Saturday, December 17, 2011

Warm and snug

I'm currently sitting warm and snug here in my La-Z-Boy(tm) recliner, basking in the glow emanating from the fireplace at my side. I don't really need the fire, but young Cabot Bennett, himself being a rather thin-haired dog, seems to appreciate it. As he is the only family member willing to get up this early in the morning to provide me with familial companionship, I'm more than happy to provide him with a fire. Really, since it's as simple as pressing a button to light off the propane-fueled fire, why not? If only our other propane-fueled heating device was as easy and reliable....

Yes, I'm still embroiled in a heated (heh!) battle with the furnace, although I think I may finally have won. You may remember that I needed to replace the igniter. Well, that was one of those odd and frustrating situations I seem to get into a lot where more than one thing will break within a brief enough time period to make it look like said breakages are related. The failure of the igniter actually occurred during the time that I was trying to figure out why the furnace was starting only reluctantly. We would hear the flames light off, but the furnace would shut itself down soon thereafter. Then it got to the point where it wouldn't light at all unless I went down to the basement and used a lighter to get it going. That resulted in the aforementioned replacement of the igniter.

While still strutting around like the cock of the roost, all puffed up over having fixed the furnace all by my lonesome, there was a nagging thought at the back of my mind (having been put there by the co-owner, who was not blinded to the possibility that the original problem might still exist in the way I was by virtue of a pocket load of self-satisfaction) that perhaps all was still not well with the heater. Once I got over my inebriating (yet inappropriate as it turns out) buzz of self-congratulation, I was able to see for myself that the job was not quite done.

Fortunately (well, in a way) I have seen a similar problem before. We once paid a repairman to come fix our hot water heater which was exhibiting the same symptoms. When he had made the repair in something like 13 seconds, I was naturally as curious as I was irked, considering that his amortized hourly rate for the repair worked out to the same rate charged by a mediocre neurosurgeon. When queried, we found that all that needed to be done was the cleaning of the thermocouple that tells the computer that the flame is lit. It apparently gets gunked up with some residue from the burning propane. The computer can't tell that the flame is lit, and in an exercise of appropriate caution, it assumes that gas is simply flowing unabated into the room, thereby creating a rather large bomb.

Good thinking, that.

So, all I needed to do was to determine if there is a similar functionality built into the furnace. My steadfast pal Google knew that, and was also immediately forthcoming with an answer as to how to find the probe. "Look to the flame jet furthest away from the igniter," he said, "and there you should see a single electrical wire. Attached to that will be the part you seek.". And true to the word of the Amazing Mr. Google, there it was! It took awhile to figure out how to remove it for cleaning, but as with many magic tricks, it's easy once you figure out how it's done. A quick cleaning with a Scotchbrite pad and voila, the flames remained lit when the furnace was restarted. Self-confidence restored, and another couple of hundred dollars saved!


It seems that the problem remained. Not as often as before, but it still seemed that there were times when the furnace would not be able to get a good, solid start. "Well," thought I, "clearly I was in the right church but simply occupying the wrong pew. The thermocouple must be worn out. Tired. Over the hill. One foot in the grave, and all that. It should be replaced!"

Well, it's been getting quite chilly in our neck of the continent, so time was again of the essence. I needed to get a new flame sensor installed, post haste. Patience, in this case, would not be scored as a virtue if we all ended up shivering under blankets, huddled around the biggest burner on the cooktop because the furnace was defunct. So, there I was at work, perched painfully upon the sharp horns of a dilemma: how could I order the replacement part without knowing the exact model number of the furnace? Eh, let's be perfectly honest: I didn't know any of the model number. I knew only that the manufacturer was Goodman. The model number, as it turns out, is safely ensconced inside the furnace itself so as to protect it from being seen by mere mortals or DIY furnace repairmen. Or, for that matter, the eyes of the co-owner who, while more than happy to go down and take a look at my request, simply hadn't the time to disassemble the furnace in search of the requisite identifiers. Pressing engagements elsewhere, unfortunately.

Not to worry, for Mr. Google is available to me wherever I may be, thanks be to The Cloud. And how hard could it be to pick the right part from a list, really, what with my having just recently laid hands upon the part in question and theoretically therefore be capable of identifying it on sight?

Google returned the location of an online purveyor who would be thrilled to send me the $15 part overnight for the princely sum of $39.99. And we all know how much I enjoy paying nearly 300% of the cost of a part for shipping. You know, like I have to do now and then when ordering from Van's. Nothing for it, though, so I figured I'd identify the part and get it ordered early enough in the day to meet the overnight-shipping deadline.

It turned out that there were only two choices:

The first choice only listed a handful of matching model numbers, while the second choice had a list a mile long. That was moot, though, since the first choice showed some kind of double-probe configuration, while the second choice showed the single-probe style that I remembered from my few brief moments of cleaning the part. No brainer: it must be the latter part. As painful as it was to spend $51 on a $15 part, I placed the order.

A few hours later, I received a message from the co-owner who, having returned from her errands, had gone down to the basement, removed the front panel of the furnace (no mean feat, that!) and recorded the model number. Figuring that it may be better to be safe than sorry, I returned to the web site only to find the model number listed under the first part, which seemed more than a little unlikely to me given the extra probe included with that particular part. It was then that I decided to look a little more closely and clicked on the image in the time-honored way of making it larger.

Imagine, if you can, my chagrin:

It wasn't a second probe after all!! It was just a dimension line.


I leapt to the phone to call the vendor to see if it was too late to change my order.

"Hi," I started, figuring that such a warm salutation might engender a feeling of helpfulness,
"I have a bit of a problem with a part that I ordered online this morning. I've ordered the wrong part and I'm hoping that I can get it corrected before you ship it out."

I gave the guy the order number, to which he replied, "Ah, it says here that it's been picked and shipped."

"Oh, drat," I replied. "I don't mind so much the cost of the part - it's wasting the shipping cost that bugs me. The wife's going to be irked - this could mean a night on the couch."

I've found that sharing the threat of spousal disapproval often builds a temporary, yet meaningful bond in situations like this.

"Hold on a minute," he said. There ensued a few moments of delay. When he came back on the line, he told me that he "had caught it was it was going out the door." If I was at the computer, he said I could cancel the order and order the correct part and he'd get it out immediately.

I thanked him profusely to which, in the spirit of the healthy badinage that usually accompanies the spousal disapproval gambit, he asked me precisely how much a night not on the couch was worth to me.

"Well," I told him, "not as much as you'd think; the dog cuddles up real nice."

We shared a laugh, and the new flame sensor arrived early the next day. At this point the furnace has been "fixed" more times than a Chicago election, so it only took a few minutes to install the new part and light off the furnace.


For a little while, anyway.

Unlike the Chicago Elections Board, we were now as tightly wound as a golf ball when it came to verifying results. Sure enough, it wasn't long before we heard the three failed attempts to ignite that are the hallmark of a flame sensor problem. At a loss, I was, and ready to call in some professional help. For real, this time, not as a back-up to my attempts. But then I got to thinking....

It seems that the reason that the flame sensor is situated in the jet furthest from the igniter is so that the system can be assured that all of the jets are lit. Perhaps only a few of the jets were lighting off and the flame sensor was not getting any flame at all. What could cause that??

I went and looked at the jets. Each is fed by a brass nipple with a small hole drilled in its center. What if......

I found a suitably sized piece of copper wire left over from when I built the stitch & glue kayak. I used the wire to poke thorough each of the holes, thinking that maybe they were grimed up enough to slow down the initial release of gas.

That seems to have helped. We have had a good 24 hours of solid furnace ignition.

Part of me is sure that won't last.

Hopefully it does, though, because the RV-12 engine is to be delivered Monday. I had considered having it delivered to the hangar given how heavy at least one of the parts is, but I couldn't stand the idea of tearing down the engine (as is required for the installation of a cooling shroud and some carburetor drip trays) out there in the cold, dark hangar when I could just as easily do it in my (ostensibly) warm and well-lit basement. Time will tell if I will someday regret that decision, of course, but for now I look forward to a warm and snug work environment.

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