Pre-crisis survival skills: The only tool more valuable than knowledge
is an attitude of self sufficiency. The mere willingness to provide
for your own needs can pay off everyday, even absent any “end
of the world as we know it” event. In fact, simply being willing
to provide for your own needs can pave the way for not only learning
valuable skills, but saving money to boot!
By way of example let me tell you about a recent experience with the steam heating system at my lady friend’s house. It is a Victorian house and the main boiler furnace was replaced five years ago as it was in poor condition and needed a new boiler. This is a single pipe steam system not a closed hot water system so it needs regular water replenishing. The other thing of note is her water is very hard locally with lots of dissolved minerals.
So the story begins with the first cold afternoon of the season. The thermostat had been turned on and the pilot light was working that morning so she figured when she got home everything would be toasty warm. Well she got home and had no heat, and so called the heating man to come and see what was wrong. He came and checked over the system and got it going. He said it was a plugged flue so he cleaned that and put in a new low water sensor lead which appeared corroded and leaves her with a $100 bill, an hour later. To me this says the burner is carbonizing and not burning cleanly for a gas fired boiler. No other future recommendations besides call them if there are any other further issues. Okay, I didn’t have to do anything so no real complaints.
A week later no heat and again she calls, a second service tech is there and 60 minutes later she has heat and another $100 bill. This time it is a low water condition and he fills the boiler manually but couldn’t read the level in the site glass so just filled it till it started running again, but he says everything is okay for now and maybe you will have to replace the lower water controller at a future time.
I finally say enough I am going to take look at it. So a quick search on the web on boilers and a basic plumbing book I had on the shelf that I got at a garage sale the year before for a dollar and I now have some basic information for trouble shooting, then I go down to start with a survey.
The first thing I see is the main drain valve installed by this same company five years ago on the new boiler, has the valve handle removed so it can sit right up tight next to the water heater that stands beside the boiler. Funny after 100 years the boiler no longer needs periodic draining to remove scale even though the owner has been systematically doing it for 15 years per the previous recommended service people. So the tech has had to use a pair of vise grips to open the value to drain the boiler to test the low water sensor. Not that this 2nd tech would consider replacing the valve and putting in an elbow to turn the valve away from the hot water heater so a proper draining could be done in the future, and maybe he should consider cleaning the sight glass which was so coated with crud inside you couldn’t see the water level properly anyway.
I having been a maintenance engineer for two years so I said "Okay lets fix this baby."
So I spent $9 for a new elbow and valve, and had at hand some Teflon pipe dope and assortment of wrenches, a proper work light and bucket to sit on to take the weight off my knees as this might take a while and I can only squat for so long and I was ready to start.
Now I see why the tech took so long to trouble shoot the boiler issues. They had to drain the boiler into a bucket, one bucket at a time to get out the 40 odd gallons in the systems at $85 dollars an hour, nice work if you can get it, emptying boilers manually, gee isn’t this the 21st century, wow maybe I am in the wrong business, anyway so I get a bucket and put in an electric sump pump I have to hand and hook up the garden hose and then by draining the cooled boiler water directly into the bucket continuously and running the sump pump I put the water out through the hose and I drained the system in fewer than 5 minutes. Wow maybe I should be giving the certified plumbers a lesson in efficiency.
First improvement: Bucket, pump, hose for draining and testing.
Then when the water was emptied, I had my lady friend move the water heater a 1⁄4 inch with a 8 foot long 2 x 4 so I could remove the old drain valve and put in the new elbow and a new drain valve, I guided her effort as we just had to move it a little and even though it was also full of water, it was a 40 gallon tank, she was able to move it just enough to not disturb the connecting piping or vent. Now I had enough room to hacksaw off the stem of the bad drain valve, so I could unscrew it to install the new 90 degree elbow and put in the brand new drain valve after doping all the threads with Teflon pipe dope.
Second improvement: better clearance, new elbow, new valve for speedier draining.
Now that we could drain the boiler properly and efficiently, you should have seen all the crud that still came out after the second filling and draining to test out the new drain valve. Now that I could drain and fill the system, the question of course was how high was the water level to be, too low and the low water sensor tries to turn on the auto fill valve, too high and you get water hammer in the pipes as the steam tries to force it’s way up an overly full pipe and surges. So the next thing was, let’s see if we can clean the sight glass and get a handle on water level since there doesn’t seem to have been any issues with either electricity or gas to the furnace at this point.
So with the sight glass cleaned up we can now visually monitor the water level in the boiler… a little gentle wrenching and some silicone spray on the seals after working them loose to make it easy to reassemble. Then using a small rod with some fiberglass insulation wrapped around it and I was able to clean the tube almost as clean as new, a kind of home made test tube cleaner, the fiber glass wouldn’t scratch the sight tube as it was also made of glass, but it was abrasive enough without leaving any residue, to scrape the brown built up baked on sludge off the inside of the tube.
The two shut off sight valves stems were badly corroded and leaking past their packing, so it was time to gently take them both apart and lightly emery cloth around the stem to create a new sealing surface, and then I dug out the baked packing inside the cap nuts with a nice dull straight bit screw driver. The material which looked like window glazing compound was all dried out and so it was useless to try and tighten the nuts to try to get them to clamp down on the packing to create some sealing. After removing all the old packing I did a little wipe down with some silicon spay of the cap nuts with a clean rag and then I gently reassembled them with some new Teflon packing wrapped around the stems and I put a little Teflon bicycle bearing grease on the stem threads and the cap threads. They went back together as smooth as if they were new.
After refilling the systems there were no leaks anywhere and the new drain valve works smoothly and allowed for proper service draining and I can now see the water level is correct and we have heat.
Third improvement, emery clothe, grease, silicon spray, and Teflon packing.
I had my son working with me, watching what was going on so he was involved. I was asking him as I worked what is wrong with this before starting the emery on the valve stems, then showed him the final product after five minutes work and mentioned you could use old sand paper that had lost most of it’s grit or even a pocket knife in a pinch, that there are lots of different ways to fix things, we could have even used the bench lathe at home and burnished the valve stems if we wanted a superior sealing surface, and I talked to my son of the process of discovery, and of what to look for, as all things have a story to tell of misuse or poor maintenance if one only looks close enough. I did this as I was cleaning things so he could learn as I was learning how things come apart and go back together. Then we filled the boiler and could actually see the water in the sight glass and now have a more manual control of things. Besides saving money I used the opportunity to teach a valuable life skill to the next generation.
So on to the final step was the auto water level control. Now this unit sit on the water inlet to the furnace and gets a signal from the low water level sensor to put more water in the boiler, called make up water, after taking off the cover of the control and reading the settings for the small dip switches I see they have it set to come on after 2 minutes and to run for 2 minutes giving only 2 gallons of make up water. The problem was it seems one to be turning off and was over filling. So after turning off the power even though this is 24 volt control circuit and not a 120 circuit, I took apart the controller and carefully put aside the screws and cover and with small paper labels marked the two power leads to the solenoid. Then I took the solenoid off knowing there would be a magnetic plunger and return spring inside. Setting those aside and checking for wear and corrosion I found the rubber diaphragm sealing seat covered in scale from the hard water, which was preventing the seal from shutting off the water at the right time and allowing the boiler to over fill, which is why I found the manual water feed valves in the off position after the last service tech left. He obviously knew he would be back for another service all after turning the valves to the to off, it would only take a few days for the system to run low on water and for the furnace to stop running, nice to be able to plan future service calls. I took everything apart slowly and carefully and didn’t use any sharp edged tools so as not to scratch or tear anything. I eased the diaphragm off and cleaned it with Armor All [rubber/plastic treatment spray] so as to preserve the synthetic rubber seal. Then using CLR [Clear Lube wire pulling lubricant] and a soft wood piece I trimmed off some scrap wood, I worked it around the brass sealing seat scrubbing the scale off. No holes, no gouges. Everything looked good to me. I also made note of the part number of the gasket and the serial number of the controller so later I might e-mail the company and get some back up parts. So after reassembling every thing I refilled the boiler part way then lowered the level till the controller demanded water. The value worked and filled the boiler perfectly to right below the high water line with setting the timer to four minutes. I re-did the whole cycle again just to test it. So instead of a $650 replacement controller and $100 service call, I did all the work for the price of a cup of tea provided by my sweetheart, some Armor All and 2 cents worth of CLR. I think this would come out to almost $300 dollars and hour. Wow, I really am in the wrong business.
Fourth improvement, CLR, Armor All, wood chip.
So nothing high tech or even hard, a few hours worth of work and it is in better shape then when the service people left it after $200 of professional work. Besides the end result of improved and better running equipment, the first return on my investment of time and labor was an immediate saving of $750. I can use that to buy things that I can not make myself. For instance $200 would more than pay for a used 22 rifle and a thousand cartridges, or as much as a months worth of food for the whole household if spent very carefully.
Now both I and my son and my lady friend understand better how the system works and can in an emergency override the auto controls with the manual valves and I can teach the 2 kids what to do when there is no heat on in the house. And we are learning to work as a team and to figure things out and to communicate and to think on our own. The best survival skills I feel I could give my kids is teach them to think outside the box and work things through using that uncommon thing often called common sense.
Another important point is a little maintenance goes a long way, the two sight glass valves are so corroded into their respective feed pipes I am not sure I could have gotten them out with out lots more piping complications, if I was to try to replace them which is why I am sure the service people didn’t.
I grew up learning to fix things from my grandfather and my father, so by gently refurbishing the sight glass valves in place I saved a service call and further repair work.
Now that I am done I will digital photo the whole set up and print it off to go in the furnace file with dates and notes when this work was last performed so I also know how long my repairs are holding up.
Thinking back and as to how I learned to be self sufficient, when I was growing up I watched my grandfather service a bicycle wheel bearing while he sat in a folding lounge chair cleaning parts in kerosene, out doors on the cement patio of a used bike my parents had obtained for us. He was teaching me to wipe off the old hard grease and explaining that 5 cents of grease will make the bike run like a million dollars. I must have been all of 10 and am now 52 this year, and recently I helped my 13 year rebuild his first bicycle wheel hub and I said to him 5 cents worth grease will make it run like a million dollars. I can see my grandfather still and remember his patience as he showed me how to clean and assemble that hub so many years ago and that simple lesson still brings value today 40 plus years later. Thanks grandfather and you are remembered in a story to your great grand son you never met but knows where and what I learned, to do things carefully and the right way, and I hope he teaches his grand son or daughter and tells them about me and how I learned from you.
I take this same approach to being prepared with extra food stores and clothes and knowing how to use tools be they an ax or a buck saw, how to build a camp fire or always carrying a first aid kit in the car, and a spare flashlight and owning a box of candles and hard rations and good boots and the value of good socks, and knowing who to call and where to go in an emergency. It is all in the knowledge one carries in one’s head be prepared and be knowledgeable.
So the lesson is to know your equipment. If we ever are without heat and snowed in and the service people can’t come for days, like just what happened in Buffalo [New York] last week in my home town, we could now that we are familiar with the system possibly get it running again
One other important note all the work was done with the power shut off and the water turned off at the main. None of this type of work should be undertaken without some real knowledge of the basic safety required around any power equipment. - D.A.L.