Monday, October 13, 2014

Dry (and warm) run

We returned home today from a weekend trip to find the temperature in the house at 63 degrees. At least, that was the temperature upstairs; the rec room, interestingly enough, was a couple of degrees warmer. At first Brian thought this meant that the lower lever maintained its temperature better due to being partially underground. Then he noticed that it was actually warmer outside than it was in the house and concluded that it was probably just the opposite: the whole house had cooled down during the night, but the rec room, with its big glass door and two windows, had warmed up along with the outdoors because it was less insulated. This was a somewhat discouraging thought, as our current emergency plan for dealing with power outages requires us to hole up in the rec room with our gas space heater to keep warm. How well would that work if the room lost and gained heat that easily?

Since it was already afternoon when we got back and we knew the house wouldn't be warming up any further on its own, I proposed putting the heater to the test. I'd been meaning to conduct a dry run with the gas heater anyway some time before winter hit so that we'd be familiar with it, rather than having to fire it up for the first time in an actual emergency. Doing this test now would help warm up the house so that we wouldn't have to switch on the main heating system, which we like to leave off at least until Halloween if possible.

So Brian agreed to switch on the heater on full blast for just half an hour, keeping one eye on it to make sure it ran smoothly and the other eye on the thermostat to see how it affected the temperature. Here's a quick summary of the results:
  • Starting temperature:  63°F upstairs, 65°F downstairs
  • Temperature after 15 minutes:  64°F upstairs, 66°F downstairs
  • Temperature after 30 minutes:  66°F upstairs, 68°F downstairs. Shortly after Brian turned the heater off, it ticked briefly up to 69 degrees downstairs.
  • Temperature now, about 2 hours after turning off the heater: 68°F upstairs, 66°F downstairs. The lower level is now about the same temperature as it is outdoors, while the main level is slightly warmer because we just cooked dinner. Unfortunately, this kind of throws a spanner into our plan of comparing how fast the upstairs and downstairs lose heat. I guess we'll just have to wait and see how the temperatures compare in the morning.
We did, however, learn a couple more things as a result of this test run. First, we learned that our little ventless heater is powerful enough to raise the temperature in that big downstairs room pretty quickly. Second, we learned that heating the lower level raises the upstairs temperature by about the same amount, though presumably we could trap more of the heat downstairs by keeping the door closed. In fact, we found that while the heater was running, the warmest spot in the whole house was right near the top of the stairwell; hot air seemed to rush readily up the stairs, but didn't diffuse quite as fast from there into the rest of the upper level. Actually, that was only the warmest spot in which it's possible to sit or stand; the warmest spot of all was on the wall directly above the heater itself. Brian checked the temperature there repeatedly while the heater was running, and it got up to around 130 before he quit measuring it for fear of busting the thermometer. Fortunately, he had thought to take down the picture that normally sits on this wall beforehand to make sure it didn't suffer any damage from the heat. So we now know that moving that picture should be the first step before firing up this heater.

Brian also said he ran into a couple of snags when he first turned the heater on. First, it didn't light right away; the igniter just sat there clicking aimlessly. We've noticed this same problem with our gas stove when it hasn't been used for a while, and as far as we can tell, it's the result of air getting into the gas lines. What we do with the stove is to turn it past "ignite" and let the gas run for just a second or two before switching back to "ignite" to give it a spark. With the heater, Brian used a modified form of this technique: he switched it to "pilot" and let it run on low gas, periodically tapping the "ignite" button to give it a spark. The first few times, it gave the same futile click; then there was a brief "whuff" as the gas ignited and promptly went out; and after that it lighted properly. So that was another useful lesson learned from the dry run: if we ever need to light this thing in a real emergency, I'll know to switch the gas on low first instead of trying to light it straight up.

The other problem Brian noticed was that the heater seemed to give off an unpleasant smell. He said it was just a normal gas-stove kind of smell, which led me to wonder whether some of the gas was actually leaking out and not burning. However, when I came down there midway through the test, the smell seemed to be gone, so Brian concluded it was probably just the factory finish burning off the inside of the heater. We don't expect to encounter this problem again next time we use it.

So, all in all, we feel pretty confident now that this little ventless gas heater will see us safely through a cold-weather power outage, should we run into any this winter. Of course, now that we've gone to the trouble and expense of installing it, Murphy's Law dictates that we'll probably never actually need to use it. But that's fine by me; if a one-time expenditure of $250 can save us from having to deal with the kind of endless, frustrating power outages we experienced last winter, I'd say it was money well spent.
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