Character Homes need insurance but demand sacrifice


For several millennium, societies celebrated sacrifices towards their various deities. Some societies were interested in the harvest, some were interested in the hunt, and some were interested in a great ROI, return on investment. The last one seems to have taken great favor as of late. I am interested to see what will happen next. Perhaps in my lifetime, or perhaps the next one in that we will not worry about time, just life.

However, for now, our character home demands sacrifice. Perhaps not like a human sacrifice, even though that’s what it feels sometimes. It may be more along the lines of a needy toddler. A helpless infant has needs, but a toddler has even greater needs since they can get into reams of trouble if you are not constantly supervising. Our present house also had some growing pains.

Renovations to our 1912 home cost about twice as much as the price of our very first home, which was sort of tiny. In order to maintain the character of our character home, we didn’t alter anything you could actually see. We, and of course I mean they, only modified the things we could not see. Infrastructure.

A major one was the cast iron plumbing system. Cast Iron. Even the term sounds durable and worthy of any character home. It sounds like Iron Man. Strong, durable, invincible. Scared of lions.

The funny thing about iron of course is that it’s scared of lions. This sounds confusing, but the concept helped get me through chemistry in university. Using the concept of lions our professor taught us that lions were called LEO. A loss of electronics is oxidation. Whenever you have a LEO, you have GER. A gain of electronics is reduction.

Of course I am mainly talking about oxidation. Rust. Although our prof was a great teacher, I cannot look at any rusted object, and I mean any rusted object, without going through this entire LEO/GER subject in my mind. It can be exhausting.

So the cast iron plumbing seemed to have lasted for several decades. Ten decades appeared to be enough, so it seemed to be time to replace everything. Do you know how sometimes you go through a very traumatic event and you just hold things together until relief comes? Well, this is what happened to the cast iron. The house saw or realized that relief was here and collapsed into our arms.

We, and I mean they, tracked down and replaced all the cast iron running up the walls and replaced it with an even more durable metal. I think it may be platinum. Or beryllium. I am just going by the cost as opposed to actually looking what’s there.

We established a very trusting and close relationship with all of our contractors. I simply kept a cardboard box full of cash outside the front door with a little sign saying ‘Help yourself’. I think the occasional stranger did help themselves but I didn’t mind so much since it cost me less than the contractors.[1]

The replacement of the cast iron kept everyone happy. Any by this I actually mean our insurance brokers. I didn’t know that cast iron replacement was even ‘a thing’, but apparently the failure of cast iron really is a thing. The brokers would come around and ask questions about the replacement and what stage things were at. I thought we were at 99%, but even being a little bit pregnant still gets a check mark of the ‘CAST IRON’. Insurance premiums reflected this accordingly. I think they finally managed to get that last little bit of cast iron out. The cost of doing that was unfortunately not offset by the long-term savings in insurance premiums, but it was worth a shot.

Since we had seven people living in the house at one time, we installed two additional hot water heaters. The third floor water heater for the kids had to be electric since there was no way to run natural gas up to the third floor. In order to install this electric water heater, we, meaning they, had to cram it into a slanted closet. This meant that the heater could only be half the size of a regular heater.

I recommend this fix for any parent with teenagers. Telling them they are getting their own separate water heater may sound like a bonus to them. No more complaints. They don’t really have to know the size restrictions on overall hot water available at any one time. Your secret would be safe with me.

Soon the electrical system demanded sacrifices. This became immediately apparent when my in-laws presented my wife and me with a very generous gift of a chandler to go into the dining room. The chandler appeared way too heavy to be installed by mortal persons, I doubled my personal efforts by doubling the size of the cardboard box outside holding the free cash. This attracted other saviors.

The electrician savior removed the existing light fixture, more of a kerosene holder it seemed like, and suggested we have a look. Instead of your normal electrical utility box, there was just a wire hanging out of the ceiling. And not your normal plastic wire. The wire had the look of a black snake. And not a shiny new black snake. But a frayed black snake that died while it was shedding its skin and disgorging the contents of its stomach at the same time. Not pretty.

So there was none of the safety utility boxes infrastructure that would contain sparks from the electricity. And one would think that sparking would be common since nothing basically separated the hot wire from anything else. And there was no support to even hold up the chandler in the first place. So that discovery initiated another series of changes trying to run wiring throughout the house.

After a while, I realized that running new wiring did not necessarily mean removing the old wiring. In the basement there is a maze of those old ceramic pillars and posts running old black snake-skin electrical wires. We will have to get that done eventually also.

Every time we get someone new in, they look around in awe somewhat. They have that ‘I’ve heard about but never seen one of these before!’ kind of looks. I find their sense of awe helpful. It helps me decide the size of the new cardboard box I have to get for the front door.

I am fearfully waiting for the open jaw assessment when we finally get around to removing the asbestos from that pipe in the boiler. Do they still make those cardboard boxes for moving hanging clothes? I remember them from the 60s anyway.

Another fun thing we have not gotten around to changing would be the thermostat. It’s basically just a brass speaking tube that communicates with the basement asking the worker to add more coal to the furnace. Actually, the brass extensions have been removed and you can only see the brass connections in the baseboard. Just in case.

Actually what we still use is a round iconic Honeywell thermostat. One of these classics can be found in the Smithsonian apparently. On ours if you pop off the cover, you can see a goodly sized spring with a small container of mercury sliding around in a glass capsule. I do remember playing around with these things when I was younger. When I moved the dial back and forth I could see the mercury blob around as it sparked when making contact with the electrical connectors. More often than not, I would remember to put the temperature back where it should have been. This amused me than I care to mention.

Funny thing about that style of thermostat.

We do get our place cleaned professionally once a month. Being busy professionals with two large, shedding golden retrievers, getting someone in has been a major relief. But the two young, very eager to please, cleaners are not familiar with the 1950 style of round thermostat and how they work or what they do. No digital readouts here.

So when dusting the thermostat, the impact on the house depends on whether they dust the dial on the thermostat in a clockwise or counter-clockwise movement.

One fine winter day, one of the cleaners wiped the thermostat in a clockwise motion. This drove the heater to the top of the scale. And like any boiler on an old navy ship, you don’t notice it right away. Usually it takes the following day.

One day after the cleaners leave, the house seemed unnaturally warm. We are used to that since the temperatures outside can drop dramatically, it takes time for the house to accommodate the temperatures. But this time one of the radiators began spitting out scalding steams and bits of boiling water. I guess about 10 years ago I removed one of the regulators from a radiator to allow more heat to warm up sunroom.  However, my little ‘life hack’ did become immediately apparent that I removed the safety device. In my defense my intentions were good and pure. I tried to get heat into the room where we kept a lot of our potted plants for the winter so that they would get the necessary sun. But I got busted and schooled. So, I mopped up the water and reinstalled the safety regulator.

We should have mentioned the thermostat issue to the cleaners.

Because, there was another funny thing about that.

After the cleaners finished on another occasion during the winter, my wife and I headed out to the cottage with our two dogs. We spent a lovely day snowshoeing, making dinner, cuddling by the fire. Later that night, at 2 am, I get a call from the security company. They have a low temperature signal from our house.

This becomes a major issue since no one is in the house to say what is happening. I enter a bit of a panic mode and start calling the emergency line for the plumbers. It’s early Sunday morning and who knows if anyone will be available till Monday. I get someone on the line and tell them the situation so we have a backup plan.

My wife and I pack everything up and within an hour we are back on the road for the 90 minute drive back to the house. Of course we have a bit of freezing rain and snow happening so the roads are exceptionally treacherous. This is when I am particularly driven to get back to the house in a hurry. Getting trapped in the ditch would be a good half day wait for a tow truck assuming they could find you.

We don’t end up in the ditch and we finally arrive home. The house is not all that cold at about 10 degree centigrade, 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I head down to the basement and check out the boiler. It rests quietly.

The water to the boiler appears to be still on and working. The moat surrounding the boiler remains empty and the boiler has not disgorged its contents. No major catastrophic failures at the very least.

I turn the main breaker off and on to see if that wakes the boiler. I have never done this before, but what could go wrong? I mean I have never kicked a hibernating grizzly before, but I am sure that would end badly. They are both the same size, coloration and, most likely, disposition. Nothing happens. Good or bad.

I remove the main panel and see that the pilot light is still burning in a chipper fashion. Ready for action.  The little pilot finally lights a little thought in my mind. I head back up the second floor bedroom and see that the cleaners were in a counter-clockwise cleaning mood that day. The thermostat has been cleaned all the way over to off essentially. I turn the temperature back to normal and I immediately hear the ‘whoosh’ as the boiler furnace momentarily removes all oxygen from the basement and starts burning merrily. It looks more like a cheerful conflagration as I replace the panel on boiler.

So, exciting times. But well worth it for such as staid looking and satisfied character home.

[1] Old modified joke, but I couldn’t resist.

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