STORY POWER 2016: from experience to story and back again

This is an experience, it became a story. It also became a new approach to my New Year goal.

Last Saturday morning I woke up shivering under three layers of blankets. A cold sweat created a breeze under the covers. My icy feet reached out for a warm spot under my husband’s leg. He didn’t move. He didn’t take the hint that there was a problem. Finally, I dragged myself out of bed and checked the thermostat. The outside temperature was 13 degrees, the thermostat was set for 71 degrees, but the actual temperature in the house was 65. It’s a big house. Our bedroom hangs out over open air above a patio. Our room was even colder than what registered on the thermostat. It took a few seconds for me to wake up and face the fact that the furnace was not working.

I shook off nightmares of frozen pipes and expensive emergency calls to a repairman. If we had to, we could turn all faucets to drip and go to my son, Dan’s, house. Ralph continued in deep sleep. He had been fighting a sinus infection and I hated to wake him. “O.K. I’m an intelligent person. It’s not my area of expertise but I can do something about this. I don’t need my husband to rescue me.”

First thing:  do we have fuel getting to the house from the buried propane tank under our lawn? It was possible that the line was frozen. We live in a somewhat remote subdivision which is not connected to a natural gas utility. It was also possible, though unlikely, that Suburban Propane had failed to top off the tank in the fall as contracted. “Ah, yes, I can check for supply line problems and warm up the bedroom and living room by turning on the two fireplaces.” Sure enough, they both worked, and warmed me up in minutes. We wouldn’t have to flee the house anytime soon.

Next: Hooray! Ralph woke up and started trouble shooting. Our HVAC is no ordinary forced air system similar to what we’ve had in the past. It’s a high-end sophisticated heat pump system. For the last three winters, that system has worked and we didn’t worry about understanding it even though we had questions. Now we had to get answers. The complex thermostat was sending messages that were completely foreign to us. After a couple of hours of Ralph scratching his head, I realized that the mystery wasn’t getting solved. The body language, the muttering to himself, telegraphed “Don’t leave me alone with this one.”  Neither of us had the energy to take on the task. But I had a little more than he did. I opened my laptop and started searching the internet.

What is aux. heat? What is E-heat. Why does the heat pump keep turning off. What kind of auxiliary heat do we have? Electric or propane. After a half hour of study, I felt that I had a grip on how it all worked.

Here’s a basic outline. A heat pump is an energy efficient way to cool and heat a house. It moves heat from one place to another rather than producing heat. However when outdoor temperatures become too cold for the system to keep up, then the heat pump calls on an auxiliary source to take over heating. The aux heat kicks in automatically as needed to supplement a lagging heat pump overly taxed by below freezing temperatures. In some homes those heat sources are electric, in some they are fuel burning: natural gas or propane or oil.  E-heat (emergency heat) is a setting you can choose to use if your heat pump breaks down or if you want to feel toastier air flowing out of your vents. A heat pump doesn’t produce a hot blast of air from the vents. It maintains a comfortable balance as it draws air from outside and extracts heat for heating and cooling.

We managed to keep our house warm over the weekend by babying our system and using the fireplaces. On Tuesday, we called in an expert. By this time, we knew a few things that he didn’t. We knew we had a propane furnace and a heat pump. We knew we had a complex electronic control panel. We didn’t know how to get these components back on track. The tech explained that our propane furnace is the auxiliary/emergency heat and that the malfunction was in the propane furnace, not the heat pump. Water was dripping from a vent pipe leading from the furnace burners up to the roof. Once the dripping water was blocked by a piece of sheet metal the system fired up. No new parts necessary. Once the snow on the roof melts we will check the vent chimney for damage. We now understand how that system works and where things can go wrong. It’s no longer scary. I am more fully acquainted with the living breathing house-creature that I live in. Dispelling my ignorance empowers me and removes fears.

And that is my story for this week. A story that gave me a novel idea for my New Year’s goal. I am going to create new experiences for myself by studying and becoming more acquainted with one subject every month. I will take my experience with those subjects and share them as stories. Stories I hope that will empower me and those that I share them with.

A story is never just a story. Experiences become stories when we mine them for knowledge, insight, and wisdom and then share them. Other people’s stories become our experiences giving us greater empathy, compassion, and self-knowledge.  We don’t always have to tell someone “here is the moral of the story.”  Many stories are better simply relayed without spelling out the message. But there will always be a message even if it isn’t the one the author supposed.

This year, I want to save and share stories: small, simple, and hopefully enjoyable.


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