Eighty-five-year-old furnace held up its end of a warm friendshipby Kate Smith, Minnesota Public Radio
Today's the day we pull the heart out of our bungalow. We could quibble, of course, about what the heart of the home is. But in a Minnesota climate, the heart of the home is all about heat. And today, the "Twin City Smokeless Furnace" goes away.
The Smokeless -- it's quite a name, isn't it? -- was installed to burn coal in 1925, when the bungalow was built. It was converted to natural gas, of course, but its bones are 85 years old. You could tell, too. They don't make cast iron like that any more. And there are aspects of the Smokeless that do remind me of my grandparents' era, when the basement was a room made for the huge pieces of industrial-like equipment that made a house work. As the big old gravity octopus is dismantled to make way for a 95 percent energy efficient model, I'll admit I'm wistful.
Friends and family have been alternately amazed and horrified by the Smokeless. It takes up a footprint about 7 feet in diameter, and the ductwork is like three enormous tentacles weaving their way across the basement ceiling to the heat vents. My husband curses those ducts. He hits his head every time. I glide around under those octopus arms with nary a worry.
As I feel the vibration of its end beneath my feet, I need to tell you about the Smokeless. On its last weekend of life, I crept downstairs, camera in hand, to document its existence. Without anthropomorphizing to any degree, I will admit that the Smokeless and I have had a wonderful relationship.
Years ago, an energy audit inspector said that it was in tip-top shape and that I should leave it alone. So that's what I did. The auditor said that it would take 17 years to pay back the cost of replacement and that, in the meantime, the Smokeless would provide silent heat without anything to break down. That it has done. It's all in the gravity. Make hot air and let it rise.
Of course there are drawbacks I'd be a fool not to admit.
No filters means that each winter there's a smell of hot dust from years of duct gunk. Yeah, I don't even want to think about that. And no mechanicals, fans or motors, and an old-fashioned exhaust system, mean we're really sending a fair amount of that silent heat up the chimney. Then there's the asbestos. The coverings of the furnace and ducts -- all contain multiple layers of plaster-like asbestos. Hence the specialized hazmat crew working in the basement.
Now the Smokeless has been cut off and cut up. The abatement crew makes way for the new, efficient model.
I confess that as I took pictures of the Twin City Smokeless I also gave it a pat of thanks for 85 years of work. I value our focus on energy efficiency and wanted to join the ranks of people being smarter with energy resources. But as I stood for the last time under those octopus arms, a couple of thoughts occurred.
On those 30-degree-below mornings, I've always loved seeing birds gather around the chimney. They'd take turns enjoying that heat we were releasing through the flue. The energy-efficient models are all vented through the side foundation walls of a house. You don't see birds huddling around those PVC pipes, now do you?
Here's the other thought I had. I'm not knocking new technology; we're spending a chunk on it, aren't we? But what's the chance that the furnace we're installing in the bungalow this week will still be going strong in 2095, 85 years from now?
Kate Smith is senior editor for Minnesota Public Radio News.