My worldwide adventures in the heating industry
I’m in the last 20 months of doing seminars and that has me reflecting on the places I’ve been and the sometimes strange and always wonderful things I’ve seen when it comes to heating. Below are memories I’d like to share — in no particular order.
We’ll start with Iceland. Our tour guide explained that Iceland is expanding at the rate of about two inches per year and this is its secret plan to take over the world. Then he told us how the ocean leaks down between the cracks and crevices created by the expanding tectonic plates until it meets lava. This takes about 200 years. The water hits the molten rock and becomes high-pressure brine, which the Icelanders tap into and bring roaring up into huge separators. Out screams steam, which spins huge turbines to make electricity. They then pump the condensate back into the ground, making the sustainable life of this site about 100,000 years. Let’s stick around to see if they’re right.
Closer to town, they just tap into the ground and bring up water at 180° F, which they store in hilltop tanks and gravity feed into people’s hot-water taps. When you step into your hotel shower in Iceland, the 180° water tries to murder you. They don’t mention this when you check in. They just expect you to know. It’s a wonderfully strange country.
That magical land where just about everyone has hot-water heat and gets visited regularly by the chimney sweep, who is a private businessperson, licensed by the federal government and awarded a territory. He regularly shows up at German homes and the citizens must let him in because he is a heating policeman. He cleans your chimney and checks the efficiency of your boiler. If the boiler doesn’t pass the test, he red-tags it. The citizen now has a couple weeks to have the boiler replaced. Should the citizen decide not to do that, the chimney sweep will return and remove the boiler. So there.
They follow rules in Germany. I was walking with friends on a Sunday morning in Frankfurt. There was no traffic to be seen anywhere in this all-business city. We approached a corner where a group of people were waiting for the red light to turn green. There was not a car in sight and we, being New Yorkers who consider walk/don’t walk signs to be mere suggestions and not a law, just kept walking. The people on the corner began screaming at us in German. They were shaking their fists and pointing to the red light. We actually went back and stood there with them. Had you seen their red faces, you probably would have done the same. Lots of rules in Germany.
Saranac Lake, N.Y.
I went there one year in February to see their famous Winter Carnival. The local prisoners get let out for a while so they can saw ice out of the lake and build an enormous, fairytale castle on the shore. This was the coldest place I have ever been, and when I stood next to that ice castle, I understood the true meaning of “Cold 70” as it applies to the science of heating. Our bodies are radiators and when we are near something that’s really cold, we radiate heat toward that cold thing, which makes us miserable. This is why we feel chilly in the frozen-food aisle of our local supermarkets, even though the air temperature in that aisle is 70°. I’ve told the ice-castle story many times during my seminars when I talk about radiant systems. That thing sucked Btus like a Dyson sucks dirt.
Saranac Lake is lovely, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
We spent a few Februarys on that island, living like locals and working each day, such as it is. It’s good to be a writer. In the evenings, we’d go to one of the local restaurants for their happy-hour specials. Most of those places have roofs but no walls. Colorful birds fly in and out and it’s generally about 80°. There’s no air conditioning. Everyone is enjoying their meal and no one is complaining, as they would in New York if it was 80° with no AC, and birds were sitting on that extra chair across from you. It was Maui that made me realize that comfort is perception. If everyone is experiencing the same thing, that thing becomes normal and few people complain. Besides, what’s there to complain about; you’re in Maui.
One night, The Lovely Marianne and I went to a fancy and very romantic Italian restaurant right on the beach. Halfway through the meal, a wholesaler from Montana came bounding over to our table to say hello. He said he was on a trip with a bunch of his customers and they were having a big meal in that private room over there. He had spotted me from all the way over there. “I read your articles!” he bellowed, shaking my hand. “This your wife?” I smiled and said, “You’re the reason I don’t cheat on her.”
This is the greenest country I have ever visited. If you throw a stick you’ll hit a wind turbine. When you check into your hotel room you have to put your keycard in a slot by the door before anything in the room will work. This is to ensure that when you leave that room, everything shuts off. They heat with hydronic radiators, of course, and their thermostatic radiator valves have notes written in English glued to them that read, “DO NOT TOUCH!” That’s for me.
I was there for several days and all the while something was troubling me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then one night at dinner I realized there are no fat Danes. I looked around to confirm this. Not one in sight. I later learned that this is because they all ride bikes. They do this because the sales tax on a new car is 220% and gasoline costs more than booze. I caught the eye of our very svelte server and asked her where all the fat people were. She smiled and said, “In America.”
New York City
Not just because it’s home, but also because it’s a dog’s breakfast of people. A seminar in New York City will attract a dozen different ethnic types, which is unheard of in much of the rest of the United States. Here we have this grand mix of people and everyone gets along because we’re all facing the same challenges, and we all live with some of the oldest heating systems in the world. During a break in the seminar, I’ll have a Hasidic guy, an Asian guy, a Hispanic guy, a Russian guy and a Greek woman all asking me why the radiator does this or that. And then they’ll all start talking to each other, and all at the same time and with accents you could smear on a bagel. Or a pita. I love New York and I’m going to miss doing seminars here more than anywhere else.
If we’ve met, I’m glad we got to spend that time together. Because of you I have stories to tell and wonderful memories. You’ve taught me and I’ve done my best to share what you’ve taught me with others. And should we unexpectedly meet again sometime, perhaps in a romantic restaurant on a Hawaiian beach? Please know you also are the reason why I don’t cheat on my wife.
Thanks for that.