by Heather Rae

It must have been the mid-70s, because my brother, sister and I could fit together comfortably on the library couch. It must have been a Friday night, because we were deep into an episode of The Brady Bunch. The Public Service Announcement might have come on, the one with a man’s most serious overtone, “It’s 10pm, do you know where your children are?” We knew where we were, we just didn’t know where our mother, a single parent who sometimes worked three jobs, might be.

That’s when the boiler blew. Or exploded. At least, it boomed, and I remember the sense of the couch poofing. The sensation was likely fear elevating our senses out of a tete-a-tete between Greg and Marcia. Not knowing what to do, and the boiler in the dirt floor basement being a mystery and cause of much consternation for all when the basement would flood and when my mother couldn’t quite pay the oil delivery company, we decided the best thing to do that night was to watch The Partridge Family.

Many years later, I was given the job of managing the marketing of a rebate program for energy-efficient air conditioners. I think of it as “the pink slip” assignment — an indication that my days at the coal-loving, anti-clean energy, anti-demand-side-management utility were numbered. (They were.) Several of us utility “marketers” sat around a big table. My colleagues volleyed the word “HVAC” across the expansive room with aplomb. In a rare exercise in calculated self-preservation, I kept silent. This HVAC would reveal itself. It did. For good reason, the term has an alliterative resemblance to havoc — were one to try to sound out the H, instead of saying the letter, which is, I learned, what one does.

In building science, heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) is one of the harder elements to fully grasp: the ‘right-sizing’ of systems, ductwork and radiant distribution systems, the options for fuel switching, combustion efficiencies and proper venting of noxious gases and humidity.

I’ve been evaluating my HVAC options in this old house in Maine — options that are constrained by the reality of what’s already here, options that will be further constrained by economics. The house has a functioning, though not “state-of-the-art”, oil furnace — in a dirt-floored basement. The furnace vents into a deteriorating and unlined chimney. There’s a new Norwegian natural gas (propane) standalone stove in the master bedroom upstairs that vents through the wall. The house is heated primarily with wood that warms only the northern half of the house. The coolness of the southern side may explain, in part, why the chimney is ailing (that and the water that has seeped through poorly flashed roofing and a seasonal barrage of corrosive gases). There are no ducts to the second floor, meaning that the upstairs is heated, primarily, by gravity. A painfully expensive electric hot water heater that takes up a fair chunk of a makeshift kitchen heats the house’s hot water.

Given my druthers, I’d chuck all of it but the wood burning stove and start from scratch. Now that I’m a big girl, who can’t just sit on the couch and watch The Partridge Family, I’m facing the havoc in this old house. I have a few ideas.

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

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