Sunday, December 28, 2008

There's Always a Holiday Surprise Waiting

Someone - or something - doesn't want me to clean my room. (And you thought I was going to write about Christmas, didn't you?) I've been trying for weeks to free up the necessary time to do a really good and thorough clean-up, which is more than badly needed. Other stuff kept getting in the way, but finally last Monday it was going to happen. I had the time set aside; a nice free late afternoon on my day off. The timing was perfect - right before Christmas. I had nothing else planned and nothing that couldn't wait. I had my cloths, sprays, mops and dusters assembled. I was ready to go. Right after lunch.

So I was sitting in our small dining room having a sandwich and thinking about my fortune in finally getting to this long-desired project, when Mike, the young man who keeps our grounds, came in. He'd been looking around, just seeing what was what and at the back of the monastery building, near the site of our generator, he said he smelled gas. Well, that seemed possible. Our generator runs on natural gas and it had been in use recently, during a prolonged power outage, so a leak could have developed. Obviously the only thing to do was call Central Hudson, our gas and electric supplier.

It took a while to get connected with the Gas Odor Service Agent, but after calling three different numbers I did someone who as courteous, fast and concerned. She said someone would be here within 45 minutes. In fact it was about a half hour when the service man arrived. He walked around, determined that the odor was coming, not from the generator at all but from a large vent in the ground next to the monastery; a vent, he said, that probably came from our boiler room.

So into the boiler room we went, and sure enough, there was a strong smell of gas there. Right away he had some suspicions, but didn't want to say anything out loud until he had his sensor on, so it was fetched and used for testing the air and sure enough, there wasn't much gas, but there was carbon monoxide - lots of carbon monoxide. The legal limit on the presence of carbon monoxide in dwelling spaces is 5 ppm. The level in the boiler room was over 150.

So a call was put out for a fire truck with an exhaust fan. Sirens started sounding almost immediately. A fire truck arrived. Another fire truck. Another one. Every fire truck in the area seemed to feel it necessary to respond. In the end there were five of them, but as it turned out none of them had brought the requested exhaust fan, so that had to be sent for separately. In the meantime we opened the door to the boiler room, and with an excellent exhaust system functioning quite well, the room was almost free of CO fumes before the fan actually arrived. But the fan had to be set up, of course, and put into action.

In the meantime the monastery building was ordered evacuated, so I organized a small squad of brothers to make sure everyone was out of the monastery and into the guesthouse. Several brothers arrived home from an afternoon out about this time and found the driveway full of fire trucks, emergency personnel and brothers wandering about and assumed the worst, so they had to be filled in.

In the meantime the plumber arrived and shortly afterward the boiler burner repair man whom he had called. "Oh yes," he said, "when it gets cold like this the gas company increases the pressure in their lines, and lots of big boilers have incomplete combustion and you'll get carbon monoxide from that. We'll fix that right up." And he set to work, mostly adjusting valves and openings so that the burner on the boilers was getting more air to cope with the increased gas that we'd had. And then there was the testing process, which took a lot longer that the work on the burner did.

But finally the monastery was declared safe again, everyone moved back from the guesthouse and the gas company man went off saying that he would come back in the morning. If everything was still all right, he'd certify us as clear. If not, he would order the gas lines shut down. The plumber departed. So did the fire trucks. Last of all the man who was repairing the burner and testing the air went home, promising to come back in the morning. By the time everyone was gone it was 7 hours since the smell of gas had first been noticed, and it was time for bed.

You have probably heard that carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless. So had I. But the Gas Odor man says that in his experience CO from incomplete combustion is always accompanied by a distinct smell - which is why he reached for his sensors so quickly after poking his head into our boiler room. An interesting thing to think about. The smell, I guess, is from other incompletely burned ingredients in the natural gas supply.

So we will have carbon monoxide detectors installed in the boiler rooms and in one or two other spots, though given how isolated the boiler rooms are it's entirely possible that the smell of incompletely burned gas may be the first thing we notice if this happens again. Our heat is hot water, not forced air, so the danger to us on the upper floors isn't great, but it is there, so we need to be warned if this happens again. Once again I marveled at how much in the way of trucks and equipment appears every time something happens. And I, whose sense of smell is almost absent, feel grateful to Mike for his sensitive nose and quick response. Now we know something about our systems that we didn't know before, and we have some alertness that we didn't have. We are very grateful for being preserved for another day.

And my room still hasn't been cleaned.

Do you have days like this? Not surprising that this post comes right after the one about our Advent Retreat is it?

I have another day off coming on Wednesday. I wonder if cleaning is in the cards for that?

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