On the Joys of Homeownership

Don’t let the title of this post fool you. I am about to regale you with a rather macabre tale involving burn victims, a harrowing escape, and the dangerous threat of carbon monoxide poisoning.

So I had a bit of an adventure this past weekend…

My Saturday morning began quite normally—I took Archie out for a quick morning walk, made myself a nice big cup of coffee upon my return, and then proceeded to shower and get ready for my yoga class. Sadly, dear readers, yoga was not to be—I traded deep breathing and zen enlightenment in favor of hyperventilation and primal fear. Okay, this might be overstating the case a bit. Suffice it to say it was a little scary.

When I came downstairs after getting ready, I was met with a very weird smell. It was definitely a burning kind of smell, and it was emanating from the basement. Living in a house that was built in 1921, I have developed a healthy fear of my basement. When things go wrong, the basement is usually implicated. The burning smell led me to suspect my Conservator Steam Series 2 Model CPVSP Gas-Fired Steam Boiler (aka the Beast in the Basement). Last autumn, some sort of coil in the furnace had burned out and produced a not-so-nice-odor, so the furnace was on the top of my list suspects. And let’s face it: it is pretty scary looking:

Amid all this tangle of wires, I could see nothing wrong: the water levels seemed okay, nothing felt too hot to the touch. But the smell persisted.

I called the emergency number at my local heating and cooling outfit, and one of their techs called me right back, told me to turn off the switch to the furnace, and said he would be there in about 45 minutes. I dutifully followed his instructions and then basically spent the remaining time fretting.

When the HVAC guy got here, we went down to the basement together. He definitely smelled the smell too. But it turns out it wasn’t coming from the furnace, but from the hot water heater.

And this is where the story turns slightly macabre.

My hot water heater vents into one of the house’s two chimneys. The top of this chimney is exposed—open to the elements and, I’m afraid, to wildlife. A poor unsuspecting bird that had been hanging out on the top of the chimney had become asphyxiated by venting fumes and had fallen all the way down to the bottom of the chimney. But once it had fallen—and here’s something I didn’t know—the bird revived because as the chimney vents, it pulls fresh air down. According to my HVAC guy’s theory, after its fall, the bird, getting the benefit of some of this fresh air, came to its senses and attempted to fly out. Thinking perhaps that it could see the light at the end of the tunnel, the bird mistook the venting pipe on the hot water heater as its path to freedom. As you can see in the photo below, there is open space where the venting pipe attaches to the top of the hot water heater. (Don’t mind the shadow of my arm/elbow in the photo. I think maybe it kind of adds to the sinister quality somehow?)

When the HVAC guy turned off the water heater and then pulled the venting pipe free from the top, I watched with horror as the charred body of a good-sized bird dropped out of the pipe. It was an awful sight to behold! I felt totally responsible—my hot shower that morning had inadvertently brought on the bird’s demise. I was a killer!

It turns out, though, that this wasn’t the first time this had happened (!?!) As HVAC guy peered down into the hot water tank, he sighed rather heavily and said, “Looks like you’ve got bird remnants at the bottom of the tank.” A chill ran down my spine at this revelation. Hearing the phrase “bird remnants” didn’t help either.

And then we both heard it: the flutter of wings and muted chirping. Another bird, still alive, was caught in the chimney! This was not good—we both knew its days were numbered. Initially, HVAC guy thought the best option would be to cross some heat-resistant wire at the open end of the pipe venting into the chimney. This would prevent birds from entering the venting pipe, but it didn’t solve the problem of getting the bird out of the chimney.

Then he had a very brilliant idea. Using some flattened cardboard I had in the basement, we constructed a cardboard box and kept one side open. He then ran an old cafe curtain rod through the box and out the open end. The rod would provide a makeshift roost for the bird. He removed the venting pipe from the chimney, which left an opening about 3 1/2″ wide. He ran the curtain rod in, put the open end of the box flush against the outside of the chimney wall, and held the other end of the rod, where it poked out of the closed, taped-up side of the box, steady. Then we waited.

It didn’t take long. The bird made its way out of the venting hole in the chimney and into the box. HVAC guy was able to slide another piece of flattened cardboard in along the open side of the box, trapping the bird inside, until he could remove it to the outdoors. When he set the bird free out in the backyard, it was a sight to behold! I have to admit I gasped a little at the size of the bird when it flew out of the box—it seemed huge! I flew straight up to the top of the tall evergreen at the back of the yard, to freedom!

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve scheduled an estimate for chimney caps and a chimney lining (which I currently don’t have, but is recommended–it protects the integrity of the chimney by preventing the wear and tear that swings in hot/cold temps can wreak on the brick and mortar).

After this incident was over, and at the recommendation of HVAC guy, I got a couple of carbon monoxide detectors. If we hadn’t caught on to the dead bird in the pipe when we did, and the pipe remained blocked, it could have ended in elevated CO levels inside the house. I went to Lowe’s to take a look at CO detectors, and that’s where I purchased mine. They had quite a fancy model that retailed for around $55 that provided a digital readout of CO levels, but I thought this would be too much information for me—a neurotic’s jackpot, really. I could see myself checking the numbers obsessively and second-guessing what would constitute a “normal” readout. So I bought myself the simpler, more pared-down, middle-of-the-road Kidde carbon monoxide detector instead. The “Nighthawk” is a plug-in with a battery back-up, pretty unobtrusive looking, but man that alarm is loud! (I tested it. My nerves will never be the same!)

But I do think I’m sleeping a little better at night. If you don’t already have a couple CO detectors, I would strongly recommend making the investment. A little extra security is never a bad thing.

And the birds will thank you.

The Writer

Writer & Residence blog. A blog dedicated to two of my favourite things, interior design, and writing.

6 Comments
  1. I’m sorry to hear about your ordeal, it sounds truly terrifying. From now on, I shall always keep a cardboard box and a curtain rail, just in case.

  2. It is, I must say, rather a good thing that this didn’t happen to me. I’m pretty sure I would have bombed the hot water tank.

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  5. I share your distrust of all things basement, but wowza–a cautionary tale with Stephen King-esque overtones! I’m thankful my chimneys & vents are already in lock-down mode but have added a CO2 monitor to shopping list…

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