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   boilers in the paradigm of language
Tuesday, November 16 2004

Sorry about this one; today I was completely obsessed with the house's boiler. Consequently, you can't expect much excitement from what I have to say about this day unless, of course, you share my (probably temporary) interest in boiler technology. (Or, failing that, you have an interest in the nature of interest itself.)
With reference to the two preceding parenthetical comments, it's interesting to me how quickly my interests can zero in on some specific technology. Since I became interested in boilers, I've been making a point of looking at every boiler I come across (you'd be surprised how many I've seen). I've been studying Spanish so much lately that I've come to see the world in the "learning of a language" paradigm, where a field of knowledge is broken down into components that I hope to recognize (or more accurately, actively seek to recognize) in the environment. With Spanish, I'm always delighted to hear words I understand spoken by some arbitrary Spanish speaker, even if I can't really parse the sentence that contains them. Similarly, when I see a boiler I always look at the burner to see what model it is. Then I look for the circulator pump. Then I count how many water pipes enter and leave the thing. No matter the boiler, it's all pretty much the same. Following the language metaphor, the differences are smaller than I hear in the English spoken amongst people I come across in a normal day. Hell, even a furnace that blows air instead of circulating hydronic water is merely a dialectic difference within the language metaphor. Even when the manufacturers of a part are completely different, the part usually looks the same except for its label. This is what happens in a mature industry where all the components are standardized and commodified. People have been using the same basic boiler designs for the past hundred years, and all the bugs have been worked out. What makes it feel so much like a language to me is that I've stumbled into it so long after its standards have been established. In the recent past I've had similar feelings about such mundane (but internally complicated) professions as carpentry, drywall hanging, plumbing, and even, well, music.
Today's boiler-related projects necessitated a trip to the store, one that included the dogs (since they were demanding more than just their morning walk on the Stick Trail). I took the southern route to the Rondout, using Dewitt Mill Road. I followed a schoolbus for most of the way as it disgorged children. I kept wondering about the lives of these kids as they clambered down out of the bus to go to their houses. Stereotypes kept being confirmed as, say, a cute blond girl at a bus stop would head off to a nicely-kept ranch house while the plump kids with bad haircuts wearing stiff loose-fitting clothes would head to a trailer. What did these kids care about? What did they think of the world? To my eye it seemed sad and desperate that, in these times, they had to be so poor in worldly experienced and yet handicapped by their bone-headed confidence that they knew what was what. As people, they seemed like pie charts with lots of pie missing.
While I was out, I bought lots of things for the boiler, a few things for the dryer, a table vice for what will eventually be my workshop, and an assortment of plumbing fixtures. I started at P&T Surplus and ended at Home Depot. In the Rondout I gave the dogs a walk long enough for Eleanor to befriend a Jack Russell belonging to a woman who seemed very preoccupied with her child. (I like the fact that in Spanish preocuparse means "worry.")
Back home with the boiler, I used furnace cement to seal a bunch of leaks in the linkages of the boiler's flue. While I was doing this I determined that there was a leak in one of the zone's control valves, one I'd thought I'd fixed nearly two years ago. The valve was made by a company named Red-White, and there's no local supplier. So I had to do a very elaborate internet search to track down Red-White components and order them online. Mind you, I don't need a whole valve to fix the one that is leaking; I just need its "packing nut" and associated gasket. Somehow this valve lost its packing nut and it turns out it's a very unusual size and shape. If I can't find a way to fix this valve, the alternative is to desolder it and solder in something I can find at a local hardware store. (I have no idea why this house ended up with plumbing valves supplied by a company whose nearest sales representative is in western Pennsylvania.)
Before I got around to adding an outside air supply to the boiler room, the burner was often starved of oxygen and even suffered occasional bouts of reverse draft in the flue, filling the house with noxious vapors released from the burning of fuel oil. The result has been a build up of soot in the boiler's chimney system. While I was in Home Depot today I saw a product that purports to remove creosote from chimneys when it is added to a fire. So I bought a couple packs of the stuff (which contained trisodium phosphate) and later threw their contents in the boiler after I got home. I don't know if it did any good; at this point I have to defer to whatever faith I have in the labels that appear on products. Hopefully this faith is more useful to me than other forms of faith have been to, say, the world's latest dying superpower.
The happiest boiler story of the day is related to a problem of too much pressure in the hydronic system, one that caused the relief valve to discharge on occasion. I determined that the feeder (reducing) valve was set to reduce pressure from the house's main supply by too little, overpressurizing the boiler system. A dedicated search of the web turned up the spec sheet for my particular model of reducing valve and I was able to adjust it to a lower pressure setting.

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