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Down on the Farm: Starting a fire

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Last week, as the big "L" on the weather map from last week's record low pressure system hovered over the house, I decided it was time to fire up the wood stove.

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Heating with wood has a virtuous ring to it, especially to the back-to-nature types in the city.

But like raising your own chickens, starting a vineyard, composting, or living without electricity, burning wood sounds romantic--until you try it.

A few weeks ago, I checked out the stove in preparation for winter. The boiler was low on water. To fill it, I bought five gallons of antifreeze, hoping that a total of 10 gallons of fluid would fill the thing to the brim.

As I dumped in the second gallon of antifreeze, I heard a sickening trickle on the ground. The stuff was pouring right through.

I removed the tin panel in the back of the stove. The boiler's drain valve was wide open.

All 100 gallons of fluid, including 50 gallons of antifreeze, had spilled on the ground sometime last summer.

Who could have opened that valve? And why?

I am convinced the guilty party was the bear who came through the yard last summer and upended my grill before smashing the bird feeders.

Antifreeze is said to smell sweet to animals. The bear probably got a whiff of the stove, stuck his arm under there and hit the lever on the drain valve.

After finding the taste of antifreeze repulsive, the bear, without thinking, forgot to close the valve. That allowed the day-glow green fluid to gush onto Mother Earth.

So, off to Walmart to buy 40 gallons of antifreeze. It is difficult to draw stares at Walmart, but two carts filled with antifreeze will do it.

The jugs sat by the stove for two weeks before I had the courage to pour them in the stove one at a time, glug, glug, glug. Hindsight is 20-20: I put a bear-proof plug in the drain first.

When last week's inland hurricane threatened, it was time to start a fire.

Forget the old woodpile. All my wood is on pallets in the greenhouse. I bring the pallets out one-by-one with a skid steer loader which burns diesel fuel.

The wood was crispy dry. I built a roaring fire, shut the stove's door and went inside.

Two hours later, I came out to find the fire dead and cold. This went on three or four times. Nothing. Even a generous sprinkling of diesel couldn't get the fire to keep going.

Starting a fire is a basic survival skill. Failure in that arena is not something you admit to around here.

But with bruised pride, I got out the manual for the stove and tried to read it. It was too technical for me to understand.

So, I dialed the number for the stove company and got ahold of Greg.

Well! It turns out the problem wasn't my fire-starting ability at all. There was a short in the thermocouple probe and it was telling the computer to shut the intake vent on the stove before the fire even got burning.

Sounds just like the old days, doesn't it? A short in the thermocouple probe?

The problem was easily fixed. Greg dropped off a new thermocouple probe in town at the grocery store after work and I picked it up in the morning.

With the new probe, all I had to do was shut off the power to the stove for a bit, press restart on the stove's computer and the fire roared, no diesel needed!

Ah, back to nature.

When you have problems with the Internet and you call the help desk, they always ask: Have you restarted your computer? Have you unplugged the modem? Have you tried restarting the router?

In fact, most help desks have a layer of people trained to just tell you to unplug everything. In the rare event that doesn't do the trick, they pass you on to somebody with smarts.

Well, burning wood has now reached the same point.

Can't get a fire started?

Restart the computer. If that doesn't work, unplug the stove for a while.

Just like the old days.

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