Hmmm… A Slow-Moving Freeze

My furnace died last friday, and the tech came out, replaced a bunch of filters and the jet, bled some gunky-looking oil out of the line, and everything was fine. As he was leaving he said, “I’m going to put a call in for a fuel drop because your tank is at about 1/10.”

1/10 of 250 gal is 25 gal. Depending on the weather, I burn about 10-13 gal/day in the winter (normally the furnace is cold and I fire it once a month to keep it from mechanically locking up). Now, there’s an irate polar vortex giving the area unpredictable weather and it’s -5F outside and my 1/2 mile-long driveway is mostly ice with a few patches of snow. The oil company dispatcher called me and said that the delivery truck driver took one look at my driveway and said, “nope” and wondered if I could shovel it or put sand down or something. Sand? That’s not happening, either.

It’s not really bad. It’s just that the fuel trucks aren’t 4x4s with cleated tires and they don’t know the terrain like I do.

Funny how things go from just doodling along with all the indicators in the green to, “uh oh.” My house has old-style cast iron radiators, which I had installed during the big renovation in 2005, and if it freezes, I know from experience that the radiators can crack or explode. The one time before when that happened, I needed a new chunk of living room floor* and there was a piece of cast iron radiator stuck in the wall.

Now, I am formulating plans.

  • Plan A, which is the one I am going to immediately try, is to turn the heat way down and bundle up – conserve fuel. This afternoon I will go over to the shop and collect my 5 gallon jerry cans that I use to haul kerosene (I have a reddi-heater for keeping the wood shop survivable when I am over there) – I’ll get a couple more and rig up a drill-powered fuel pump with a long line and I’ll do two runs of truckloads of jerricans. That’ll give me 50 gallons, which is some head-space and think-time. If the weather doesn’t improve before I need to go to Germany I will spend my last day in-country hauling diesel fuel from the truck stop in Clearfield to my house. It will suck, I’ll be cold and my shoulders will ache, but it will work. If I haul enough oil the furnace can run until I get back, by which time either the driveway will be clear or I’ll haul more.
  • Plan B, which I hope does not come up, is to drain the house water systems including the heat and mothball the place before I go to Germany. Then deal with it when I get back. I do not like Plan B because Plan B entails having to move anything liquid that can freeze and break, including things like computer flat panels, bottles of wine, contents of refrigerator, etc. Also, I don’t have a warm place to move anything to. I really do not like Plan B.
  • Plan C is to find someone in the neighborhood who has a service-body 4×4 truck with a fuel tank, and talk them into making a fuel run for me.
  • Plan D is to call the Fuel Rats.

How did this happen?

Normally, the oil company delivers fairly frequently. Since I did some tuning last year to make my furnace more efficient (and therefore more susceptible to gunking up) I don’t use as much oil, so their computer probably pushed my delivery schedule back. I know they use some kind of computer model for scheduling. But the result appears to be that the system becomes more precarious when the endpoint gets more efficient, if the weather becomes less predictable. Last week it was 40F out, before it snowed and iced up. Obviously, I should have called for a drop, and I would have if I had thought ahead and realized that the polar vortex is destabilized and weather is going to be more variable.

Obviously, this won’t happen again (I won’t let it) and I will have ample time to build that into my reminder-awareness as I sherpa jerricans of diesel around.

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* water radiators tend to run the water through black iron pipe, which is a fine solution except that the radiator water is then full of iron oxide, which stains an oak floor a lovely shade of black. Fortunately, the contractor’s insurance covered it.

I called my dad to check and see if he had any super secret Minneapolis Minnesotan advice. He immediately ran through Plan A and Plan B without prompting. He suggested I could heat-tape the radiator lines, leave the pump running to circulate the water, but then I’d still have to evacuate all the freezables from the house.

When I go to the studio to get the jerry cans, I am shutting the water off and draining the line. Fortunately, that’s really easy. I did the plumbing over there and there’s only one line that services the toilet and darkroom sinks, and I designed it to gravity-drain by running it up into the ceiling beams. So it gravity drains like a fountain at Fontainbleau.


  1. ridana says

    If you can find someone to make Plan C possible, could you find someone to make Plan E possible instead, i.e., someone with a tractor and front end loader or scraper or snowplow that could clear out the driveway for the oil truck? Or is it too late for that now before you’re off to Germany?

    Good luck. Hauling fuel in your truck sounds stinky.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Sorry to hear about this problem. I was under the impression that heavy trucks had the ability to go pretty much anywhere as long as they did it slowly and deliberately and the ground was flat, as your road seem to be. Clearly I was wrong.

  3. springa73 says

    Wow – sorry you have to deal with this mess. I don’t know what I would do in a similar situation, since I have no 5 gallon cans or a vehicle that can carry many of them.

  4. Enkidum says

    Jesus. I spent last weekend in -30C weather with the water pipes frozen, but we have a wood stove up there and there was plenty of snow to melt, so nothing really other than an inconvenience. Good luck, and stay warm.

  5. komarov says

    Disclaimer: I have no clue about heating systems or plumbing. So this will be an engineering solution to boot. Having lowered your expectations sufficiently, could you maybe get an electrical water heater than can be linked to your hot water circuit? It would probably require something large-ish but if the goal is merey to keep the house from freezing (as opposed to habitable) … maybe it would be enough? The regular pumps could then still circulate the water but instead of burning oil at home you’d burn somebody else’s coal far away.

    So, again, engineering solution. If you’re still disappointed you only have yourself to blame. You could also set your house on fire, you just have to make sure it burns slowly enough to last through the winter. Maybe bulk asbestos from ebay…

    P.S.: Plan C because why not: Take out the remaining oil, pump it out onto your driveway and light it on fire. (Not trivial but Fun) Driveway is now ice-free, mushy and very sooty. Have an oil delivery truck on standby. Your heating problem is now solved but a fire marshal might yell at you, assuming you get as far as “fire”. Note: May accidentally initiate plan B.

    Plan D is the same as plan B but also involves insurance money, large sums of. And a very good lawyer.

  6. says

    could you find someone to make Plan E possible instead, i.e., someone with a tractor and front end loader or scraper or snowplow that could clear out the driveway for the oil truck?

    I didn’t think of that; I usually try not to have anyone plow my driveway because, inevitably, all the gravel I have spread on it to surface it winds up in the ditch. If I had plowed it before it froze that would have worked but it’s ice now. Good idea, I missed the implementation window.

  7. says

    Mano Singham@#2:
    I was under the impression that heavy trucks had the ability to go pretty much anywhere as long as they did it slowly and deliberately and the ground was flat, as your road seem to be. Clearly I was wrong.

    I’ve been meaning to write about this, but there’s a strange thing some businesses do: they mis-equip their drivers. Up here in rural Pennsylvania, the UPS package vans have dual rear wheels but they carry street tires and only have rear wheel drive. Twice in the last couple years I’ve had to tow a UPS truck out of my ditch. To be fair, never the same driver, twice. Worse, UPS (I talked to the driver while I was un-ditching him) does not allow the drivers to carry snow chains because “legal risk” (not really?) and “tear up the tires” (I don’t think so!)

    I’d think that they’d have a mechanic and a storage room with snow tires; they need to rotate the tires anyway and it’d help the drivers safety considerably. UPS spent millions of dollars changing its logo but the drivers … ah, screw them.

  8. says

    could you maybe get an electrical water heater than can be linked to your hot water circuit?

    Interesting idea! I would have to cut the lines and braze pipes together. Which would require draining the system; there’s no convenient place where I could a heater “man in the middle” attack. But that’s a neat idea. I do have a hot water heater but it’s not patched in a two-way connection to the house water – cold water goes in, warm water goes out, and since it’s for drinking and showering in it’s not the black water from the radiators (which smells pretty metallic, really)

    Otherwise, your suggestion is very clever and if I owned a cabin somewhere, and was re-designing the plumbing, I’d have a “man in the middle” heater with ball valves so I could cut it out of the loop when necessary. That would be a lifesaver. Someone needs to get your suggestion into the small homebuilder-sphere. Seriously. That’s brilliant, as a fallback. A lot of people come to visit their cabin and discover it’s waterlogged and they have a $250 water bill.

  9. says

    I don’t know what I would do in a similar situation, since I have no 5 gallon cans or a vehicle that can carry many of them.

    Plan A: call the Fuel Rats
    Plan B: call a FWAPT (Friend With A Pickup Truck)

    I’m often a FWAPT – my Tahoe can hold a lot but it’s not quite as hefty as my old Toyota Tundra, which was killed by a deer a couple years ago. (sigh)

  10. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#9:
    Long term solution: geothermal heat pump powered by solar panels.

    I’ve been considering that for a few years; the prices are getting attractive.

  11. says

    The reason I am not calling the Fuel Rats is I don’t have anything that will burn stellar hydrogen safely. I mean, I know it’ll burn – but “safely” is the trick.

    Joking aside, a hydrogen home furnace would be interesting. “What’s that tiny box glowing white?”

  12. Janstince says

    As far as putting an electrical heater in line with your oil heater, I would definitely consider that as a bad idea. To be frank (as long as Frank doesn’t mind), your water quality sucks. Running even city water through and electrical heater… well, you’ll gum it up eventually. The kind of water you’re talking about, you’re going to be looking at replacing the element on a standard heater every couple of years, even if you don’t use it. Treated water is a must for electric heaters.

    Now, to engineer it up further, you could put an electrical heater on a kind of shell-tube exchanger, pumping clean water through the heater into a shell that you run your heating water through. Of course, you lose a lot of efficiency that way.

    On the topic of geothermal, you have some problems with that, as well as benefits. One big benefit is that you get heating and cooling, extremely efficiently, all in one package, can run at any time. Big problems: well placement, well-head insulation (because nothing says fun like your damn well freezing and popping), coil placement and depth. I’ve seen well heads frozen because they weren’t kept running in cold weather and weren’t contained in a heated space. I’ve seen coils become ineffective in summer because they were buried too shallow or in bad places, I’ve seen coils pop from being too shallow and getting frozen or run over.

    As far as stellar hydrogen, well, those folks in the Hindenburg seemed pretty warm to me. Don’t be a baby, just stick your hand in a little.

  13. komarov says

    Oh well, that would have been too easy. But who goes ahead and designs something without thinking, “Oh, I’ll add some extra valves / plugs / connectors / thingamajigs in a few places in case I ever need to put something else in without a lot of hassle.” That’s just a shocking lack of foresight! (I’m deliberately ignoring that every extra thingamajig is also a potential failure point because this is interfering with My Vision)

    “What’s that tiny box glowing white?”
    – It’s my reading light. It’s terribly inefficient so the waste heat is used to power a small village down the road.

    I like the stellar hydrogen idea but you might have to be a bit more flexible on fuel sourcing. Otherwise you might as well go straight for antimatter reactors. The main drawback I see, aside from funding, is that by the time you start producing the first antimatter the frost will be gone and you might feel tempted to abandon the project.

  14. John Morales says

    My house has old-style cast iron radiators, which I had installed during the big renovation in 2005, and if it freezes, I know from experience that the radiators can crack or explode.

    So, you need to keep burning fuel merely to prevent your radiators from cracking or exploding when it’s wintry. Huh.

    (Pretty primitive)

  15. dangerousbeans says

    You can’t just add antifreeze to the radiator coolant? Stick everything in an insulated box with a light on (how big is your fridge? have a chest freezer)
    Of course i have no experience, around here we have to worry about 45c weather, not -20

  16. John Morales says

    dangerousbeans, nah. Antifreeze merely raises the freezing temperature, but Marcus lives (as you noted) in a very cold clime. It would not be an additive, it would have to be the main constituent.

  17. John Morales says

    Tabby, and fair enough, too.

    “Has a fresh mint taste that appeals to men, not teenage girls.”



  18. says

    @20 Tabby

    Here is a product I could not write copy for without being absolutely Artax-in-the-swamp bogged down in puns.

    “BALM IT TO SAVE IT!” “DROP A BALM ON THEM!” Stuff like that. “Cannon balm” is bad enough but good god, if anyone puts one of these out and actually called it “NUCLEAR BALM” I might have to get that myself.

  19. jrkrideau says

    Don’t forget the kerosene or anti-freeze in traps of the the sink and toilet in the studio.

    Best of luck.

  20. Kevin Dugan says

    Related to Komorov #14
    If I recall, isn’t time reversed matter is indistinguishable from antimatter. Therefore, you should be able to engineer a time reversal system this summer and stream the antimatter back to today where you convert it to energy.
    If you decide to do this and are successful, then you should be warm now (You’re welcome!), but you might want to not look too closely at your heating/plumbing as it might trap you in a paradox or time loop.
    If you decided to do it and are not warm now, you might want to stay in Germany past the antimatter explosion event in your future. Of course, this could also trap you in a paradox or time loop.

  21. says

    Wouldn’t it be possible to capture the heat energy from infall into a black hole? Surely nobody’d object if I had just a smallish one to keep the house powered? I guess keeping my house from becoming infall would be the problem.

  22. says

    I had never heard of that one. And I was just over there! Dang! It’s still pretty warm in the building and I have the pipes drained. There are no traps in the darkroom since one drain just goes out through the wall and into a gravel pit (good for dumping developer) and the other is where the toilet drop used to be.

    The toilet tank could use some kerosene.

    I’m a bit worried about my ferric chloride etch tank, too.

  23. John Morales says

    PS if it yielded enough thermal energy, it would shine in the infrared — but black holes are called that for a reason.

  24. MattP (must mock his crappy brain) says

    A bit late since you’ve already refueled, but McMaster sells electrical “heaters for pipes and tubes” (some even sold by the foot) that just wrap around existing pipe that could sort of help keep things not frozen similar to the heat exchanger idea from Janstince.

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