The Flying Hammer: Trouble Shooting – More Than I Bargained For

I have this wood burner in the basement that befuddles me sometimes with its lack of performance. I have talked to people that have wood burners and they say they put in 1 or two small logs and the house is heated complete (steaming hot 80 degrees) all day long. Not with my wood burner, at least not when I was looking at it.

We had a cold snap, -20 F below and the house was cold. Our current system is a heat pump that works okay, but it is useless under 32 F. So we either need to use our electric heat, which is a glorified electric toaster, or supplement with our wood burner.

My resourceful wife got this wood burner for 50 bucks a couple of years back and I jerry rigged it up to our furnace. It basically has fan on it for shoving air past the wood burner and then into my furnace. From there the furnace takes it to the house.

Well during the cold snap, we were feeding wood into that poor wood burner and consuming way too much, almost 3 logs an hour and no temp increase. The basement room where the wood burner was, was toasty warm, but the rest of the house remained cold.

I ascertained from this information that the wood burner was not heating the house because there was not enough “umph” or shoving fan force in the wood burner heater fan. Because I have the wood burner set up to dump into my furnace, there is a back pressure situation going on, where when the blower on the furnace kicks in it will match the pressure of the wood burner inlet and basically stop flow, effectively causing the heated air to just stay in the pipe.

I attacked the problem various ways. The first way was to put in a plenum, or a special air delivery tube so that the furnace would not back pressure so much into the wood burner. This had little to no effect.

I then decided to get out the big guns. Seeing I love the dump and people’s old garbage, I found this phenomenal fan that had a 1/3 horsepower motor on it that could rip your hair out if you stood in front of it. Literally it would put out at least as much if not more blowing power than the furnace fan.

So I went through the preparations of cleaning the fan, taking it apart, painstakingly vacuuming, tooth brushing, soaking and re-cleaning every component. After a long evening of cleaning and disassembly and reassembly the fan was ready. I would have to devote a good evening to placing this behemoth in the cramped quarters the next evening.

I literally was excited to get this monster blower set up to start delivering this magnificent heat to the house. No more being cold, no more shivering in the corner. I did have this nagging feeling one of regret. First of all I was putting another fan on the house. This would make three fans in all running just to get our tiny house heated. Something was wrong….Close to 1500 watts of electricity and no payback, no heat, something was up.
I was bullheaded and determined to get this fan in place. I was back in the corner pealing back boards, nailing in new ones, moving panel boards when I ran into a rather larger nail protruding from the wall. It was one of those big nails, almost ¼ inch in diameter and it was wedged in there good.

The problem was the nail was in this very in opportune position, being just above head level and in a very tight space. So to get a good grip with the claw hammer was pretty tough. But I managed to get the claw on the nail and pulled with all my might to get that nail from its wooden death hold. It wouldn’t budge. I got my trusty board-fulcrum-reducer and started to have some success, but it was still going tough.

As with all nails, it is sometimes difficult to gauge how deep they are in the board and I thought is might be a little deeper, so I gave it a good tug….and wham, the hammer handle came back with high velocity. Both of my hands helping it in its rapid descent toward my face and hitting me square on my upper lip.

I stood there stunned. What was that for? I felt my mouth for loose teeth. I was okay, but my lip would have a cut from the beloved tooth below it and be swollen for a day or too. Dazed I stepped out of the cramped quarters, out into the civilized world and thought a bit about my situation.

I am not one for mystical sweetness in life, but I do believe with all my heart that all things have a reason, especially a hammer to the face. I believe that God gives us time and if we are wasting it he might in his own humorous way let us know we are wasting his precious resources, so he will give us a nudge in the proper direction. For a full dissertation on God’s nudging just visit Deuteronomy 28 and you might get an idea….

Anyway, I studied the problem a bit further. I went over to the wood burner and decided to check flow. I pulled the pipe off of the top of the wood burner and it was delivering heat, but just a weak ebb: nothing to even suspend a piece of paper with, a very languid attempt at flowage.

I decided to look at the fan blower so I pushed the filter out of the way and studied the air flow. Amazingly the flow from the wood burner changed when I started moving the air filter…Uh….Duh!!

The air filter looked dirty, but I figured it had plenty of time left on it, so I discounted it before when analyzing the wood burner problem. But upon examination and removal of the air filter, it was evident that the filter was the problem! The air filter was causing way too much restriction and choking the flow to the wood burner blower, and thus creating a starved air situation, or little flow…hence no heat to the house!

Am I glad I was hit in the face with the hammer? Yes. Am I lamenting that I did not have the fortitude to think through the problem better: yes.

The moral of the story:

Understand the problem thoroughly before you jump into solving it. Know every variable. Any nagging questions will have answers: Do not proceed until you have answers to these questions. And finally when you are having trouble always start with the simplest solutions first, then start getting more complex.

The trouble we have when coming across things to fix is we don’t have all knowledge about the piece of machinery or electronics that we are delving into so we can easily botch what we are attempting to fix. We often are doing a tight rope walk between knowing not enough about it and learning about the piece of equipment we are working on. Trouble is the learning process often comes with a high cost: a hammer to the face for example , a totally ruined VCR player, or a smoking go kart engine.

To recap:

– The wood burner was not the problem, it was me.

– The filter needed to be changed and so did my attitude about air filters and their contribution to life sciences.

– I should have studied the system in a systematic fashion instead of a hodge-podge stab in the dark solution.

Moral of The Story:

Think Simple Stupid: Start with simple, get more complex in your trouble shooting.

This goes for any diagnosis, whether it is a go kart malfunctioning, a refrigerator that has ceased working because it is unplugged, and an economy that has gone awry because of an inflated currency…it doesn’t matter the answers are staring us in the face and maybe they are too easy to acknowledge as the solution.

May the problem is really our stubborn pride, not the problem itself.

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  1. My professor of medicine in medical school had the saying, When you hear hoof beats don’t just think of horses, but zebras as well. dad

  2. Wow, a pop to the face with a hammer and the air filter was the problem the entire time.

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