there was still a fire in my basement.

I kept looking for problems. There was a kind of electrical whining noise, like when you turn on a fan and then hold the blades so they can’t spin.

“Hmmmmm….” I checked the fan fuse. When I unscrewed it the whining stopped, when I screwed it back in, it started again. It didn’t seem like I could fix this with a new fuse. “Dang!”

I went back upstairs and did a search for “furnace repair.” Outside, it was -20, the third in a week of such days. I started to think of the bathroom I’d just remodeled. It would suck to have all those pipes burst and have to start over again. I found the first furnace repair guy and called him. The phone rang seventeen times, then an aged voice answered, “Hello?”

“Hi, my furnace konked out, can you come look at it?”

There was a long pause. I wondered what could possibly be the delay. Finally the guy roused himself. “What kind is it?”

“It’s a Chrysler Air Temp.”

“I’ve never even HEARD of that!” he said, and hung up.

Was that the way this was going to go?

I quelled the uneasy feeling in my stomach and I called the next number. I got a call center and an elderly woman answered.

“My furnace is out and I think it’s the blower, can you have somebody come look at it?”

“Yeah, but it might run into overtime. Is that OK?”

I looked at my watch, it was 10:15 AM.

“What time is overtime?”


“Yeah, yeah, yeah, just send somebody over.”

I hung up and commenced to waiting.

The tech arrived and I put him to work.

“Whoa, a Chrysler! Like the car company!”

“Yeah, can you fix it?”

“Probably, furnaces are all the same.”

The woman I’d talked to had asked for the model number of the furnace. I’d found it on an antique owner’s manual nailed to a joist. I was skeptical that the model number would be of any use to them, since I’d looked on the internet and found NOTHING about my furnace on there. This furnace pre-dates World War II.

“This was the blower model that was supposed to work,” the tech said.

“Oh really,” I said, “that model number helped?”

“Well, it’s the right model number, the problem is that somebody retrofitted this furnace with a different blower. I’ll be right back.”

The tech got into his car and drove away. My furnace was left on the operating table with wires and accessory pannels strewn all over the place. In the corner of the basement, the ostrich sized spider started munching on a squirrel it had captured.

Also, the fire was now out.

“Hmmmmm,” I said.

It started to get cold.

My kids ran around upstairs watching TV. I paced by the window, waiting for the truck to get back. Every now and then I went into the remodeled bathroom and checked for ice. Then back to the window. When I checked my watch, I found I’d been waiting almost a whole minute.

“Daddy, it’s a little bit cold,” my eldest said.

I dug a space heater out of storage. “There you go.”

Maybe I could start a fire in the basement later?

More pacing…eventually the tech returned. Please tell me you found the blower motor, please tell me you found the blower motor, please tell me…

“Sir, guess what?”


“I found the blower motor.”

Five minutes later hot air was pouring back into the living room. The children were content. The new pipes eased with return of non freezing temps.

“Well, do you send an invoice?”

“No, I can bill you now.”

Earlier that day I’d received an envelope with $500 in it. This envelope was for a completely legitimate job and not at all because I’d won my fantasy football league. My fingers began to twitch.

“Ok sir, it comes to $494.64.”

I nodded, “Cheaper than a new house.”

“Yup,” the tech said sheepishly.

I wrote him a check.

“Tell me,” I said, “I’ve never had this furnace serviced, would that have prevented this?”

“Naw,” he said, “we just charge you $300 and tell you it’s fine” (he didn’t really say that).


I was quite satisfied to know my house wasn’t going to freeze, so overall I was happy with the whole transaction. “Hey,” I asked as the tech stepped out the door, “is mine the oldest furnace in Chippewa Falls?”

“Yes,” he said, “and never replace it, that thing is built to last. Also, it’s three times bigger than your house needs, so it might even last you forever.”

Forever…forever…forever, I thought as I shut the door in an effort to keep the heat in. You never know how long an ancient furnace will last.


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