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Dead Saints in Silence

I bivouacked in Nashville for a week or so once, back in the day. It was a pleasant waystation. I was traipsing over the entire map from the top right corner pocket, and kept going until I got to the beach on the wrong side of the ocean. I wandered into Ernie Tubb’s and Gruhn’s and Irma’s Dusty Roads and any other damn place with neon bent into a beer sign, too.

Someone offered tickets to the Grand Ole Opry. Turned them down flat. It had moved to the suburbs. The music itself had long since moved to the suburbs of country and western, so the new auditorium couldn’t harm it more. We walked up the hill from the big strip, and the door to the Ryman Auditorium was unlocked, and we went in and sat in that church and worshiped the dead saints in silence instead.

Garments On Hangers By Air


Home movies of New York City in 1976.

I don’t have fond memories of the 1970s. The vibe was downright soviet, with extra litter. Of course ’76 was far from the low water mark for NYC. The early eighties were much worse. It turned around after that, and almost got livable, I guess. How would I know? I always avoided the place like a plague city, even when I had to work there for a stretch. I always got in and out as lickety split as possible. I remember distinctly the feeling of driving into the city for work, though. I felt like it was eating me and everyone else on the highway.

I’m originally from Boston. Boston and NYC have healthy competitive dislike of one another. It goes way back when Boston didn’t seem so lilliputian compared to the Big Rotten Apple. Boston used to matter more than it does now. To someone from say, Los Angeles, there probably doesn’t seem like a lot of difference between a New Yorker and a Bostonian. But the two factions always cherished the distinctions between them. Both used Rhode Island as a kind of no man’s land where you couldn’t tell which accent you had, New York or Boston. If you’ve never heard a true Vo Dieland accent, you haven’t lived.

I’ll always fondly remember the first day I showed up in New York at an office I’d been placed in charge of all of a sudden. It was the main office, and I’m sure the New Yorkers couldn’t countenance being lorded over by some dimwit from Boston. God, anywhere but from Boston.

I don’t have a Boston accent. Not really even a hint of one. I can get into one for comedic purposes, but it’s no better than my Cockney imitation, which isn’t even a three on the Michael Caine scale. Anyway, I entered the big lobby of my new New York digs and explained to the receptionist at the big, semicircular welcome desk in the two-story atrium who I was, and who I wanted to see. She never uttered a sound, just cocked her bouffanterrific head a bit sideways and looked at me with a puzzled expression, the way that the dog on the RCA Victor label used to look at the big cornucopia speaker on the windup record player. And then came out with this, finally:

“Yew toik fuhnny.”

My Really Back Pages

It’s nearly New Year’s Day. On the intertunnel, it’s time for lists.

Well, it’s time for lists of predictions. Most folks expend quite a bit of effort to explain why the world didn’t cooperate with last year’s list, and then make the same mistakes all over again with this year’s prognostications. Of course I never get my new year’s predictions even slightly wrong, because I only have one, and it’s never wrong.

I predict next year will be worse than this year.

That’s been a safe bet every year since I was born. I hope you don’t read too much into that trend. It’s possible that I’m the antichrist, but it’s not likely. There’s a lot of competition for that gig, and I’m not much of a go-getter.

But a list is required, so I thought I’d be daring and look for a piquant one from years past. I found one. Amusingly, I wrote it the last time my workstation computer crapped out on me. That was 2012. The truly piquant part was that the list was already six years old when I posted it. So when you read this year’s panoply of ill-considered opinions filtered through cracked crystal balls all over the internet, see if you can find anyone still willing to own up to a seventeen-year-old list of future shock schlock. I am:

 

MY BACK PAGES

Had a hard-drive meltdown disaster boogaloo situation this week. My computer is an ancient Funkenstein monster of a thing. I can’t remember how old it is. It runs XP, and as I recall XP was the spiffy new thing just then when I bought it. I’ve added hard drives and a network card and assorted other things to its festering hulk over the years. The hard drives were partitioned like the Austro-Hungarian Empire after WW I, and with about as much long-term viability. I had a dash of ones here and a spritz of zeros there and panoply of pixels from pillar to post.

The hard drive that’s coughing up blood this week actually died a while ago, and I replaced it with another, but I left the original in the case, hanging on a ribbon wire, as a warning to the other components. I used it as a sort of half-assed backup to the new drive, but it’s about as reliable as a brother-in-law, so I’ve got to yank everything off it now or lose it. I found that not all of what’s on it is a copy. There’s stuff I didn’t know I had.

I found some sort of article I must have written for some other website. The style is too dull for any of my webpages, so it must have been for money. The squares don’t like frivolity. I don’t remember it being published, and it doesn’t turn up on der Google, so I figure I’ll recycle it and go back to erasing things. I found it interesting to read, mostly because it’s so dull. It’s a top-ten sort of list, and I wrote it in 2006. Most people who make predictions hide them from scrutiny six months after they make them. Let’s see how six years have treated mine:

Frustration is a symptom, not a disease. When you’re frustrated, it’s generally because you’re trying to accomplish something, but circumstances conspire to keep you from achieving it. There’s a moment of peace that generally comes to those that abandon lines of attack that are too arduous because of extraneous factors: I’ve done all that I can, there’s nothing more I can do.

Frustration is the meat and potatoes of people who wish to predict future trends, though. What are people trying to do, over and over, despite how difficult it might be to do it? That’s what people really want; they prove it by how much crap they’ll put up with to get it. Do you remember the busy signal you got trying to get online ten years ago, just so you could look at a few pages of text or a picture of a girl with her clothes off? The potential of the internet was shown by the amount of discomfort people were willing to endure early on to get just a glimpse of it.

Let’s use frustration as our canary in the coal mine and see what people are desperately trying to do, over and over, despite many obstacles. We’ll use it as a barometer to see what the onrush of civilization will make obsolete.

Because it’s obsolete that I love. I love all the things I used to have to do that I don’t have to do anymore. I don’t want to stand in line at a bank. I don’t want to punch a time card. I don’t want ink all over my fingers just to read the baseball box scores. I don’t want to have a hair farmer on the network news reading the least interesting, ofttimes made-up stories to me at 6:00 PM — really slowly. I don’t want to stand in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles twice a year. I don’t want any of that, and more. Or less. Or something.

So here’s Ten Things I don’t want any more, at least in their current iteration; Ten Things I’m going to have to tell my grandchildren about, if we’re all lucky:

10. Blockbuster Video– It’s got the smell of death on it already, doesn’t it? The idea of going to a bricks and mortar store to get a copy of digital information is going to seem as useless as drive-in movie theaters do now. The only difference is that drive-in movies seem quaint. A video rental store will seem like a shuttered crackhouse.

9. Stuntmen- Sticking with the movie theme here, who’s going to pay another person to get blown up in a car and pushed over a cliff when a computer can just put that guy there with a few mouseclicks? Lots of jobs like that are hanging on by the skin of their union teeth in Hollywood right now. Bye Bye.

8. Movie Theaters– Yeah, I said it. When the screen at home gets big enough — and you’re tired of listening to rap song ringtones and mindless chatter all the while the movie’s playing, with your feet stuck in a congealing puddle of $6 soda — you’re never leaving the house just to see a movie, ever again.

7. A Written Check– When someone whips out a checkbook at the checkout line at the supermarket, what do you do? You’d be a mass murderer if you acted out every tenth fantasy you had about those people. It’s going to seem so quaint, scratching out a little promise to pay people on a slip of paper, like a note from your mother, the bank.

7. (part B) Your Signature on Much of Anything. Never mind a check. With all the ways they have of identifying people, and the neverending cycle of identity theft and countermeasure, pretty soon you’re just going to put your thumb on a pad, or your eye in a scanner, or wave your subdermal barcode thingie at something, and your transactions will be complete. I’d sell my stock in BIC pens, if I were you.

6. Paper Money – You know, adults never have any of that stuff on them, unless you’re a drug dealer or a stripper. Or a congressman from Louisiana. It’s the mark of the rube or the criminal already. And the laser printer/Treasury Department Mutual Assured Destruction countermeasure broadsides have been fun, but paper money is silly. And any government that collects more than half of what you make (that’s all of them, as far as I can tell) isn’t going to ignore forever the fact that tax collection is sometimes- how do I put this delicately?- overlooked in cash transactions.

5. The Post Office- God I hate the Post Office. You can almost separate the world into only two sorts of people: people that hate the Post Office, and people that love the Post Office. Let’s round up the people that love it, and mail them to France, whaddya say? Let’s send them UPS, so they’ll get there, though. Nothing the Post Office does isn’t being done better by other entities right now. That includes mass killings. Good riddance.

4. Wired anything – If you’re of a certain age, you remember the first telephone you had that didn’t have a cord. A little older, and you treasure the memory of the first phone you had that allowed you to leave your house and talk into it. You didn’t care if the battery weighed forty-four pounds and lasted ten minutes. Don’t get me started with getting out of your chair to turn the channel on your TV. No one’s going to accept anything that needs to be plugged into anything alse pretty soon.

3. Light Bulbs – Edison, we loved you. But the time has come to stop burning a little wire really slowly in a glass bulb to see what the hell we’re doing after the sun goes down. And don’t give me any of that compact flourescent crap either; we can find better ways to illuminate things than exciting rare gases in a gossamer glass tube. That’s rationed whale oil thinking. LED’s, anyone?

2.Telephone Poles –There’s nothing more ubiquitous, and nothing uglier, on display everywhere you go than that endless phalanx of tarred tree boles with wires strung from them. The idea of getting your electricity from some smoke belching factory via four hundred miles of copper wires, and getting telephone service brought from even further, all so you can plug a cordless phone into the end of it is going to seem as bizarre as it is, and soon. Power generation will be local, or even better: on-site at every house, and everything will be beamed to you. Power outages will seem quaint.

1. Newspapers – You’re reading this, ain’t ya?

The Department of Redundancy Department

I’ve been thinking about redundancy these last few days. The power supply on my workstation computer crapped out. It was (is)a major inconvenience. For instance, all the images of the HVAC system I’d show you were on the virtual desktop, and they’ll be unavailable for a week while I wait for the replacement part to arrive. I’m sure you’ll all enjoy having someone describe a heating system, instead of seeing one. Playboy in braille has nothing on me, man.

But the computer and the heating system are similar in some respects. They’re both relying on the Department of Redundancy Department to keep on keeping on. I’ll explain.

The heating system in our house, isn’t. I heat the house, but it’s not a system.

system /sĭs′təm/
noun

A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole, especially.

OK, maybe it is a system, just not in the way people usually think of a system. It’s not a flow chart. It’s a Venn Diagram. There are disparate elements, and they can be interrelated, or interdependent as necessary, but ultimately they don’t have a lot to do with one another. In some aspects they compete with each other. In others, they work together as required. It’s an ad hoc kind of system.

The heat pump isn’t big enough to heat the house when it’s twenty below. So what? If I put in a unitary system that could handle it, it would cost too much and work poorly as an air conditioning unit in the summer (too big). When it was eighteen below zero last winter, we ran the pellet stove and the heat pump at the same time, and didn’t notice anything but the bill.

If you plan for a worst-case scenario, and then use that as a baseline, you’re overprepared most of the time. And while hoarding, disguised as prepping, is in vogue, it doesn’t work in a world where the apocalypse never comes. It really doesn’t work even if the apocalypse does come, because cataclysms have a tendency to be unpredictable. What exactly do you hoard? Everything? It’s not possible.

Well, you certainly can’t hoard heat. Keep firewood too long, and it rots. Pellets get moldy in the summer from the humidity. Storing electricity for later isn’t such a great idea, either. As the joke goes, electric cars are more reliable than gas-powered cars. Up to 95% of all the electric cars ever made are still on the road. The other 5% made it home.

So making huge, unitary systems and then defending them and backing them up is difficult stuff. I didn’t have a power supply hanging around that could replace the one in my ancient computer. I could have put one on the shelf ten years ago. But how would I know what to hoard? Maybe the mother board would quit. The hard drive. The fans. The RAM. Pretty soon you’re not hoarding parts, you’re hoarding a whole ‘nother unitary system in case the original goes on the blink. But then again, how do you know a stored computer will still work when you dust it off after years in storage. Better get two spares, huh?

People who live where the weather is more than an inconvenience understand the Department of Redundancy Department. Usually because they learned the hard way, like I did. You don’t want duplicates. You want alternatives. If the heat pump goes on the blink, you still have the pellet stove. If the pellet stove doesn’t work, you still have baseboard electric heat. If there’s no electricity, you can’t run the baseboard heat, or the heat pump, but you can run a generator and run the pellet stove. If the generator quits, you hook up an inverter to the car battery and run the engine with an extension cord into the house to run the pellet stove. If that quits, you can swap the extension cord over to backup backup backup backup scheme and burn wood in the wood furnace. If it’s cold enough, you run damn near everything. I’ve done all those things. You would, too, if it was twenty below.

You know everything works because you use it every once in a while. Nothing has to do everything — or else. You end up with less stuff hanging around in the long run, because while you might have two of everything, you don’t have three of anything.

So the computer didn’t work. There were standalone backup drives on the desk. The Department of Redundancy Department strikes again. There are backups held offsite, too, of course, but if you trust an internet company to be reliable forever, I have some CMGI stock to sell you. And a bridge.

The computer that quit a few days ago was the backup. I’d replaced it with something better, that wasn’t, and had to resurrect the old beast from the shelf. So the interruption was more of a nuisance  than might have usually been the case. I fished through all sorts of hardware I had hanging around, trying to cobble together a bridge to a Fedex delivery. I got sort of stymied left and right. Dongle A didn’t mesh with Jack B or fit in Case C, etc. After more than a few hours of messing about in firewalls and pressing the backup backup backup backup laptop back into service, trying to make autofill behave, and get Google to stop freaking out because I was logging in to Google things sitting three inches to the left of the usual spot, I remembered the ultimate time-saving, aggravation-avoiding backup plan of all time. I went and got a stored, eight-page printed paper backup of every login and password I needed, and dutifully typed each one into the browser as needed.

It’s easy to be impressed by companies the size of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Cisco, etc., but they still can’t compete with Johannes Gutenberg yet. Not even close. I’ll raise my hand if they manage to pass a Ticonderoga #2 on the way.

The Greek Goddess of Open Toed Sandals

Let’s get hysterical about hysteresis for a moment. If you’re new to this HVAC game, you might think hysteresis was the Greek goddess of open toed sandals or something. Or maybe hysteresis is that problem that sends your wife to the pharmacy at 11 PM on Saturday night, wearing sweatpants, because, you know.

No, hysteresis is a somewhat less interesting subject than that. Technically, hysteresis can apply to all sorts of things, like magnetism or the gas pedal in your car. In short, it means a lag between what you want, and what you get. The only place you’ll probably ever encounter it as a topic of conversation in the wild is when you’re talking to the dirty HVAC installer who leaves handprints all over your wallpaper while adjusting your thermostat. He’ll say, “How much hysteresis to you want, anyway?”, and you’ll mumble and dissemble and try to remember Greek legends to no avail.

I’ll try to explain it. Let’s say you want your house to be 72-degrees. With the panache of Canute, you command your furnace, if it’s winter, to make it so. Of course you’re a bit of a coward, and are justifiably afraid of confronting your furnace face to dial (it’s dark and scary down there), so you send an envoy instead. This envoy, your thermostat, sends a strongly worded communique via a twelve-volt DC tingle through a tiny wire or two to your furnace. But your furnace isn’t afraid of you. It knows that if given a Sophie’s Choice between the furnace and her husband, any sensible woman would choose central heating every time. So the furnace tells you to wait, tough guy, until it’s ready to give you some heat.

That’s a form of hysteresis. It’s related to inertia. In the same way your teenage boys on the couch respond to stimuli, your furnace doesn’t jump to it immediately when ordered to do things. It’s a smart policy on their part. People fumble around with the settings on the thermostat constantly, and hysteresis helps them sit shiva on the current settings until you make up your mind, or your thumb, if you have a touchpad. Some time passes, and it finally decides to trust you, and the furnace clicks on.

But you’re not done with hysteresis. Not by a long shot. Let’s say it’s 66-degrees in your dining room, and you want 72 in there. With most furnaces, they’ll hit 72 and keep going. They figure you’re an excitable sort, and if they halt the heating proceedings exactly at 72, the temperature will drop to 71 pretty quick, and you’ll start banging on the thermostat again right away. So the furnace is set to over shoot the temp you want. That’s hysteresis. By the same token, if the low temp is set for something like 66, so you can sleep at night with more than a sheet over you, it likely will not rouse itself until the temp reaches 64, and then click on. Coming or going, that’s hysteresis.

Of course the modern electronic thermostat has many, many settings that adjust hysteresis. They involve calling up fourteen menus on a tiny screen and interpreting and entering more codes than it takes to launch missiles from a Trident sub, but it can be done. In practice, whatever comes from the factory is good enough, whether it is or not. Our thermostat stops a few minutes after reaching the desired temp, before it adds an additional degree, and won’t come on again until a short while after the temp is two degrees below the desired. It actually tells you to WAIT on the screen when it hits a set point. Mighty haughty, your thermostat is. Your mileage might vary.

So hysteresis is smart and stupid at the same time. It’s smart, because the furnace hates cycling on and off over and over over minor changes in temp, so it overshoots a bit when it runs, and waits a little before it runs, or doesn’t run. That last sentence is kinda confusing, I admit, and doesn’t explain a lot, but how many chances does an author get to write “on and off over and over over” and still make the sentence parse? I couldn’t resist.

So that’s the smart part. The dumb part is that the ideal heating appliance would run continuously, so hysteresis would be out of a job. It would adjust itself continuously to the conditions and keep everything steady-state. The Amalgamated Brotherhood of United Hysteresis is a very powerful union, though, so this ideal heating device is rarely discussed, never mind invented.

Modern houses are usually much better insulated than in the past, and weatherstipped until a firefly in a peanut butter jar with holes punched in the lid has better ventilation. The heating (and cooling, of course) devices are better at doing their thing, and the thermostats are more accurate than the big clunky dial on the wall of our utes. But there’s still a fair bit of hysteresis involved, especially if you have too much money, and are the impatient sort.

Let’s say you’re building a new snouthouse and you’re determined to finally have things your way and you’re not scrimping on anything this time around. You inform the General Contractor to inform the HVAC guy to put in the HeatSmiter Megaladon furnace or the the COOLpro Ice Station Zebra model AC blaster. You’re not going to wait for the house to warm up, or cool off, ever again. You tell him you want your hair to be blown back like a biplane pilot when the thing comes on.

This is dumb. HVAC doesn’t work (well) that way. You may want a machine that does the trick, but a machine that does the trick+10 is a worse machine, not a better one. If you select a bigger air conditioner than you need, the condenser outside becomes a block of ice. The heat inside your house that you’re trying to get rid of isn’t enough to warm up the circulating refrigerant to keep it from freezing up. By the same token, if you have a ginormous furnace, the hysteresis will be notable, because it will blast way past what you actually require before it can stop. It will run a lot, just for very short periods of time. If you know anything about machinery, you’ll know that starting and stopping is what wears them out quick. And you’ll be too hot and too cold over and over anyway.

So we couldn’t afford a bigger heat pump, or to run it even if we could. Good. The bigger one would have frozen up solid when we ran the A/C, because we don’t need very much here in Maine. And the bigger heating capacity would have been nice, but bankrupting yourself to run a bigger thing less often wouldn’t help us. We were going to achieve the closest thing to steady state HVAC we could cook up.

[To be continued]

I Want The Old Testament

I WISH IT WOULD rain. No. Sleet. Sleet would finish the scene nicely. Rain is God’s mop. It washes away the dirt and corruption. I’ve got no use for snow, either; the fat flakes are too jolly. Snow makes a fire hydrant into a wedding cake. I want sleet.
I’d rather pull my collar up and hunch my shoulders as if blows from an unseen and merciless boxer were raining down on me. I don’t want a Christmas card. I want the Old Testament.
Old or new – I knew it. Father and mother would open the Bible to a random page and place an unseeing finger anywhere and use it for their answer to whatever question was at hand. They’d torture the found scripture to fit the problem a lot, but it was uncanny how often that old musty book would burp out something at least fit for a double-take. But any Ouija board does that, doesn’t it?
It was just cold and bracing. No sleet. I didn’t need to be clear-minded right now. Paul’s tip of the hat to the season, a sort of syphilitic looking tree, hung over your head as you entered the bar like it was Damocle’s birthday, not the Redeemer’s. It was kinda funny to see it out there, because inside it was always the same day and always the same time. Open is a time.
People yield without thinking in these situations. It had been years since I had found anyone sitting on that stool, my place. It was just understood, like the needle in the compass always pointing the same way for everyone. Paul never even greeted me anymore, just put it wordlessly down in front of me as I hit the seat. Some men understand other men.
It was already kind of late. My foreman said for all he cared, I could bang on those machines until Satan showed up in the Ice Capades, but I didn’t feel like working on Christmas Eve until the clock struck midnight. That’s a bad time to be alone and sober.
“I’m closing early tonight,” Paul said, and he didn’t go back to his paper or his taps. He just stood there eying me. I took the drink.
“You’ve made a mess of this, Paul,” I stammered out, coughing a bit, “What the hell is this?”
“It’s ginger ale. You’re coming with me tonight.”
I could see it all rolled out in front of me. Pity. Kindness. Friendship.
“No.” I rose to leave.
“You’ll come, or you’ll never darken the doorstep here again.”
Now a man finds himself in these spots from time to time. There are altogether too many kind souls in the world. They think they understand you. They want to help you. But what Paul will never understand is that he was helping me by taking my money and filling the glass and minding his own. It was the only help there was. A man standing in the broken shards of his life doesn’t have any use for people picking up each piece and wondering aloud if this bit wasn’t so bad. They never understand that the whole thing was worth something once but the pieces are nothing and you can never reassemble them again into anything.
I went. Worse than I imagined, really. Wife. Kids. Home. Happy. I sat in the corner chair, rock-hard sober, and then masticated like a farm animal at the table.
Paul was smarter, perhaps, than I gave him credit for. He said nothing to me, or about me. His children nattered and his wife placed the food in front of me and they talked of everything and nothing as if I wasn’t there – no, as if I had always been there. As if the man with every bit of his life written right on his face had always sat in that seat.
I wasn’t prepared for it when he took out the Bible. Is he a madman like my own father was? It’s too much. The children sat by the tree, and he opened the Bible and placed his finger in there. I wanted to run screaming into the street. I wanted to murder them all and wait for the police. I wanted to lay down on the carpet and die.
“Ye are the salt of the earth; but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
He put the children to bed, to dream of the morning. His wife kissed him, said only “good night” to me, and went upstairs. We sat for a long moment by the fire, the soft gentle sucking sound of the logs being consumed audible now that the children were gone. The fire was reflected in the ornaments on the tree. The mantel clock banged through the seconds.
“Do you want something?” he asked.
“Ginger ale.”

(From my collection of flash fiction, The Devil’s In The Cows. Merry Christmas to all that visit here, and all that don’t]

Beware RFRoT. Stick With BTNRoT

Fair warning: All my rules of thumb have a black fingernail where I hit it with a hammer. In my experience, most rules of thumb about house construction are devised by an engineer, not an architect. If you ask an engineer how strong something needs to be to keep if from falling on the occupants, he’ll tell you triple what’s really necessary. Can you blame him? He doesn’t want to get sued, and he knows that whatever he specifies is going to be installed by a guy whose lips move when he reads street signs. If you ask an architect how strong something needs to be to keep it from falling on the occupants, he’ll first wonder aloud why anyone would worry about the occupants, and then tell you to ask an engineer if you’re that interested.

I do know how to do things correctly. I can follow the building code to a T, and have. I can ladle customer money all over a budget with triple what’s necessary to get the job done. But unfortunately, I’m the customer, and a budget is some sort of bird that looks like a canary, I think. I need poor people rules of thumb. I need Better Than Nothing Rules of Thumb (BTNRoT).

Designing an HVAC system from scratch required many, many rules of thumb to be concatenated and then basically ignored. Plumbing and heating guys are maybe the most nuts about spending your money to amuse themselves. If you’ve ever watched This Very Expensive Nominally Old House That Is Definitely Not Going To Get Any Cheaper, you’ve seen their HVAC homunculus standing in what looks like the engine room of a nuclear sub, explaining why you NEED a $175,000 heating system. You know, to save money.

So while I’m forced to use rules of thumb, I’ll be shaving points off them like I’m a power forward on a college basketball team with money riding on the game. I’m going to make it work, not make it work plus 200%.

Now, the heat pump air handler says it puts out 1,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM) of handled-air goodness. The compressor is rated for 36,000 BTUs. Both of those numbers are exactly half what the RFRoT (Rich Folks Rule of Thumb) say they should be to heat a house in western Maine. And that’s after I’ve shaved off the fudge factor. I’ve seen 100,000 BTUs mentioned here and there. Yikes.

You can buy a larger versions of the heat pump/air handler we purchased. They’re terrifying. They have frightening price tags and use horrifying amounts of electricity just to increase the output from 36K to 48K. And you couldn’t lift the condenser without mid-80s Schwarzenegger to lend a hand. And even if our electrical service could handle one (it can’t), we couldn’t possibly afford to run it. So I used my ultimate rule of thumb: If I can’t afford it, it doesn’t exist.

So rules of thumb say if I have a 1,000 CFM air handler, and maybe 36,000 BTUs, I can heat half my house. I know I can do better than that using BTNRoT.

So how do we make the CFM work? By making it easier for less to do more. We’ll put the shortest possible duct runs into the house, instead of running them all over the place to achieve all sorts of weird rules of thumb that matter to the RFRoT HVAC homunculi but no one sane or poor. We won’t use anything but smooth, round, metal ducts, instead of the moderately less expensive insulated flexible duct, which is essentially a slinky with a garbage bag wrapped around it.

Everyone uses it nowadays, and everyone needs more CFM because of it. Air doesn’t like passing through a bendy, crinkled, corrugated tube, so you have to push harder. We’ll use a lot of these instead:

Speaking of crinkled, this is a photo of a delivery during a somewhat amusing interlude where the Orange Place tried sending things without boxing them first. The delivery drivers treated them pretty badly, but honestly, no worse than the average HVAC journeyman would while taking them off the truck and throwing them down the bulkhead stairs. Short, straight runs with smooth metal tubes can almost heal up that black thumbnail on your BTNRoT. And we’ll be avoiding elbows like the plague, because they slow down airflow a lot, and they cost a relative fortune.

Of course you’re going to need plenums, coming and going. If you’re not familiar with moving air in a house, you have to understand that big fans don’t matter if you don’t take as much air out of the room as the amount you’re trying to put in. That means you need cold air return ducts going back to a cold air return plenum, and a hot air plenum to distribute your warmed air back to the octopus of ducts you have serving all your rooms. Ours looks like this:

Sheet metal work like these plenums is amazingly expensive if you hire it done. I bought a return air plenum kit to cheat a little. I had to modify it a lot, but it was still a lot easier than making one from scratch. It acts as a filter box and a stand for the air handler. The hot air plenum on top I made from sheets of galvanized metal. It’s not that hard with a few cutting shears from Harbor Fraught and a box of bandaids. It’s bigger than it looks. Part of it extends out over the back to accept large pipes nicely.

In the picture, you’re looking at two hot air ducts, and one cold air return (it goes down under the air handler to be pulled through a big filter and up into the air handler to be, you know, handled). There’s another very large cold air return hidden behind the cabinet. The floor grate in the dining room floor has a filter box I built slung under the floor (the tan thing), which has a pipe leading straight down to the back of the filter box. Two big ones in, two big ones out. You know, like a date at a Sizzler.

[To be continued]

This Is How I Go When I Go Like This

OK, OK, enough with the heat pump envy. I can see you’re convinced. You want a heat pump. You need a heat pump. You require a heat pump the way Victoria’s Secret catalog (used to) require skinny models with big racks. Well, I’m here to help. And just like Victoria’s Secret, you’re going to need a big rack to get by. The compressor that goes on the outside of your house needs to get up out of the mud, and snow if you’ve got any, and it’s heavy. You need a big rack, like this one:

Oops. Sorry, wrong folder. But you’re welcome, anyway. Here’s the rack I mentioned:

This is located in a mostly sheltered area outside our basement door. You might recall we added a porch there not too long ago.  You know, this thing:

It’s a good spot for the compressor. That red blank infill piece is in the upper wall of the carhole, the basement below our basement. We’ll run the refrigerant lines directly into the house and across the carhole ceiling and then drill up under the spot in the basement where the air handler will be located. It will be easy-ish to run electricity to that spot, too. Everything’s below ground, more or less. It’s below anything I care about, anyway. It will be up out of the snowbanks, too.

If you inspect the photo of the wall bracket again, you’ll notice two things, maybe. There are three lag bolts holding the bracket to the wall, and the two arms of the bracket are held vertically by some zip ties. Those lag bolts might not be enough to do the trick in a newer house. You’re supposed to find some serious framing to lag into, and in a new house that might be a chore. But we live in an old Victorian that’s built like a barn. There’s a giant timber running horizontally behind that bevel siding. It’s something on the order of 6″ x  8″ in cross section. In a newer house, sinking the bolts into the 2″ x 4″ framing through OSB ply siding and maybe some vinyl would be a recipe for sagging, or at least a lot of vibration transferring itself to the outside wall, and adding noise to the interior. The big timber kills that problem D E D dead.

OK, go on, guess how many times the arms of the bracket fell down and cracked me on the top of the head before I wised up and zip-tied them vertically. More than I wanted, less than I deserved is the correct answer.

This thing is a about three feet square and eighteen inches deep, and it weighs 185 pounds. We cheaped out on the bracket a little, and bought one that was rated for the weight, but had slightly shorter arms than we’d like. I put some framing lumber on the arms to extend it a little and make it easier to level it and bolt it down.

My two sons and I picked the thing up, carried it down the driveway, and plopped it on top of the bracket. It took longer to free the unit from its packaging than it did to install it. If you’re one of the very many Americans who think they’d rather have dogs than children, I must caution you that your dog will never grow up and help you with any HVAC installations. A dog would probably shed less than a teenaged boy, but still, they’re never going to mow the lawn for you either, although they’ll do other stuff on it. Choose wisely.

As you can see, there’s a big fan in the beast. It’s quieter than you might anticipate, though; about 55 decibels. If you’re unfamiliar with the decibel scale… I SAID, IF YOU’RE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE DECIBEL SCALE, and go to Megadeth concerts to test your hearing, here’s a handy chart of how relatively loud that is, and the chances it could have a deleterious effect on your hearing, from NIOSH:

Hmm. It ain’t on the chart. As a veteran of OSHA inspections incorporating some NIOSH specifications, I can assure you if they don’t care about it, it really doesn’t matter, because they do care about lots of things that don’t matter, too. Their scale is truncated at the top, too, because they stop at 194 decibels, and don’t have a rating for my mother calling me home for supper from the back porch when I was a kid. I don’t have a number for that, but I assume whales heard that a bit.

We cleaned out five years of savings to buy this thing, so we’re anxious to protect it. It’s weird, but if you actually pay for things instead of borrowing money to pay for things, you tend to value them more highly and take better care of them. And by “weird,” I mean “normal,” which isn’t very normal anymore.

Getting it up off the ground was only half the battle. In the winter we have, you know, winter weather. There are ice dams and giant icy stalactites depending from the eaves pretty regularly. We look up when we exit that door from November to April. The case of the heat pump looks more or less indestructible, but there’s a junction box full of electricity, with a whip conduit feeding the beast, two insulated copper refrigerant lines, and a itsy bitsy wire for the thermostat signal, too. I don’t want icy daggers hitting any of that. So we built a little roof over the unit to keep the rain and snow and ice from caroming off it. Like this:

So, now I guess all we need is an air handler. And some ducts for handled air.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting and recommending Sippican Cottage to your friends. You can support this website directly using our tip jar, too. Many thanks go out to Steve for his generous hit on the Donate button]

The HVAC Laocoon Gambit

I didn’t want a mini-split heat pump. Even the largest of them wouldn’t have much luck heating our barn of a house. They make some pretty big ones, BTU-wise, but you have to run multiple interior cassette radiators from a single big compressor. That means running refrigerant lines all over the side of your house. I’ve seen some comical Cthulu versions of that setup lately. If you don’t want to tear the interior of your house all to pieces to put in ducts, I guess min-splits make sense. Of course tearing my house to bits is a hobby with me, so it held no terrors. But unless you bought a mini-split of some sort, and paid an installer, you couldn’t get the phony coupon from the state of Maine, so that’s what everyone did.

If you haven’t noticed, we’re not exactly “everyone.” For the most part, everyone is smarter than us, or at least attuned to the zeitgeist more congruently. They may do dumb things, but they do them the smart way. They swim with the current. It’s hard to fault them on this. It’s actually pretty hard to turn down free money. The free money sign is blinking, and some of the letters are burned out, but it still says FR E M NEY at noon on a sunny day, and they jump at it.

I wanted to run a single pair of refrigerant lines to a single air handler cabinet which would distribute the air to every room in the house. I’d be willing to put in ducts to make that happen. Tin knocking isn’t that complicated. That arrangement made perfect sense, so the fact that the state of Maine wouldn’t subsidize it was a Ho Hum moment for me.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m often prone to “and then a miracle occurs” stages in our construction projects. It’s not that I’m helpless or completely ill informed, exactly. It’s just that I’m overly optimistic about things. You know, like George Armstrong Custer and the Light Brigade were. We sometimes yell charge a little early, and then have to try to remember where we put the ammo box.

This HVAC system had a step that gave me pause. I knew I could install the whole thing. I’ve seen countless refrigeration and heating systems installed. However, that experience let me know that the “miracle occurs” stage shows up when the thing is in place and it needs to be charged with refrigerant. The lines have to be evacuated, and some very expensive coolant has to be loaded into all the piping. HVAC guys have specialty equipment and ready access to the super-freon gas they use now. I don’t have those things, and I couldn’t afford to hire anyone to do the work for me. Then this hove into view:

About two years ago, this ensemble was available at the Orange Place, and the Blue Orange Place, and a few other online plumbing supply warehouses. Of course, because we’re talking about two years ago, the price was more than $1,000 lower. I had no idea at the time that Jerome Powell was going to sign up for the United States affiliate account to collect commissions on everything, but that appears to be the case.

But the price wasn’t what grabbed me. Oh no. The 25′ NoVac Install Kit you see mentioned in the description was the anaconda that Laocoöned my leg and started tugging. The compressor, the air handler coils, and the refrigerant lines come with the refrigerant already in them. You hook them together and turn a big hex wrench on the fittings and the thing is ready to rock and roll. All of a sudden, that bridge too far, the problem with charging the system, was in the rear view mirror. Like I said, this thing is truly a magic show.

Anyway, for $2,500 and a lot of elbow grease, we could finally have something resembling central heating in our house, and we wouldn’t have to hire a plumbing and heating guy to come in at the end and Custer the budget. And we’d get cooling, too, of course, because a heat pump is really just an air conditioner with the plug inserted backwards.

[To be continued]

So Simple, Even a Cave Man Can Do It

I’m considered somewhat hidebound by a lot of people. That’s OK. You develop a thick hide after a while of being hidebound. I like traditional stuff more than is popular right now. As a matter of fact, more than is allowed right now. On further reflection, more than is legal right now. My family has been referred to as “The Amish” by some of our relatives, not entirely with affection. They came to our house and they couldn’t watch broadcast television. That’s all it took to earn the sobriquet. Needless to say, they only came once.

On the other hand, we’re fairly cutting edge on many fronts, although it might not seem so to many. I get asked about my heat pump heating system by people who regard us as barely walking upright, for instance. One can’t help but notice that several of my cro-magnon relatives installed heat pumps in their caves when they found out we neanderthals had central air conditioning, and they didn’t, even though their houses cost twenty or thirty times what ours did.

The true reason for this disconnect between our image and reality is a confusion about what true progress is. In many ways, our family is trying to live in the future, and peevishly waiting for technology and culture to catch up with us. It’s not our fault that society has decided that a Dickensian lifestyle of dissipated illegitimate subsidized squalor should be called progress, as long as the workhouses have a Facebook page. That’s not progress. Progress is when things get better. Period. It’s not when things get more complicated. It’s not when you need a phone to turn on your light switches or buy a cup of coffee.

So for example, we had to wait around for manufacturers to figure out how to make a heat pump that worked in our climate, make it affordable, and make it so I could install it myself. I wanted one long before they existed. Fixing the existing oil burning boiler in our dilapidated house would have been an exercise in nostalgia, if you ask me. The same people who call us Amish would understand it, but honestly, it’s a barbarous way to make heat. We bided our time and made do with firewood and pellets. They weren’t exactly cutting edge technologies, but we were selecting from the tallest midgets in the circus. They seemed less crazy than paying through the nose every month for a giant tub of black Venezuelan goo in the basement to heat our house.

So I was more than ready for another answer, a better answer, and lo and behold, it showed up. I’m skeptical of everything to the point of cynicism, but I assure you I know a good thing when I see it. I found this video:

Now, let’s call this what it is. It’s marketing. This video is made by Mr. Cool, and they didn’t make it out of the goodness of their hearts. But it wasn’t a commercial. It was very old school marketing. They wanted to convey important information about their products to A: Increase brand awareness, and B: Overcome conventional attitudes about heat pumps using factual information. It’s way, way more honest and informative than anything that’s been published or broadcast in the news media since the Maine was sunk.

They’re not stupid, and while the better angels of their marketing department might have made this video, elision is still a form of fibbing. They’re not just in Grand Forks North Dakota because it’s cold there. I get suspicious, and poked around, and found out Grand Forks has some of the cheapest electrical rates in the country. This thing will work wherever you are in the US, but your mileage will most definitely vary when the electric bill comes. But still, it is what it is.

If you’ve ever been in a position to purchase materials and equipment for a large organization, you might be familiar with this form of marketing. Big companies hire outside salespeople to visit other big companies in order to increase brand awareness and overcome price and delivery hesitancy. These salespeople were good at hail-fellow-well-met handshakes and golf. They knew good restaurants to plop your tired purchasing manager ass in, and they knew enough to pick up the check, too. They generally knew every damn thing about the products they were trying to sell. If they didn’t, they didn’t sell much. They had an effective mixture of information and personality.

I was later informed that Mr. Cool has an enormous presence on broadcast TV. They run the same sorts of information-free, aspirational sales pitches with unfunny jokes ladled all over them and women in low-cut dresses that all companies foist on television audiences. Of course I’d never see them, but everyone who called us Amish had seen them 10,000 times. They didn’t reach for their checkbooks until they heard about ours, though.

Sometimes pioneers are those skeletons you see by the side of the trail with arrows sticking out of their bleached rib cages. Sometimes they’re the guys with A/C in August. They’re never the guys who stay home and watch TV.

Month: December 2023

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