I, Idiot Homeowner

About a month ago Mel and I noticed these dark marks on the ceiling. The ice on the roof had started to melt and we thought perhaps the roof was leaking. I called a contractor who came over and had a look at the roof, looked up inside the crawl space and checked out the ceilings. The verdict was that one patterned set of marks had been caused by a support beam flexing under the weight of the snow and ice but there was no real problem with the roof other than a recommendation to improve the support system. As for the rest of the marks on the ceiling, which were throughout the house, the contractor said they could be caused by a cracked furnace heat exchanger.

Did this contractor impart to me the seriousness of this problem? No. Was I fully aware that a cracked heat exchanger would cause soot to back up through the ducts into the house? No. Do I have a carbon monoxide detector installed? No. Did it occur to me that this is why Mel has been complaining of headaches frequently, almost daily, in the last two months? No. Did it occur to me that this was why I could “smell” heat every time the furnace was running? No.

The other day I cleaned the tiles in the bathroom. The tiles surrounding the heat register were especially filthy… the rag came away black. With soot. Today I woke up smelling heat. Thinking back over the last few months, I realized that my eyes have burned more than a few times, I’ve had a fair number of headaches too, and I haven’t slept really well despite feeling sleepy. My dogs lie in front of the heat register (and I’ve heard Thilde wheezing). My bird gets mad when you put him in his sleep cage, near a heat register. My wife has been pretty lethargic at times (her own words). We’ve discussed getting an air purifier more than once.

Let me tell you… sometimes it takes an accumulation of small clues before you’re finally hit by a ton of bricks. Holy shit. I have a problem. A big problem. I was pretty oblivious — just a haunting feeling that “something needed to be done” — without truly knowing it. Of course, now I’m feeling guilty as hell for putting my family in danger this way.

So today, phone calls were made and I learned a few things…
First, I must get myself a CO detector immediately. I’ll be at Home Depot in the next 24 hours for this.
Second, it’s unlikely that a 1967 furnace can be repaired due to non-availability of parts.
Third, a thorough duct cleaning is warranted just prior to replacing a furnace (lest the new furnace should blow the rest of the crap out of the ducts).
Fourth, depending on the surface, soot is not easily washed away with soap and water. I may do well to get special “dry-eraser” sponges to clean the ceilings and walls.
Fifth, central air conditioning can be easily installed when installing a new furnace. (Woohoo!)
Sixth, my wallet is about to crash and burn. Hard. But, hey… I’m told financing is available and I was reminded that I could deduct half the expenses from my taxes next year if I elected to also replace the 1967 furnace serving the downstairs rental unit. (Hey, I could probably up the rent if I put central air in downstairs too!)

I have three different contractors coming to a) confirm the problem and b) provide an estimate to remedy it. Within a week from tomorrow final decisions will be made, a contractor will be selected and a plan of action will be in place. In the meantime, I gotta turn the furnace down as low as I can and open the windows as often as possible.


  1. Wow, Grey Bird, that sounds pertty dangerous. Get that puppy fixed.

    As for the no airconditioning part, here in TX that’s anethema.

  2. Yikes!!!! That’s scary, but it’s the sort of thing that could happen to anyone. You shouldn’t feel guilty about it–the clues only add up in retrospect.

  3. I’m so glad you’re getting this checked out, GB. Scary stuff. I hope you’ll all be okay soon, and don’t waste any more energy beating yourself up about something you couldn’t have foreseen.

  4. Whew glad you caught on to the potential dangers in time.
    Spend the money, it’s a great investment in your future health and comfort, and that’s always money well spent.

  5. Replacing a furnace (and a/c) is expensive, but totally worth it. Not just for the saftey reasons but also the tax write off (not just on your rental but when/if you sell the whole house you can also write off the whole cost as an improvement), increased resale value and energy efficiency which leads to saving $$ in the long run. I’ve heard duct cleaning is a lot of bunk. Just another way to fleece extra cash. I’ve never had it done. I’d be interested to know how it goes!

  6. Thank goodness you got this figured out. Get it done and get it done quickly. Oh — and like Shelley said, quit beating yourself up about this! There’s no way you could have known any sooner… unless of course the first dumb-ass contractor had clued you in [which he didn’t]. I go kick his ass. 🙂

  7. I just realized my last sentence was "I go kick his ass". Of course, I meant to say "I’ll go kick his ass". I can speak English, you know. Apparently, I only have problems when writing it.

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