I’ve had a frustrating and enlightening week, tending to the heart of my home. After a year that most of us agree is the worst in memory, we come into the holiday season with several remarkable astronomical and astrological events. This month, we’ve had a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse, and a once-every-800-year spectacle, the incredible conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
My friends and I often discuss what might be happening, after sheltering-in-place since mid-March, more than 300,000 pandemic deaths in the US alone…plus amazingly idiotic behavior by our president, Republican senators, a wide variety of elected officials…and record-breaking wildfires.
What’s happening is the boiler stopped working. Down in the guts of my house there lies a marvelous piece of engineering, a Munchkin high-efficiency water boiler that not only provides hot water, but radiant floor heating. It is the key piece of infrastructure technology; there is no furnace, no ducting, no air conditioning. It ran reliably for for the first ten years, then starting to misbehave about two years ago. Last winter, I paid a very good plumbing company $$$$ to come service the thing, and along the way, the plumber was kind enough to discuss the design of the unit, tell me about likely failure points, and how to deal with them. That was a Prescient Conversation. All was fine until a few weeks ago — I think it was the same day as the solar eclipse — the house was cold when we woke up.
I crawled down into the Munchkin room, removed the cover from the boiler, and sure enough, there is a flashing error code on the display. I reset the error, and after some hesitation, the boiler fired up. We Are Saved!
Umm, not quite. Over the next two weeks, it starts failing more frequently, as Jupiter and Saturn approach conjunction. I think there are eight separate days when I have to go reset it. Last Friday, 3 days before the planets get their closest, the boiler would not reset and the error persisted. As if it has a sense of humor, the error is F09, which I believe means “you are fucked for the ninth time”
If you aren’t a geek, please skip this paragraph. The boiler blows air and meters gas very precisely, using a ’swirl plate’ to make the air turbulent, creating a hot and efficient flame. The flame is measured using a ‘flame rectification probe’, which uses the plasma of the flame to turn a small AC current into a tiny DC current for the controller. If the flame is not just right, the 1-microamp current is not the correct value, and the controller shuts down the burner. After cycling four separate times, blowing the chamber clear of gas and exhaust and reigniting, it throws one of several error codes.
So I cheerfully read the 80-page Installation, Programming and Diagnosis Guide, watch several YouTube videos (thank you, Craig Smith!) then start replacing parts that might throw the mixture off and cause the failure. There is no way to really test anything, of course. The first part to get my attention is the controller, $330 of electronics now available in a new, improved version that ‘senses the flame more accurately’. That seems logical, the plumber had told me that nearly every one of these manufactured-in-2008-boilers he’s worked on has needed a new controller.
I require the serial number and manufacturing date to get a new controller programmed, and I secure this photo of an invisible part of the housing after considerable contortion and cobweb yoga. Note that our boiler was born on February 21, 2008, on the Aquarius/Pisces cusp. Our Jupiter/Saturn conjunction is in Aquarius. Coincidence? I think not!
One of our local plumbing supply houses has a controller upgrade kit up in Santa Rosa, so I gleefully leave my cold house to drive two hours and pick it up. When I get home, the house is warm again. WTF?
It turns out that the controller is smart enough to re-try the startup sequence once an hour, and while I was gone, the box-I-thought-was-dying asserted a last gasp of life. Jen and I enjoyed an evening of dinner and vino, and I warily went to sleep with my fingers crossed.
Saturday morning all seems to be working, but by afternoon, my nemesis is flashing F09 again. Ok, I gather my tools and crawl back into the operating theater. The new controller and display are not hard to install, and with a silent prayer, I turn the little metal monster back on. Now it flashes an F10 error code. Fucked for the tenth time.
After several attempts, the boiler lights, and we have another warm night. In fact, two warm nights. And then Monday, the day of the conjunction, dawns bright and cold and chilly in the house. Back to the plumbing supply store to pick up two other parts that might cause the failure, a new flame rectification probe and a new swirl plate. They are inexpensive parts likely to fail some day, so it seems prudent to go ahead and buy them. I try the easy fix first. The new flame probe is simple to install, but damn, it takes several attempts to get the boiler working again.
Not for long, of course…today it F10’d again. So I bring in all my tools and a vacuum cleaner, and dive into the guts up to my elbows to replace the swirl plate. This requires removal of the burner, so I might as well give the burner chamber it’s periodic cleaning, even though it was serviced just a year ago. There is little soot, nothing that should cause a problem. Also, the swirl plate is in apparent perfect condition, so there is no reason to expect the new one to make any difference. After an hour of labor, I get the beast all back together, double check that all connections are plugged in, turn on the gas, and flip the switch.
It works. Perfectly. It even fires up with a soft, almost inaudible thump, a sign that the mixture is perfect.
So I fixed it, but I have no idea how. Therefore, I consider this to be A Miracle. I’ve performed a miracle! Or perhaps it’s just working now that we are a day past the conjunction? Or it just wanted a little love and attention? I don’t know and I don’t care, I’m happy, I’ve avoided paying a bunch of money to the plumber, and I’ve earned my glass of wine this evening.
I wrap this little tale of mystery up with a beautiful amateur astronomy shot of the planets in conjunction. We will never see this again, and neither will our decendants for many generations. Of all the strange things befalling us this year, the beauty of the planets dancing so close together inspires hope in me for the new year. And my trust in the Munchkin has been restored.