My home repair skills have always been modest, limited to such tasks as dish washing and replacing light bulbs. Most people wouldn’t consider dishwashing and light-bulb replacing as true home repair, but over my lifetime I’ve learned to take solace in humble around-the-house triumphs, including things like hanging a shade, planting a geranium, or mowing the lawn without it ending up in a trip to the emergency room.
Truth is, I’ve had only one lawn-to-ER episode. Not bad. A ground wasp, or whatever evil buzzing thing it was, stung me on the knee. Not two minutes later, my knee about the size of a holiday ham, we were off to the ER, my wife at the wheel.
I swore a ton on the way to the hospital. Not just because of the sting and swelling and prickly burn, but also my wife’s objection that a “silly bee sting’’ would mean a $100 ER copay. I was dying. She was bookkeeping.
Years later, we’re still married. I just don’t mow as much. When I do mow, I always have an EpiPen in immediate reach. I’m just not sure I’d have the courage to stick myself with it.
Our Christmas/New Year’s break took us out of town for a week. I was the first to arrive home, early-afternoon on Jan. 1, only to find much of the house had gone stone cold. We have two furnaces. They burn gas, or are meant to burn gas. The attic unit purred along just fine, leaving the second floor suitably warm. The furnace in the basement, which heats cellar and first floor, was silent, and cold, and I could all but hear it whisper, “Gotcha! New Year’s Day, this is really gonna cost ya.’’
The first-floor thermostat showed it was 40 degrees. The basement was even colder. As I stared at the silent furnace, I could see my breath.
I did what I usually do when a repair calls for more than, say, Windex and paper towels. I called the guy. The furnace guy. Which led to, as expected, the recorded message wishing me a happy holiday (more swearing by me), noting the repair shop was closed for the holiday, and the suggestion to “Press 2’’ for emergencies.
I stabbed the “2’’ button on the phone with the force one might use to spear a barracuda, fully resigned to more commands, more frustration, more maddening automated phone nothingness. These phone prompts drive me nuts. I called a Globe in-house automated line last week to inquire about subscription rates for home delivery and online digital. It switched me directly to a recorded message to order the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
No lie. My own paper’s automated in-house line launched me about 50 miles west. So I’m not the only one with fix-it issues.
But on New Year’s Day, I pressed “2’’ on the furnace repair line and my whole Mr. Fix-it life changed.
First, a real person picked up, telling me he was the repair guy’s answering service. I gave him the basics and he said someone would ring me back. Someone did, in less than 10 minutes, a world record in the holiday-emergency-furnace-on-the-blink annals. People were talking to me. On a holiday. With my house at 40 degrees, my nose Rudolph-red.
Rick was at the other end of the line, the same Rick who visited our house six weeks earlier to repair the attic furnace. The problem then was something called an igniter, a little gizmo that fires up red-hot and ultimately sets ablaze the gas that heats the house. That’s how I understand it. If you are an HVAC guy, and I haven’t explained that properly, I respectfully refer you to the first paragraph.
“What do you think the problem is?’’ asked Rick.
Really. He asked me for a diagnosis. So I hit him with everything I had.
“Rick,’’ I said, “I gotta think it’s the igniter.’’
I’ve learned, don’t hold back. Skilled repair guys don’t want to deal with rubes. I could tell he was impressed.
“But, Rick,’’ I added, “what’s an igniter?’’
To my dismay, he remained on the line.
Here was the deal, Rick explained. He could be at the house in short order — a miracle in itself — but because it was a holiday, the house call alone would be $190. Then who knows what on top of that? Parts. Extra time. Maybe it was just the igniter. Maybe it was something bigger, like, who knows, the atom splitter or plutonium reset bar. What did I know?
Honestly, after just driving eight hours from the in-laws, with no food in the house, with the thermostat at 40 degrees, I was about to say, “Rick, look, whatever you gotta do. . .’’ It’s my standard line for all repair guys.
But he interrupted.
“So,’’ he said, “you’re talking $190-plus, or. . .’’
OK, or. . .??
“Or,’’ he said, “there’s a chance I can talk you through it.’’
I stifled the laugh. Me, making my own furnace repair? A gas furnace, no less. I could see the story on Boston.com: “Long-time Globe sports staffer attempts furnace fix; flattens neighborhood; blast felt for miles.’’
“So if it’s only the igniter,’’ Rick added, “then the whole job probably sets you back 50 bucks. You could come here, pick it up, put it in yourself. Done. Up to you.’’
Right there, in that frozen moment, I thought of, among other things, the $100 copay, a lifetime as a home-repair nitwit, the wait it would be for Rick to show (if he showed), and the fact that my son, then only 13 years old, once miraculously, and calmly, installed some gigantic fanbelts to fix our clothes dryer (I nearly requested DNA testing over that).
“Sure, why not?’’ I muttered Rick’s way over the phone. “I don’t have a clue here, but . . . where do we start?’’
The next 20 minutes had Rick guiding me, via conversation and smartphone pictures, through the removal of the furnace’s outer panels, and through a small maze of wires and plugs and diagrams.
I first pressed a button, held it for 30 seconds, and after a couple of whirs and clicks, none producing a glow or a flame, we had to dig deeper.
“OK, let’s try to find the igniter, if that’s what you think it is,’’ said Rick.
What I thought? Again, other than “warmth,’’ the only thing I knew about gas furnaces was “igniter.’’ Over the course of some 17 years, each furnace has been through three or four of them.
To find an igniter, of course, it helps to know what one looks like. I did not. So Rick had me smartphone him four pictures of the stripped down furnace, one of its door panels tossed on an old sleeping bag, the other spread out on a kid’s rickety pool table. Upon reviewing the pictures, he called back to instruct me how to find and remove the igniter, which was about the size and shape of a small birthday candle.
‘’When you pull it out, if it’s covered in white,’’ Rick explained, “that means it’s fried.’’
Suffice to say, never have I been so happy to see a white fried furnace igniter. I held it in my palm, marveled over it as if it were a splinter of the True Cross. The combination of Rick’s acumen and patience, mixed with smartphone technology, had me standing in the basement, both arms raised, the king of the home repairmen.
In less than an hour, I dashed to the repair shop, picked up the part, dashed back and installed the new igniter, then slapped the two doors back on the furnace. I peered through a tiny slot to see the igniter come to life in a fiery orange glow, followed by the blue flame of burning gas. A beautiful thing. In roughly three hours, the first floor and basement were back to about 70 degrees.
So thrilled and so confident about all of it, I also bought a spare igniter. The packaging says its a 120 volt nitride. I don’t really know what that means or how it keeps our house warm. But when the day comes for another replacement, I’ve got the goods in hand.
I also have Rick’s phone number. Every Mr. Fix-it needs a backup plan.