Servicing My Furnace for the Winter Leads to Coordinated Efforts by DNR and EPA

A concerned home owner does the right thing every year before the cold winds of winter begin to blow, that home owner has the furnace serviced by a reputable professional. Exactly what I had in mind as I realized that I had neglected to do the responsible thing the past six years since I had purchased the house. I had been assured by the previous owners that although the heating system was very old, it was in tip-top condition. An assurance that I had crossed my fingers on and assumed every year with a prayer that they were correct.

This year I had a new concern about the old monster in the basement. My 18 year old who knows everything, he’s a genius really, decided that he would enjoy life more from the basement perspective and moved in next to the basement monster one day while I was at work. I like to refer to it as the day he staged a coup. Hoping his situation in the basement wouldn’t last long since the boy is 18 and will be on his own soon, I bought a carbon monoxide detector and several more smoke detectors to help safeguard him in the basement. The carbon monoxide detector did not detect anything but I also wanted a professional view of the matter. Was that old monster safe?

I made the call and within a few days the furnace guy was there. His equipment could not detect any gas or carbon monoxide fumes which he thought was amazing for such an old heating system. He did find a gauge that had to do with the amount of water in the system and the pressure it was under, the gauge was so old it was very doubtful if it were still working. I learned at that time that I had a hot water radiator system not a boiler system and that my furnace had been converted from coal to natural gas at some point in the distant past. The repair guy wanted to drain the system, replace the gauge and a pipe with a slow leak and add a valve that would automatically add water to the system when it became low. All sounded quite reasonable to me. I just wanted it safe.

The work was all done and all of the old iron radiators in the house had been bled of air. Now the winter could deal it’s freezing blow and we were prepared! I had a good feeling as I watched the heating company’s van pull away from the house. That was when I heard the rain. What was going on? Blue sky. I ran from window to window but all I could see was blue sky, no sign of rain. My ears were not lying however, water was hitting the ground somewhere outside. I ran outside the house to see where the water was coming from. I could see it all right. It was a fountain pouring out the side of my house where the first floor brick ended and the vinyl siding of the upstairs dormer began.

Water pressure! Burst toilets! Home owners insurance rates! All kinds of things raced through my mind as my feet raced to the basement and the main water cut off. As the sound of rain slowed to a drip on the ground outside, I was trying to figure out what had happened and knew that I would have to have the courage to look upstairs for water damage and the source of the fountain that had poured out the side of my house.

Nothing was as bad as I feared and I figured out in short order that my furnace had an overflow tank upstairs in the wall that must be the source of all the water pouring outside. I called the repair guy to come back right away.

Learning everyday is the adventure in life. I learned a lot that day about my old furnace. The heating system that I had was not a closed system. My furnace had been designed to be filled on a manual basis as needed, a pipe to the overflow tank upstairs pokes out the side of the house, the home owner knows that there is enough water in the system when water is observed pouring outside the house and can stop filling the furnace at that time. The people who had put up the vinyl siding probably did not know what the pipe was sticking out the side of the house for and covered it up. The repair man did not realize that it was not a closed system and put in a valve that just kept filling the system with more water as water poured out.

What a wonderful day of learning! Thank goodness for water cut off valves. My vinyl siding should dry out and be ok, I’ll cross my fingers again and say a prayer. The repair guy disconnected the overflow tank upstairs and put a new overflow tank in next to the basement drain where we can keep an eye on it. All of the radiators were again bled of air and now I can sit back and feel like the responsible home owner who had sense enough to get the furnace serviced before winter. Those feelings that everything is ok can come and go so quickly!

The next morning I awoke to find a fire truck and two police cars parked in front of my house. Most unusual for my mornings. They did not appear to be actually interested in my house. A few firemen and policemen were standing around the street near the curb and seemed to be interested in something in the street. From my upstairs windows I couldn’t see anything. The street looked empty to me.

By the time I was dressed and had coffee in my hands the activity outside had lessened to just a couple of firemen and the fire truck. They were still looking at the pavement and talking on their walkie-talkie’s. This was just plain weird. I had to find out what it was all about.

Mercury, it was all about mercury. Some very observant kids riding around on their bikes had spotted a large group of silvery balls of mercury right there in the street in front of my house. How the mercury got there was what the fire department was trying to find out. How did that amount of mercury get in the street. Someone would have had to break a couple of thousand thermometers or thermostats to leave that much mercury. And there was no broken glass. It finally occurred to my 18 year old boy to tell them that the furnace repairman had been parked there the day before. A genius, really he is. The firemen lost no time getting the repair guy and the Department of Natural Resources on the phone.

Within minutes of talking to the DNR a fireman told me that I was being evacuated. Evacuated! It was a little hard for my mind to grasp that some mercury which may have been left in the street by my furnace repairman could be the cause of the evacuation of my house. I only protested for a few moments as so far I had barely had a cup of coffee and wasn’t anxious to leave the rest of the pot. I would just have to take it with me and I evacuated as far as the church yard across the street.

I didn’t have too bad a time while evacuated. The 18 year old found other things to do and I drank coffee and talked to the fireman, I even got out the camera and took photos of the fire truck. For me that was fun. The Department of Natural Resources arrived and it was figured out that the pipe the repairman had replaced while installing the new overflow tank had an old thermostat in it from the coal burning days. Part of the removed iron pipe had a large ballooned out section that had held the mercury. So mercury had accidentally been spilled down my basement drain and in the street as my furnace must be one of the oldest working furnaces west of the Mississippi and repairmen are no longer taught about monsters of it’s species. I had always thought that since my community has many historic houses that this type of furnace would have been familiar to the well established business that I had called.

I was allowed to return to the main and upper floor of my house within a few hours by a very nice man from the Department of Natural Resources who went through the house with a device that sniffs for mercury fumes. My basement however remained under evacuation until mercury fume levels dropped.

The next day the Environmental Protection Agency arrived bright and early from a whole state away. While I explained profusely that it was not my idea to house the boy in the basement, they dressed my 18 year old in rubber boots and a white suit with gloves so he could help them clean up his room. They were also very nice and professional. They vacuumed and bagged clothing and bedclothes to sit in the sun. After a period in the sun everything had to be washed. They monitored mercury fume levels and advised me to air out my basement for a few days and they proceeded on with the clean-up to vacuum and wash a section of the street.

It is with a long sigh of relief that I once again can sit back and feel like that responsible home owner who did the right thing and had my furnace serviced for the winter by a professional. I learned a lot about my old furnace which I think I may replace, next year. I also learned that with the help of a few government agencies it is possible to get an 18 year old to clean his room.

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