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Fire in the hole!

In to the Wind

February 2, 2011
Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

It always seems my greatest perils wait for the coldest day of the winter. Such was the case again this year, when we had a twelve below zero night here at Gilly Hollow. The only difference this time, it didn’t cost me thousands or hundreds of dollars like it has in the past. No, this time I managed to contain the damage myself with only a slight singe to my being. I went ahead and wrote the tale down while the memory and the stench were still fresh.

It hardly warmed up at all today. The garage door went up this morning, but not back down. It took me a while to figure out it was so cold all the metal had shrank and the close tolerances required me to increase the down force setting on the automatic closer. First disaster averted.

Then I went to use the water and there was no pressure. I checked the breaker in the house; still no pressure. It is OK to insert here that this particular problem has cropped up a couple other times in winters past. Those times it cost me hundreds of dollars to call in the experts. Now, I am the expert. I live, I pay, I learn.

I pulled on my boots and warm parka and climbed down in the pit below the pump house. I determined the open frame relay that directs electricity to the pump one hundred and eighty feet down the well was stuck. The pit is a place of high humidity, and mixed with outrageously cold temperatures, can create an unworkable situation for mechanical devices. I sprayed the four position relay out with silicon spray after I removed the cover. I couldn’t find my WD-40 and reasoned silicon would displace any water and lubricate the pivots. I threw the breaker. At this point, the pump should have engaged and water pumped into the pressure tank. I don’t recall if I heard that commotion or not.

Silicon spray must be flammable, because when the relay threw, it arced and set the relay on fire. So there I was, standing on a ladder, in a three foot by three foot pit seven feet underground. Flames were stealing my oxygen, threatening to burn up the relay and set my coat afire.

I stepped off the ladder and onto what looked like solid ice in the bottom of the pit. The ice broke and I was several inches under water with my right foot. I bent down as far as I could, in order to scoop a handful of water with my hand through the break in the ice to throw on the flaming relay. I singed my eyebrow.

Now anybody who knows me well understands that an eyebrow fire can be a major personal catastrophe.

It took two full fist scoops of water to extinguish the flames. I started coughing because of the toxic fumes from the burning insulation AND that eyebrow. I slipped off the ladder and now both feet were thoroughly drenched in frigid water.

I climbed up out of the pit and trudged to the barn. I needed to find my little heater and an extension cord to set up in the pit to dry the relay before I dared throw the breaker again. After all, I had just drenched it with freeze dried tadpole water.

The barn door was frozen shut. Fortunately I leave a ten foot heavy pry bar leaning against the side of the barn for such emergencies. It only took me twenty minutes to chip and chop the ice from the bottom of the door. It’s probably good that at this point I couldn’t feel my feet, because I’m sure they would have hurt. I flung open the barn door and stepped inside. I looked in the usual spot and the heater wasn’t there. Then I remembered my son had used it in the office when he was here from Florida at Christmas.

I grabbed the heater and headed back to the pump pit. I had to unroll a very cold and stiff extension cord off the spool and thread the end through the window on the side of the garage. I climbed back into the pit and set up the heater.

I let it run for 2 hours before I went back out and pulled the heater back out and manually worked the relay. All seemed to be OK, so I threw the breaker again. The hot side of the relay sizzled and arced for a few seconds as it burned off the last of the water, and I could hear the pressure tank filling. Success!

I climbed out and went to the house to find a new light bulb. The one whose function is to keep the pit warm had burned out. I screwed in the new bulb and it came to life.

Back out of the pit I climbed, but this time I pulled the ladder out and set it on the ground outside. I put the hatch cover I had carefully made a few years ago with insulation on the bottom back into the pit hole. I shouldn’t have any more problems with the water system this winter. The entire episode had been caused by me leaving that hatch open and the ladder down the pit. I usually do that every spring in case I have to pump water out of the pit after spring thaw or during heavy summer rains.

When I came back to the house the cats looked funny at me and walked away. Those toxic fumes, singed eyebrow and burning silicon spray had permeated my parka, my hair, and my skin. I stunk!

I put the parka in the washing machine to take advantage of the newly found water pressure. I then headed to the bathroom to trim the unburned eyebrow so it doesn’t look like I’m walking sideways.

So this dear reader is how my column is sometimes written. If I can’t laugh at myself, then how can you?

Until next time--

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the “Local Columns” button at the bottom of the page.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2011 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342..

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