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Baby Baby, All Night Long

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

 When we last left our hopeful heroine, the gas line had been newly replaced, gas heater installed, and all the plants had been replaced in the new greenhouse. It was time to relax and enjoy the space. Or was it?

I woke up at 1 AM on Sunday, November 5, checked--blue flame showing. OK. Went back to sleep. At 4 I woke up again to a rapidly cooling greenhouse and a dead stove. With some difficulty and a long wait, I got it started again, only to have it cut off again at 9 AM. There went all my theories about it going off when the house gas demand was at its lowest. I was running two furnaces and cooking breakfast when it went off the second time. What the hell. Why wouldn't this stove stay lit?

At this point I had to conclude it was the heater. Maybe it has a bad thermocouple. So I called Kathy and Bill W, my beloved neighbors who swoop in to rescue me with great regularity. And that Sunday afternoon, we switched  out the heaters, and put Old Reliable in the new one's place. I knew this heater was bombproof. This HAD to be it. We'd replaced the line; we had gas; it had to be a malfunctioning heater. I went to bed with all the plants out in the greenhouse, closed the sliding glass door...

I woke up at 3:22 AM on Monday, November 6, checked the heater. The air was cold; the heater was dark. Old Reliable had kicked off, too. ARRRRGHHHHHH!!!

At this point I knew I was well and truly screwed. But I didn't cry; I didn't freak out. I just restarted the damn thing, got back into bed, and tried to sleep again. I was so very tired, night after night tending this stupid heater like a crying newborn baby. And I didn't even have a cute cuddly baby to show for it. I was so done with worrying about the plants, worrying about whether I'd ever be able to use or enjoy this new space that beckoned me through the glass. Just exhausted. I'd worked myself to the bone to get this dream off the ground, and all I got was sand in my face, night after night after night. I couldn't sleep for worrying.

On top of that, whole space reeked of gas. All the time. You might think I'd have been sitting out there every chance I got. Well, I wasn't, because I didn't want to breathe that reek. I was spooked, clear through. I felt lost, uncertain and in a certain way, cheated. This isn't how it was supposed to smell. This isn't how it was supposed to be. I kept the glass doors that led into the house closed all the time. Even when I'd pop out to see if the heater had died in the middle of the night, I closed the doors behind me. I didn't want to be breathing that reek. It was awful. Not only that, but there was so much condensation running down the glass and pooling on the frame and floor that I went out and bought big microfiber cloths to mop it up with. I'd wring them out into the plant pots, and keep mopping, all day long. So much water I put an African saddle-billed stork in there to look for fish.

I couldn't remember ever noticing a gas reek in the little old Groanhouse. I didn't have a ridiculous amount of condensation, either. A pleasant humidity, for sure, but not quarts of water running down. What the hell was going on? Why couldn't I keep a heater going? And why was I drowning in condensation?

It was time to contact Chip Ditchendorf, my friend who is also a contractor who knows all the best people, who put me in touch with my gutter guy, my mason, and several other outfits as well. I described the problem with the gas stove going off predictably every night around 2:30 AM and often the next morning, too. I told him all that we'd done--replaced the entire gas line, switched out two different heaters, and still this happened every night. And Chip asked, "Have you ruled out make up air? The greenhouse might be too air tight? Maybe leave a louvre opened a little." 

I thought I knew the answer to that. "No I don’t think airtightness is the issue. Space is absolutely huge and there is a gap in the door, and it happens when the fan is going too."

Well. I was dead wrong, as I so often am, and Chip had already figured it out. But just to be sure, he texted Jason Forshey, a local expert on gas installation. And this was around 6 AM, on the morning when I figured I was just screwed, after the SECOND gas heater we installed on the BRAND NEW gas line had cut off at 2:30 AM. 

 I can't tell you how honored I am to have Chip asking questions on my behalf, of the person most knowledgeable in this field, at SIX in the MORNING. In Chip's words: "He deals with this stuff. He is also in demand/on fire. It's like getting an audience with a tribal warlord. I have his ear. I'll text you shortly."

Instead, Jason Forshey himself called me around 7. Asked me a bunch of questions. One of them was, "Is there a lot of condensation on the inside of the windows?" 

"YES. Quarts and quarts! I have to mop it up several times a day and wring out the cloths!" 

Jason told me that that excess condensation is a byproduct of an open flame gas heater that is starved for oxygen. "There's carbonic acid in that water. You don't want that," he said. 

Fer sure! I don't want carbonic acid; I don't want all the condensation, and I want my durn heater to stay on! 

Jason explained to me that the heater was getting starved for oxygen in the wee hours, and kicking off for safety reasons. The greenhouse is simply too well-built--too tight--and fresh air can't get in anywhere. There's a tiny slit between the doors, but it doesn't bring enough air in the feed the flame. Ironically, when I'd drag myself out of bed and open the sliding door from my bedroom, and pop in to try to re-start the heater, that act would let in juust enough fresh air for the heater to run for a couple more hours. If only I'd known that's what was going on! It had been a rough nine nights.

Mr. Forshey told me to try cracking the windows that evening, and see how it did. Wow. That's a simple fix...I can DO that!

So I opened all four windows about a half-inch. And I left the plants in there, and the heater ran all night, HALLELU!! For the very first time, I had heat all night! Of course I woke up at 1 and 3 and 5, staggered to the window to check...and the blue flame was smiling back at me each time. I went back to sleep with a dreamy smile on my face. The Tribal Warlord of Gas had explained it all. Of course, Chip had figured it out already, but it was really nice to have confirmation from someone who does this full-time.

I thought I had made it through the worst passage in the greenhouse construction: when I had a greenhouse but couldn't seem to heat it. But it's not over yet. I still have a bunch of things to figure out. 

I've held this post because the landscape is changing so fast. Since I wrote this, a polar vortex rolled in with a couple of days that haven't gotten out of the upper 20's F. And, because I HAVE to crack the windows to let in air, the little gas heater I was assured would heat the space has been fighting to keep temperatures inside the structure in the 50's. Awk! I had to borrow an electric space heater from Shila to augment its efforts, which are surprisingly feeble at full tilt. Time to call Chip again, for another reference.

Wilson Heating's experts just came for a consultation, confirming a lot of what I've learned by hard experience. 

1. I'm woefully underpowered with my little blue flame heater.

2. The gas smell just goes with the territory on an unvented heater in a tight space. Ugh. No. Need another solution.

3. Cracking the windows is giving my heat to the great outdoors. There is a better way: to get a larger heater that is vented both for fresh air and exhaust.

4. It's probably not going to be possible to both heat and air condition this space. This is not a surprise to me. Heating is mandatory. AC, nah. I'm fine with using it for only three seasons. In summer, I'm moving my plants out and gardening outside, not trying to sit inside a glass box. 

Until then, I am happy with the greenhouse structure, but I don't spend as much time in it as I'd love to, because there is still a scent of gas in the air that freaks me out. The only time I sit in there and work or read or do my language lessons is on warm days when I can open the windows fully. Time to move on from using an open flame heater.

The four side windows only open 6" at full crank. Wish it were twice that! I asked about some kind of extender and the glass guys told me there's nothing that can be done. I certainly hope the automatic roof louver will take care of the major ventilation come summer.

So Wilson Heating is looking into wall-mounted gas heaters (possibly radiant, as opposed to open flame) and I cannot WAIT to see what they recommend.  Ideally, they'll find a vented one that will both pull in fresh air and send its exhaust outside. Until then, I'm leaving all four windows open at night, from a quarter inch to 1" wide, depending on the outside temperature. As you might imagine, this is a lousy strategy when it's 20 degrees out there. It's drafty and uncomfortable.

 After a rough period when the built-up gas fumes blasted all the blossoms before they opened, the greenhouse now seems to be treating the plants pretty well. Things are coming back into bud and bloom and the blossoms seem to be completing their normal life cycles. (With the exception of my Thanksgiving cacti, which took great offense to the space, dropped buds, and had to be brought back inside).  I think I've got enough oxygen coming in for the plants, even if it isn't quite enough for me. I take a great deal of pleasure in potting plants up and arranging them where they'll get the right light and heat. I'm not there yet, but it's so much better.

It's been very frustrating, running into these issues and having to figure out what's going on by myself. I can't imagine I'm the first person to run into this problem with a newly constructed solarium or greenhouse that needs supplemental heat, but is so tightly constructed that a gas heater uses up all the oxygen in it and cuts itself off. Surely that's happened to someone else! For some reason, it didn't occur to me to turn back to Botanical Greenhouses LLC for advice until just this week. When I did, I got some great advice both from Jen Sutton of BGLLC and Bob McCollister of American Glass and Metal Works, and that set me on the path of consulting with Chip and then with Wilson Heating. They helped me understand that there IS a heater out there that will do this job, and I just have to ask the right people to consider the space and make recommendations. I'm looking for something that won't roar like a shop heater, stink like an open flame heater; something that will allow me to keep the doors open between my bedroom and the solarium.

If anything has surprised me, it's how much I've had to learn to get this project done. I came into it knowing absolutely nothing about the process or what would be involved in constructing a solarium. I had to figure out how to get a concrete pad poured, and a foundation built, and I'm in the process of figuring out how to get the whole place wired in a way I can afford (the last estimate I got set my hair on fire). I'll get the heat situation figured out, too, in time. It's all a question of asking the right people for help. I am lousy at asking for help, always thinking I might have the answer, but this experience has made me more willing to throw up my hands and the white flag when I'm outclassed by the obstacles I am facing. On the bright side, I've kept this record right here on the blog, recording just how thorny it's been, so anyone embarking on such a project will at least go into it forewarned and forearmed. 

Creole Lady says, "You keep working on it. I'll keep pumping out the lunch-plate sized blossoms, because this suits me just fine!

Yes, it'll be my happy place, in time. We're most of the way there.

I can't wait until I can sit in here for hours, working away, or just gazing around at the plants I adore so much, and the bright or snowy winter days outside. 

Nothing good ever came easy, I guess!


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