If it aint fixed, break it

Dave Ferry

After moving away from Warren, whenever I found myself trying to explain to someone where I grew up, I sometimes feel as though I’m describing a Frank Capra film. It’s not uncommon for people to idealize their hometown, but since I’ve been back it’s really no exaggeration.

But I didn’t grow up in Warren; I grew up in Lander.

Lander used to be very difficult to describe. There are no stores, at least not in my time. No post office. Just a (used to be) elementary school, a Methodist Church and the volunteer fire department.

It’s settled on Route 957 at the intersection of Miller Hill Road and South Main. Homes line the roads for less than a mile in all directions and beyond that, farmland and forests. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out it became a little easier.

You know that place where the Hobbits lived? Yeah, it’s a lot like that.

The Hobbits were famously known for their good sense and community, so that’s a compliment.

I never really had that small-town fever. When I left, I just swapped one remote setting for another. The St. Lawrence River is ridiculously beautiful…for 3 to 4 months out of the year. That whole region up there has been largely forgotten by the rest of the country. I recently heard the North Country of up-upstate New York referred to as little Siberia. Also, no exaggeration.

The folks up there treat it as their little secret, and I can relate to that.

The biggest challenge for me adapting to a new setting was knowing where and who to go to when I needed help fixing something. Indeed, perhaps I had been spoilt by the repair culture here in Warren County. After all, if I ever need anything here at home, I can think of at least a dozen people off the top of my head who would be willing to lend a hand, a tool, a part, or just some friendly advice. I’m an armchair handyman at best, but I like figuring stuff out.

The first time the heat went out in our house in Ogdensburg it was the dead of winter. I grew up with a forced air furnace, and this house has an old Weil-McLain hot water boiler. The radiators are these beautifully huge cast-iron monstrosities.

The logical conclusion one comes to when considering what happens to water that is circulating throughout every room in the house when the temperature drops below zero are frozen pipes at the very least.

An active imagination conjured up images of exploding radiators and stairs turned into frozen waterfalls.

I was way out of my depth.

The boiler does not use an active pilot light like I was accustomed to. It uses a hot surface ignition that is controlled electronically. Whenever the thermostat calls for heat, a switch sends a signal to a silicon carbide ignitor that glows red hot until the gas kicks on. My first round of investigations lead me to believe the electronic switch had gone bad.

My first instinct was to go to the nearest plumbing supply dealer, which, as it turned out, was the only game in town.

They sold me a brand-spankin’ new Honeywell ignition module and off I went; foolishly believing I knew what I was doing.

It didn’t take me too long to realize the new Honeywell was not compatible with the old Fenwal ignition module, so I headed back to the dealer. Again, this is where I may have been taking Warren for granted. The guys behind the counter just sort of scratched their heads, shrugged and suggested I call a contractor.

Around here, if I can’t find help here, I go over there.

It’s not like that everywhere.

The house was getting colder, and my options were getting slimmer. I returned the non-compatible switch and got some numbers for a local repairman.

The first one I called seemed to already know my situation, leading me to believe the supply dealer had slipped him my info. The guy showed up fast enough and seemed to be familiar with the old boiler. He suggested it might be time for a new one.

It turns out that the parts for this boiler are no longer manufactured, and this guy just so happened to have a used, original equipment replacement in his van. He plugged it in and it fired right up.

After watching him I decided it was easy enough that if it were to happen again, I would be able to fix it myself.

Of course, the next time it happened, it was a completely separate and new issue. The silicone carbide ignitor failed and needed to be replaced. I found a brand new one and was warned that one touch with oily fingers can cause it to burn too hot and crack.

Very carefully I replaced it, and it got us through the rest of that winter.

So proud was I that I had had this success, that, not unlike a gambling addict, I continued to chase that feeling of did-it-myselfishness.

Over time I replaced the water circulator pumps with brand new Taco (Tay-co) pumps. I replaced the draft inducer fan. I replaced the expansion tank and pressure relief valves.

The glorious internet provided me with hard to find parts to keep it going. There was something untrustworthy about the repairmen I called, so I stubbornly tried not to rely on them.

I have also searched for parts around here. The first place I called was in Jamestown. The woman who answered the phone didn’t have the part I was looking for, but she immediately informed me that I owned a high-quality boiler. She made me feel as though it might be worth saving. She gave me confidence in my quest, thus proving that you don’t really need to do anything to be helpful to someone. The very least we could do for one another is cheer on a stranger from time to time. While the rest of the world may be turning their backs on anyone who just needs that, take heart, not all is lost.

Obviously, a new boiler would be the simplest solution. My instincts tell me that a brand new boiler is not going to easily swap out with this older one, but I could probably figure it out.

But there’s a reason addicts call it a “fix.” I am a self-repair junkie. If some measure, however “temporary”, got us through another winter, there was no reason to doubt I wouldn’t be able to do it again.

Maybe it’s just me, but if something can be fixed, I want to try to at least try to fix it. Have we really evolved into a species of consumers who aren’t interested in how anything works? Is this a regional epidemic, and the smart guys and gals still exist as long as you know where to look?

While landfills pile up with iPhones and old Weil-McLain boilers, I for one am proud of my cracked screen and 1980’s electronic boiler parts. When it stops working, for real this time, maybe I’ll get a new one.