When we last met, I recounted the tale of how my air handler turned itself on late one frigid night.
(To digress: I have since learned that some people are not familiar with air handlers. An air handler is the big metal box in the attic that contains the wiring for the fan which is part of the central air conditioning system. Without the air handler to—well, handle the air—none of the cool air created by the compressor (which sits outside) would actually get distributed through the house. I don’t blame you if you didn’t know. Until my first air handler caught fire, I didn’t know either, and the thing had been in my attic for seventeen years.)
In any case, since air handlers are not supposed to turn themselves on in the middle of winter, I arranged for a service technician to come out and address the situation. When Joe the technician arrived today, I brought him up to date on the situation, including my understandable (in my opinion) paranoia about malfunctioning air handlers. He praised me for turning off the circuit breakers, and we trekked up to the attic to see what we would see.
As he maneuvered his fairly large body into a fairly small area to remove the side panel of the air handler, I mentioned that I’d figured either it had shorted out or it was possessed. He laughed. A minute later, with the side panel off and the switch relay exposed, he informed me that the air handler had indeed shorted out. (So at least it’s not possessed. That’s a good thing.)
Luckily, the shorted-out wiring had not caught fire—presumably because there was so much water inside the unit. There was also water beneath the hard duct work. (There shouldn’t be.)
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “In twenty-five years, I’ve never seen anything like this.” (This was a refrain he would repeat several more times before departing.)
I mentioned that I’d had the roof replaced in September, a project that had included improving ventilation by the addition of a roof ridge and soffet vents, but which meant that the attic was now colder than it would have been in years gone by. I also raised the question of whether the air handler had been generating heat since I’d twice noticed a bare spot in the snow on the roof approximately above where the unit sits. To my mind, heat plus our recent extremely cold temperatures could equal condensation.
Joe did not buy this theory. Too much water inside, he said. Also, there was the water underneath the hard duct work. He thought there might be a leak in my new roof. The problem with his theory was that despite a significant rain storm yesterday, there was no water on top of the air handler or any of the duct work as one might expect if the roof were leaking. None of the screws on the top surface of the air handler were rusty. Also, the installation manuals (which had sat untouched atop the air handler for five years) were pristine.
And yet the switch relay in the box atop the unit was soggy and rusty inside.
Wherever the water was coming from, it was not from above.
Since the only thing that had changed between last winter and this one was the roof with its new ventilation system, Joe recommended nonetheless that I call the roofers to come and inspect the roof. So that’s what I’ve done. With any luck, it will be raining when they come out so they’ll be able to see whether there really is something leaking.
Clinging to my condensation theory, I offered the notion that I’d failed to wrap the air filter in plastic as I normally do in the fall to keep expensive heat from escaping my living quarters. Could enough warm air have risen to cause this problem? Alas, Joe said no since I keep the thermostat in the high 60s. If I kept it at 85F, maybe. Sigh.
So I’ve turned the circuit breakers back off, Joe replaced the side panel, and the switch box has been left open with a garbage bag draped over it so that it can dry out. I’m not actually certain why he did that since the switch box will need to be replaced, but I think he wanted me to feel as if some progress had been made.
I imagine that this is the part of the story that leads people who have chosen life as a renter to pat themselves on the back. After all, if I were renting this house, this problem would be my landlord’s to solve.
Assuming, of course, the landlord was reasonably concerned and willing to spend a few bucks. This is not always the case.
When I was in law school, I lived in a three-family house in my town’s historic district. My landlord didn’t care what I did as long as I paid the rent on time and didn’t bother him. So I put a rug over the sagging board in the second bedroom that I used as a study, and I learned to ignore the lack of a shade for the light bulb over the bathroom sink.
One freezing winter morning a few months after graduation, I awoke to find I had no water and no heat. My kitchen and bathroom were in the part of the house that had been added on; unlike the main house which had a full basement underneath it, this section was built over a crawl space. It turned out that the pipes had frozen. I called my landlord; an hour later, he arrived with a small space heater that he put in the bathroom.
I’m no genius, but even I knew this was likely to be inadequate. If I hoped to make tea or take a shower before the spring thaw, I couldn’t rely on the landlord to solve this problem.
I began by calling the gas company since, as it turned out, the pilot light on my furnace was out. This situation was promptly remedied; however, I still faced the no-water issue. By midday on that wintry Friday, the landlord’s silly little space heater had accomplished precisely nothing. So I got out the phone book and found a plumbing service to come out on an emergency basis. At 4:00 on that Friday afternoon, two young men arrived. They spent a significant amount of time in that crawlspace, after which they spent another hour lying in their muddy clothes on my just-washed kitchen floor as they soldered the spots where the frozen baseboard pipes had cracked. It was past eight o’clock when they finished. I gave them the landlord’s address so they could send the bill directly to him.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson in home ownership:
If you don’t know what you’re doing, call the professionals.
So that’s what I’ve done. At least I won’t need the air conditioning for the next four or five months. With any luck, by that time, the mystery will be solved and all necessary repairs and replacements will be completed. I know it’s going to cost money, but that’s the nature of—well, pretty much everything in this world.
On the upside, my house isn’t possessed. Better to need an air conditioning technician and a roofer than an exorcist. That’s my philosophy, and I’m sticking to it.
I dunno, Burgh. Might not be a bad idea to sprinkle a little holy water on that air handler.
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