Mike Agranoff

Blog - 2019

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March 31 - April 4, 2019
St. John


I had suggested to Jenny that we get away from the doldrums of winter and mud season and go someplace with beaches and palm trees and the like. She agreed, and we set up our usual division of labor: She'd do all the planning, and I'd do all the driving. Alas, when we compared schedules, the first time we could both get away at the same time was March 31 through April 4, a week after the cold weather had finally broke. Oh well. We can suffer through that.

It was to be a short trip this time; only 5 days. Jenny had introduced me to the Caribbean about 25 years ago, and we've made vacations to several islands since. She chose St. John in the US Virgin Islands, a place we'd not been before.

Click here to enter the travelogue.

Note: Travelogue is a work in progress. Check back later for further adventures.

March 19, 2019
Adventures in Technology

Monday, around 2:00 AM I awoke to a cold house. Well, colder than it should have been. Around 60°. Nothing life-threatening. But definitely indicative of something wrong. I got out of bed and felt the heat register. Cold.

Now I am well familiar with my heating system. In fact, I've fiddled with it and made so many alterations and improvements and Rube Goldberg additions to the system that if I ever sell this house, I'd have to include a service contract in the deal. As originally built in the 40s, the house was a summer cabin. When I first moved in, the house had been "winterized" by previous owners with minimal insulation and an oil-fired boiler feeding a baseboard hot-water heating system. That was able to heat the house to maybe 60° above the outside temperature. Which was OK except for the very coldest days of the year, when it would get downright chilly.

The living room had a fireplace (See the last photo of my Jan. 2 Blog entry below.) into which I had installed a wood-burning stove insert soon after I first moved in. The stove was one of those double-wall dealies that had blower attachment to blow air into the bottom of the chamber between the two walls, which would be heated by the fire, and expelled at the top of the chamber. That was rather noisy, and didn't really circulate the heated air very far into the house. So I took the next step..

I removed the blower, and replaced it with a steel manifold I designed and had manufactured which opened into the double wall chamber where the blower used to be, and also opened straight downwards. I broke through the hearth stone below that opening and through floor into the garage below. Then, with conventional household ventilation ducting, I ran a duct just below the garage ceiling to an intake at the very back of the living room. And in that duct, I installed a small conventional house ventilation blower. So now the blower takes the cold air from the back of the living room, and blows it into the heating chamber around the stove and out into the front of the living room. And since cold air is being sucked out of the house into the intake at the back, the warm air migrates through the room to replace the cold air.

Worked like a charm. The stove is able to keep the living room 80° above the outside temperature if I run it flat out. So the first sub-zero night that first winter with the stove, I was warm and comfy and satisfied with my handiwork. Unfortunately, the thermostat for the main heating system was also satisfied, and felt no need to run the baseboard heaters. Which were situated along the outside walls of the house. With just 3-/12 inches of fiberglass insulation between them and the sub-zero outside. You engineers out there can see it coming. The water in the heating registers froze. Which meant that when the fire died down, and the living room got down to the setpoint of the thermostat, the circulator pump couldn't move the heated water through the system due to the ice blockage. And the pipes got colder, and colder, and colder, until at 2:30 AM I was awakened by the first GUNNG! of a burst pipe. Over the next three days, I had every pipe in that heating system in my hands at one time or another in a 10° garage fixing split pipes and burst joints. Something needed to be done about this.

So here's what I did. I plumbed in a bypass pipe in the heating circuit that would allow the water to circulate, but bypassing the boiler, so it would not take any heat out of the boiler. I also installed an electric diverter valve on that bypass, so I could choose to run the water through the bypass or through the boiler, depending on which way the valve was open. And then with some spare parts from the lab at work, and using 1950s relay technology, I rigged up a little control box with two buttons on it, one labeled "Boiler", and the other labeled "Stove". And here's what they did: I'd light a fire in the woodstove, and once it got going good, I'd hit the "Stove" button. And here's what it did:

1. Turned on the blower in the garage.
2. Threw the diverter valve to bypass the boiler.
3. Turned on the circulator pump in the baseboard heating system. Now the water would continue to circulate through the system, never standing still long enough against the cold outside walls to freeze.
4. (And this was the real clever part) It changed the function of the room thermostat. The new function of the thermostat was that when the fire in the stove died down, and the room temperature came down to the setpoint of the thermostat, it reversed the previous three actions: It turned off the blower, threw the diverter valve to send the water through the boiler instead of the bypass, and returned control of the circulator pump to the heater control box. And it also returned the thermostat itself back to its normal function of maintaining the room temperature at its setpoint.

It was the world's most hairbrained cockamamie Rube Goldberg kluge you could ever imagine. But it worked like a charm for 40 years, and cost me maybe 150 bucks in parts.

But Monday morning at 2:00 AM it had stopped working.

I got out of bed to investigate. First of all, the gauges on the furnace indicated that it was working properly.  The temperature of the water in the furnace was 160° as it should have been.  And the diverter valve was indeed set to route the water through the boiler. That meant the circulator pump wasn’t operating to move that hot water through the system.  Putting an ear to the pump motor confirmed it was not turning.  Something had gone wrong with my system.

I had thoroughly documented the system with schematics and diagrams, but so long ago that it was almost like starting over again.  I had to back-engineer the system, and figure out what my original logic was when I created it.  In order to trace where the failure was, I got out my volt meter to test step by step which points of the circuit were live and which were not in order to locate the failure. I was poking around with the meter probes, when suddenly a relay clicked, and the pump motor started up again.  I didn’t see what I had done to cure the problem, and I couldn’t diagnose the problem because the problem had disappeared.  I went back to bed.

Of course, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning I again awoke to a cold house.  But armed with prior knowledge from the previous night, I knew where to take up the search.  Out with the volt meter again.  And as I touched the probe to one of the terminal screws in the furnace control box, I saw a tiny spark from the terminal.  It was a ground terminal with three ground wires all secured under the one screw.  And after 40 years, that screw had worked loose, and one of the wires had worked free.  Ta-daaaaah!  That’s what I must have poked at last night to restart the system.  I must have jiggled the loose wire enough so that it made tenuous contact with the screw, and made the connection.  But it was still loose enough to break the connection from vibration of the furnace, and failed again Tuesday morning.

I re-positioned the wayward wire under the screw, and tightened it up. Then I powered up the system again and put my hand on the pipe leading to the heating registers. Sure enough, it soon started to get hot, indicating that the hot water was indeed circulating. Fixed!!

It’s still a pretty iffy connection.  I’m going to go out an buy a bunch of ring terminals to put on the ends of all those wires to assure a more secure connection for the next 40 years.


The problem


The solution

Ain't technology grand?

January 2, 2019
A Blast From the Past

One Saturday afternoon last August I was surprised by an unexpected knock on my door. Now, pretty much any knock on my door is unexpected, because nobody knocks on my door. If I'm expecting a visitor, I'll hear the crunch of gravel on my driveway, and step out to greet them. And if I'm not expecting a visitor, they can't find my house. Even if I give them the address. You can't see my house from the road, and my driveway is long, and overgrown, and inconspicuous, and people drive right past it. I don't even get any trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

But this particular visitor had good reason to be able to find my house. Seems that her family owned the place about 65 years ago. Standing on my deck was Sandy VanTilburg, along with her husband and cousin. They were visiting the area from their current Texas home, and on a whim, dropped by to see the old place where she used to spend her summers as a kid. Well, of course I invited them in to look around.

What a treat for all of us! Of course, the place had changed enormously since then. For one thing it used to be a summer cabin: uninsulated, unheated (except for a through-the-wall propane heater resembling a primitive air conditioner), and very rustic. And for another, back then the place was only one storey with a crawlspace. When I moved in in 1980, it was still only one storey, but the house had been marginally insulated, and plumbed with a baseboard hot water heating system, and an addition was tacked onto the side with a utility room with a boiler. The propane heater was still there, but non-functional. The back yard borders on the Rockaway River, which, unknown to me at the time I bought it, occasionally comes to visit. (See my Blog Entry of March 11, 2011, God Willin' an' the Crick Don't Rise.) The first time the house got flooded, I resolved to do something about it. Over the course of the next year, I had the house raised about 6-1/2 feet, and turned that crawlspace into a full under-house garage. (That whole story is probably worth another Blog entry sometime. Alas, I did not own a camera then, so there would be no pictures.)

So, of course I invited them all in, and showed them all the innovative things I did to the house to turn those periodic catastrophes into minor inconveniences. And they regaled me with tales of idyllic summers spent on the river when the world and all of us had been younger. The visit lasted an hour or more, and when they left, they promised to send me photos of the time. Those photos arrived last November, and I finally got around to writing up this blog entry.


My house as it appears today


The house as it looked in the 50s. That's Sandy waving.


The back of the house as it appeared in the 50s


Sandy's Grandma Bess, who owned the house. Note the propane heater to the right of the chimney.


The back yard. The willow tree fell down decades ago. And they kept the lawn in much better shape than I do now.


It used to flood back then, too. See Blog Entry from March 11, 2011 for the contemporary equivalent.


Another view of the front of the house. Get a load of the old cars.


The living room back then. Dig the TV, man!


Same living room today. Newer TV. Same knotty pine paneling that sold me on the house in the first place. Note the air conditioner to the left of the fireplace where the propane heater used to be. Also note the lava lamps in the windows. My Christmas lights.

Says Sandy concerning her tenure in the place:
My grandparents, Bessie and Nathan, owed the house. I am not sure what year they purchased it but I would think sometime in the late 1940's or early 1950's. I am not sure if it was new when purchased. The house was a summer cottage, with no heat for the winter. My grandparents lived in Brooklyn and had two children. My family lived in Queens and my uncle and aunt lived in Brooklyn. Originally the entire family would spend the whole summer at the cottage. At some point, the house was deemed to small for all of us, and for as long as I can remember, we split the summer months. My grandparents stayed all summer and my family would spend either July or August, with my cousins getting the other month. We rotated months every year - if we were there in July this year, the next year we would get August. Memorial Day went with July and Labor Day with August. I spent every summer there from the year I was born until the mid 1970's. It was the happiest time of the year for me. It was more than just being off from school. To me it seemed that we were all relaxed and relatively carefree there. I felt the cottage brought out the best in all of us.

The series of floods over the years with the ensuing evacuations, clean-ups, and furniture replacement, eventually wore down the grown-ups. My grandmother's health was worsening and the grand-kids were pursuing other teenage and early adult activities. The house was sold in the mid 1970's, but as you now know, it has always retained a very special place in my heart.

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