Monday, July 10, 2017

A Stay-cation with Glamping

So we had an interesting week. Last Friday evening, as I was giving Knox his bath, I realized that no matter how long I let the bathroom faucet go, the water wasn’t getting warm. I told Josh about the problem and he disappeared to the basement. Five minutes later, he confirmed my suspicion: we had run out of heating oil (which fuels our boiler, which supplies hot water to our radiators AND our faucets, taking the place of a hot water heater).
We knew this was going to happen. But we thought we had until August.
Back in March, we told our heating oil company to cut off deliveries. The plan at the time was we wanted to convert our house to be heated by natural gas, get rid of the indoor oil tank in the basement, and finally patch the crumbling foundation wall behind it (the joys of owning an old house!). In the past month, we had called BGE and found out it would basically be free to get reconnected to the natural gas grid, and had one contractor come out and price out the interior connections and a new boiler for the radiators and a separate hot water heater for the faucets. And that price was like $10,000.
No thank you, we thought. We’ll stick with oil. But we still needed to temporarily move the oil tank so we could fix the wall behind it, and this would require an empty tank, because the steel alone was going to be pretty darn heavy to move. We thought we would still put in a separate hot water heater though, to save money on oil during the times of the year when we don’t need the boiler to heat the radiators. (I’m secretly now an expert on this stuff, guys.)
But somehow, on June 30, we had already run out of oil. I blame that cold May, when I may have turned the heat back on once or twice after swearing we were no longer using the heat. Or there could be so much sludge at the bottom of our tank (which a contractor estimated was probably about 60 years old). While it had looked like we had an eighth of a tank back in April, a significant part of that could have been dirt particles or oil fungus (not making that up—I told you, I’m secretly a heating system expert).
Josh felt really bad that we had run out so early, and said, “Well, maybe they can deliver just 100 gallons.”
“No way,” I said. Who knows how long it would take to use up 100 gallons in the summer—and the heating oil company likely wouldn’t come out for any smaller of a delivery, and we already had our mason lined up to do the foundation work. Any new delivery of oil would setback the progress of “fixing” the basement (there are a lot of problems we’re hoping to have fixed by September) and I didn’t want to take any more steps backward. Instead, I saw this as the impetus to finally make up our minds about what we wanted the future floor plan to look like in the basement (potentially a new/moved laundry room, restore the full bathroom, create new closets, convert old laundry room to a mudroom, and use the open living space as a kids’ playroom, as in “you’re driving me crazy, go down to the playroom!”). We also needed to determine to what extent we would need a plumber: to move some pipes in the mudroom, extend some pipes in the new laundry room, and maybe add a hot water heater or not add a hot water heater (I didn’t want one because you hear so many stories about them breaking down and flooding people’s basements, so they rather seem like a ticking time bomb of water to me). With Rye away visiting his grandmother, we had the next 48 hours (minus sleeping and Josh’s work time) to really discuss our plans (with fewer interruptions) and figure this thing out.
And in the meantime, if that meant cold showers, cold water laundry and cold water for doing dishes, so be it.
“At least it’s not the air conditioning,” I said.
We had to wait until Monday before we could call any contractors, and with that being the day before the Fourth of July, we realized it was unlikely we would make much progress. Still, Josh got in touch with the mason on Monday and asked him if he would recommend his plumbing contractor and if the two could work on the basement project together. But then we never did hear back from him about setting an actual day up for them to visit and view the plumbing problems together. Josh did get in touch with our new oil supplier and discussed the overall issues and the oil versus natural gas debate with one of their representatives. Sensing that this guy Keith really knew his stuff, Josh set up for Keith to visit us Thursday to determine 1) whether it would be possible to move our oil tank, re-hook it up, and then refill it so we could use it ASAP; and 2) if the oil tank can’t be moved (it kind of looked cemented into the floor, yikes) whether we should just switch to natural gas (which their company supports and could still be our supplier for and thus could give an honest opinion).
Josh was working Thursday so I met Keith at the door, and he greeted me with “So you guys must be real romantics.” I gave him a puzzled look. “You know, to buy an old house.” And I laughed. After a quick tour of the basement and some peeking around the house at the radiators and baseboards upstairs, Keith gave his opinion: 1) we have some fabulous, gigantic radiators; and 2) because they’re so gigantic, it wouldn’t save us money to switch to natural gas because it would take more natural gas and thus more money to still get enough BTUs to actually heat them up and keep our house warm. The tank should not be moved and reconnected, he said, but a new tank is only like $2,000. And while our boiler system is functional, it’s on its last legs, a sort of ticking time bomb on its own, so he would give us a proposal on what a new and more modern oil burning boiler would cost. (He also recommended against installing a separate hot water heater because using a boiler 12 months a year can extend its life by ten years.) He called Josh on Friday to discuss more specifics (though not a price yet, needed more info from us on linear feet of radiators and baseboards), and asked Josh how much oil we had left.
“None?” Keith repeated. “So you’re taking cold showers?”
Josh confirmed we had indeed been taking cold showers for a week.
“There’s no way my wife would have put up with that,” Keith said.
And there, I think I earned myself the “Miss Low Maintenance of 2017” award. I was prepared to continue using cold water for the next month and a half if that was what it was going to take to do the rights steps in the right order to get our basement closer to its end goal. Cold showers are not fun; I found its best to take one immediately after being outside, and to not expect to wash your hair and body at the same time because it just takes too much time. I started washing my hair under the faucet instead of in the shower. I even got a haircut and went back to having shoulder-length hair to make it easier to wash under the faucet. In the 8 days we did not have hot water, I took three showers and washed my hair twice.
Evidence of haircut
And on day eight, Keith told Josh that “heating oil” is the same as “off road diesel,” which is available at some gas stations. He told Josh to buy five or ten gallons, pour them in the tank, prime the pump to get the fuel suction restarted to get it to the boiler, and then we’d have at least a few more weeks of hot water while our new tank and boiler system were being priced, scheduled and later installed. So Josh did it! He bought ten gallons of the diesel, watched a video on YouTube, and got our hot water back.
I’m not going to lie, that first hot shower felt goooooood.
But I think I could have stuck it out the six weeks (an arbitrary estimate of how long it would take to get a new boiler and/or hot water heater). Josh had already taken one hot shower at a friends’ house, but I was thinking of making a challenge out of it (you know, and maybe raising money for a charity or something, haha) and just sticking to cold water until all the problems were fixed. But once the hot water was there, I wasn’t going to refuse it.
For the past two days, every time I turn the faucet on and the water is warmer than cool, it catches me off guard. Trying to rinse cantaloupe off Knox’s hands, I was surprised to find the water was too hot, and quickly had to turn it down. I can’t find my sweet spot on the shower dial of where the perfectly warm water is.
It’s crazy how quickly you can adjust, and it’s kind of reassuring too. Instead of being irritated or down in the dumps about not having hot water, I thought of it as a week of glamping (which is “glamorous camping,” in case you’re unfamiliar with that term). Our glamping cabin had 1800 square feet; rich, wood floors and wood trimmed windows and doors; comfortable beds just like at home; air conditioning; a fabulous kitchen; and indoor plumbing—all the modern amenities, with the exception of hot water.
And we’ll probably get to do some more glamping at home later this summer, once we make up our minds about getting the new boiler and oil tank and have the foundation wall repaired and the plumbing changes made. I hope it’s another hot week then so that the cold showers will feel just as refreshing. And I hope it only takes a week once the work starts. We’ll see.

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