My Furnace


What sounds like a waking dragon is only my ancient furnace rousing from his slumbers.

At -19°F, it is a reassuring sound.

Even Wanda, my goldfish, paddles the currents of her bowl more contentedly as the duct-work pings and groans with the increasing warmth.

The old brute never fails us.

Such was not the case with our last furnace.

As our real estate agent worked up her appraisal for our old house, the furnace came on.

“Really?” she asked.

It was not actually a question.

Admittedly, the furnace was vintage. The kindest thing you could say about it was that it had character – and its most distinguishing characteristic was the squirrel cage fan that sounded as if it was powered by rodents much larger than squirrels.

“Hey,” I said, “it didn’t bother us when we bought the house.”

“Really?” she asked.

This time it actually was a question.

“You will have to get it inspected,” she said.

“No problem,” I said, “we had it inspected before we moved in.”

This time she didn’t have to ask…

I said it for her, “Really.”

Needless to say, the furnace failed the inspection and the HVAC guy was more than willing to sell us a spiffy ultra-high efficiency furnace that was so economical that it could generate heat just by knowing we had a propane tank.

“This furnace will save you a lot of money,” he promised.

A month later while we were vacationing in a warmer climate, our real estate agent called..

“Remember asking me to feed Wanda?”


“That is no longer necessary,” she said, “Her bowl is a block of ice. Your new furnace failed.”


I knew about the cold. In fact the most enjoyable thing about being on a warm beach in January is reading about how cold it is in Minnesota – except when you hear your brand new furnace stopped working.

So I called the furnace guy and he said not to worry because it was covered by warranty.

I asked him if the burst pipes were also covered by the warranty.  He didn’t understand the question, so I had to repeat it several times.  In the end, he said could fix the pipes and bill me separately.

Gosh, how lucky can a guy get?

So I asked him to email me a copy of the invoice. I knew the plumbing repairs would be steep but I was a little shocked to see how steep they were.  The problem was, there were two invoices: one for plumbing and one for furnace repairs.

I called him up.

I thought the furnace was covered by warranty?”

It is, he said, “the low pressure sensor I replaced would have cost you eighty bucks.”

But what about the hundred bucks for labor?” I asked.

Oh, labor is not covered.”


But this story has a happy ending. A few days later, in the course of another conversation with our real estate agent, she mentioned she had fed Wanda.

I thought she was frozen solid?” I asked.

She was… but the ice melted and now she is zipping around her bowl as happy as can be.”

Apparently goldfish, unlike plumbing, can survive being frozen.

So we bought a new house with another old reliable furnace. This one never fails us.

Even on the coldest mornings, he sighs himself awake to breathe his warm breath on a fish who twirls slowly on the currents of her own making and smiles contentedly.

Author: Almost Iowa

60 thoughts on “My Furnace”

  1. Great. i’m looking at possibly buying my first cold-weather house ever, and now I’m learning about all THIS. Don’t wanna know it. Plugging ears.

    Enjoyed Wanda. Tell her I say “Hey”.

  2. I had no idea a gold fish could survive being frozen…I thought Wanda was destined for a quick toilet bowl funeral for sure! And I agree, newer is not always better. It’s fancier, always supposed to be better, and has many more parts that can, and do, break. But it’s definitely not always better.

    1. Wanda is a survivor to be sure. Especially living in a home with two cats. But the cats have been declawed (in the front) which makes for amusing fishing antics, or did until the cats figured out the futility of it. Now, they just stare and glare.

    1. But can you walk on water?

      Not in the biblical sense of course, but we do walk on water, carrying plastic bucket which we turn on end and sit on to stare at a hole in the ice for hours. It is what serves as fun up here in the winter.

      1. I wouldn’t be able to walk on ice, I’d end up slipping, falling, sliding into other ice fishers, who one would probably end up smashing through the hole into the freezing water. I think after that, I wouldn’t be allowed in your state. (uh, we’re sending you back to wherever it is you came from, lady.)

        1. I am not sure how that would make you unique. No one around here can navigate the ice without slipping, falling, sliding into others – but it usually involves alcohol, which if you drink enough of it will keep your body from freezing.

  3. What’s really great about your post and the discussion in the comments is that you all sound just like southerners talking about air conditioning. The good news about cold is that you can bundle up. Heat? There’s only so far you can go in the other direction. Of course, adding palm leaf fans and cute little drinks with umbrellas helps, but still…

    The fish story’s hilarious. I’m not sure I beileve it’s true, but on the other hand, I never would have believed the way to keep 5,000 ladybugs happy until time to turn them loose on the aphids is to keep them in the fridge. What a world.

    1. “adding palm leaf fans and cute little drinks with umbrellas helps”

      Indeed it does. I dream of them on the coldest of days, taking what solace I can in hot chocolate spiced with peppermint schnaps.

      As for the goldfish, it is a true story. Goldfish are members of the carp family and have a body chemistry that freezes at a lower temperature than water. They still need oxygen and nutrition to remain alive and thus cannot be frozen for any length of time but that can still be surprisingly long. Their metabolism slows to the level of hibernation, allowing them to remain locked in the ice for days, if not weeks.

      1. I’ll be darned. Down here, the trout, redfish and such don’t seem to be so hardy. I’ve seen a few freezes in the bay, and the result isn’t pleasant. Of course, we have even more fish kills in the summer, when the oxygen level depletes.

        1. Every spring, the ice unlocks the fish who don’t make it and despite the odor, it is a marvelous time to watch eagles work the rivers and streams.

          Having said that and me being me, it gives rise to a story.

          I was walking into town on a weekend morning shortly after dawn. As I crossed a bridge on the Cedar River, I spotted a carp dancing on its tail in the road. I suspected a fisherman had tossed it but there was no sign of anyone, nor any traffic. Like I said, it was dawn in early spring and nothing moves in farm country at that time of day and year. When I got close to the fish, I spotted talon marks. So my curiosity satisfied, I continued into town. A short way down the road, an eagle lifted himself out of a ditch and flew lazily away. He was feeding on roadkill deer.

          So the way I figured it, the eagle swooped down on a stranded carp and plucked it out of the water, Flying home, he spotted the deer and thinking, “Hey, this isn’t Friday,” selected another choice on nature’s menu.

  4. Uh . . . about Wanda. Are you SURE that’s really Wanda? Maybe the agent felt guilty about the heartless way she notified you of Wanda’s demise and decided to “bring her back to life”.

  5. I have the same battles with the air conditioner guy. The unit is covered under warrenty but there is a diagnostic fee which is not covered even if the problem is. Go figure.

  6. I found running on the spot warmed me up a bit, but it also burst a few pipes which, in my case, were not replaceable! Now my furnace has mostly gone out.

    1. Living up north has its compensations. We get to sit on an upturned bucket on a lake and drink beer all day… and hey, no need to bring a cooler, unless it is too cold then the cooler keeps things warm so that they don’t freeze.

  7. We replaced our old furnace with one that looked almost the same. The guy selling it pointed out that a newer model would involve drilling holes in the wall and installing special plumbing just for the furnace, which would then, ultra-efficiently, not just stare out of but drip out of the window.

  8. “so economical that it could generate heat just by staring out the basement window at our propane tank.” LOL. I think we need more HVAC sales guys writing posts, they have great imaginations.

  9. My belief is that all appliances that are built now are so very overly complicated. Does a dishwasher or wahing machine really need 14 different settings? I think this is a cause for numerous breakdowns. The more dodads the greater the potential for breakdown. Remember when a washing machine just washed your clothes and lasted like a hundred years?

    1. It is all about sales.

      “Hey look, this one has 14 settings! Including one for horse blankets!”

      “But how about this one? It has 16 settings, including one called “the key and coin saver? It only costs $25 more.”

        1. Not THIS people. I do not understand most women. Why the HECK they think think they need more than basic washer settings, or ANY digital ones, is beyond me. I stick to bottom of the line, where I know that if there’s no one left from the U.S. who can fix it, someone from Eastern Europe or south of the border will be able to. Thank you, immigrants!

          1. The beauty of things made before the 1970’s is that they were designed to be repaired. Remember when people fixed televisions rather than threw them away when they broke?

  10. We finally gave in and bought a new furnace about five years ago. That was not done without hesitation given our old inefficient one was working fine. But whenever the furnace man came for a tune-up, we were threatened…”you know if that part breaks, I can’t get a replacement for it.” Our biggest mistake was paying for additional duct work to the upstairs bedrooms. We were told that should help with air circulation and provide better heating and cooling. That has not happened. Sigh.

    1. A lot of that “can’t get replacement parts” is pure hustle. If you can buy piston rings for a ’56 Buick still in the original box and buy parts for the DC3 airplanes, I would think there is a source for old furnace parts.

      We are putting an addition on our house. I hope we don’t have similar problems.

  11. Our old oil boiler is still chugging along even though the oil company tells us that we could increase the efficiency from 87% to 91%. Of course they can’t do the math to turn that into dollars or tell me if the payback period is shorter or longer than the expected life of the new boiler, and, of course they want to sell me a fancy water heater option.

    1. I tend to believe that heating efficiency ratings are about as reliable as mpg ratings for cars. They are more comparative than real, though I wouldn’t trust a furnace rating from Volkswagen. 🙂

  12. Yep…newer isn’t always better.

    Many years ago during a hellish cold spell, we needed to leave our upstairs apartment for a few days. We left a water tap at slow drip to keep it from freezing. It was on the NW corner of the house and very likely to freeze so said the landlord. Upon our return, it was still dripping. Success! But, the drain pipe did freeze up and nearly filled the sink. That sink didn’t drain for two more weeks. You know how long cold spells last.

    1. Part of the problem is the growing obsession with efficiency which at a certain point of diminishing returns becomes more about marketing than energy. Certainly, the old furnaces were wasteful but that new furnace failed three times, and each time for a different reason.

      When this old guy dies, we are going geothermal. It is complex and somewhat prone to failure, like anything complex, but in our region the cost savings are substantial – and we have the acreage for it.

      1. I cannot wait to be able to afford the initial cost of geothermal. I don’t know anyone who has it and doesn’t love it. And my old farmhouse sucks down propane like its soda.

    2. The Midwest is the sweet spot for geothermal. With our 45°F ground temperature, it saves a bundle on heating as well as air-conditioning. Our payback is estimated at five years (including tax rebates).

          1. A 9th grade building was constructed next to our high school earlier in the 2000s. It took a long time and made such a mess getting all the piping lines in place for such a big building.

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