Thursday, July 21, 2011

Home Ownership Makes Me Swear

The first Christmas Eve in our newly-purchased house in 2001 went something like this:

I put a heavy sweater on and look at the digital thermostat. 57 degrees Fahrenheit. That's not right. I double check to make sure it's on and see that it's still set for a balmy 68. Was it broken? I replace the batteries hoping that'll do it.

"Mommy, I'm cold," my son says.

"I know, buddy," I reply, a bit worried. I don't know anything about furnaces, but the one thing I do know is that Christmas Eve is an inconvenient time for them to break down. "Hey, Greg," I call my husband from the other room, "I think something's wrong with the heat."

He comes over and inspects the thermostat, does all the same things I did and confirms that it's not right. We're a couple of geniuses, I tell ya'. "We have to call a technician or someone to look at it," he declares.

"Who the heck are we going to get on Christmas Eve?" Secretly, I'm thinking that he's the guy, he should know what to do in this kind of situation without having to call someone. Isn't that one of the perks of having a husband with tools? In reality, we've been married for five years and living together for nine. During that time, we've always lived in apartments. That's all of our adult life after college. When something went wrong, we always called the landlord or apartment manager. It was that simple.

Now, we have no heat in Upstate NY on Christmas Eve and no landlord to call. We're lucky it's still 57 in the house. But, how much longer will that last? I'm thinking all kinds of worst case scenario thoughts that involve a blue, frostbitten child and burst pipes showering our kitchen.

The worst part is, we've only lived in the house for a month and hadn't needed any service people yet, so we didn't even know who to call. I grab the phone book and let my fingers do the walking for the word "furnace". There are a few fuel oil companies whose ads say they also service heating systems in the area, so I start making calls.

After the third voice mail says, "Have a Merry Christmas. Call back after the holiday," I learn that emergency services for fuel oil companies are for existing customers only. We're not anyone's existing customer. I finally get a live person.

"How can I help you?"

"Um, we don't have any heat. Our furnace doesn't seem to be working."

She's very nice. I feel a little less panicky. She gets our details, like our name and address and when the problem first started. Then, she asks a basic question. "Have you checked the gauge on your oil tank?"

"There's a gauge on it?"

"There should be. They're usually on the top. See if you can find it and let me know how much fuel oil you have."

I put the phone down, find the oil tank, which was hard to miss in the utility room, and find the gauge. It's clear what the problem is right away. Our gauge is resting squarely on E for Empty. Below it, actually. We've run out of fuel oil. Are we idiots? Who runs out of fuel oil on Christmas Eve? We do, it seems.

Sure, it says 3/4 of a tank now. But, on Christmas Eve in 2001, it was bottomed out on E.
I pick the phone up and swallow my pride because I know I'm about to sound like I'm completely incompetent. "It's empty," I confess. "Any chance we could get a delivery today?"

"Not on Christmas Eve, no. We can't deliver until after the holiday. But, you can run some diesel fuel through it for a few days to stay warm. We'll be there first thing the day after Christmas."


So, that's what we did. My husband borrowed a gas can from his uncle, made a trip to the gas station and put some diesel in our tank. I don't remember how many trips he made over the next couple of days, but it was enough to keep us and our pipes from freezing.

As first time home owners who had no experience with fuel oil, we defintely had a steep learning curve. I remembered signing something at our closing that said our oil tank was full.  In hindsight, my husband and I laugh at how niave we were. We thought that tank would last for the whole winter. In reality, it lasted about a month.

Ten years later, we know how often to fill our oil tank, but we still get tripped up over basic home maintenance. Until about a year ago, if our sink got clogged, we would both stare at it, hoping the clog would somehow vanish on its own. It took us awhile to figure out how to take the elbow off under the sink and even longer to buy a plumber's snake. We would fail Plumbing 101, something every home owner should be able to pass with flying colors.

I won't even talk about the gutters, except to say there's a small tree growing out of the one on our back porch right now. We've cleaned them before, but it seems it needs to be done again.

Thankfully, we know when to call the pros and have done so for bigger plumbing issues, electrical issues (I don't even feel lame for not knowing how to take care of that stuff) and when our hot water heater and boiler both kicked the bucket. When we first moved in, we didn't even know we had a boiler, not a furnace. What's the difference, you ask? I have no clue.

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