What’s in a word? Plenty.

The Lovely Marianne and I were helping our daughter, Meghan, because her husband was away for 10 days on some business. TLM did the diaper-changing. I did the driving around and made funny faces for the kids.

One morning, I asked Meg where her scale was because being away from home also means eating things I shouldn’t be eating.

“It’s under the vanity in the bathroom,” she said.

So I looked, figuring there was a space under the vanity. There wasn’t. Then I thought I was probably in the wrong bathroom, so I checked the other bathroom and then the one downstairs. No space under any of the vanities.

“You sure it’s under the vanity?” I asked.

“Positive.” Eye-roll.

So I went back and looked again. The vanities still went all the way down to the floor.

“I’m sorry, Meg. I can’t find it.”

“It’s on the left side.”

I went back and looked again because I am a persistent old man with way too much time on my hands these days.

The left sides of all three vanities pressed hard against their walls. No scale.

“I can’t find it, Meg.”

She gave me the look. You know the look? I followed her upstairs and she opened the door to the vanity and pointed to the scale, leaning against the left side.

“There,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “You said under the vanity.”

“It is under,” Meg said, pointing at the sink.

“That’s the sink,” I said.

“Sink. Vanity. Same thing,” Meg said, leaving me alone with the scale and my deep thoughts.

I get a lot of email and most of it is from people I don’t know. A woman named Madeline wrote a while ago to ask, “If you add too much water into a forced-hot-water heater can this cause the oil burner to crack or does it steam off?”

I pondered that for a while. Then I wrote back and explained about how the relief valve is supposed to pop if someone forces too much water into the boiler.

“What’s a relief valve?”

I wrote back and explained.

“But that’s not what I asked. If they force too much water into the oil burner? Will it crack or does it steam off?” 

Clearly, we were having a word problem.

I wrote again and explained that the burner is like what she has on her stove — the place from which fire comes. The boiler is like a pot filled with water on that burner. They’re two separate things and I didn’t know of any way that someone could force water into the burner.

“I have an electric stove,” she wrote back.

“Well, pretend it’s a gas stove,” I wrote.

“But what about the cracking?” she replied.

Our emails went around a few more times until she finally decided that I was a stupid man and stopped writing to me.

I’m not concerned, though. There always are others.

In fact, the next day I heard from Carol, another woman I don’t know. She wrote, “No heat. Why?”

I pondered that for a while as well. It had a certain appealing haiku-like simplicity to it. It also felt like the start of a very bad first date so I wrote back with this always-useful word.


“Thank-you,” she replied.

See how easy that is when you use just the right words? Let’s hear it for brevity.


Point of no pressure change

For years I’ve tried my best to explain the “Point of No Pressure Change” concept to contractors who don’t want to believe in it, even though it’s undeniably true. If you pump away from a compression tank, the circulator’s differential pressure will show up as a rise in pressure on the circulator’s discharge side. And if you pump toward a compression tank, the opposite will happen. The circulator will see a drop in pressure on its suction side. That leads to air problems in the system.

The challenge, though, is that contractors get hung up on the term psi. They think that when a circulator runs, it absolutely must increase the pressure at its discharge. Why? Because it’s a pump and that’s what pumps do. They pump.

“But that’s why we call it a circulator,” I say. “To make it different. It’s a centrifugal pump, sure, but it doesn’t have to increase the pressure on its discharge side because it’s in a closed system. The circulator makes the water move by creating a difference in pressure. It circulates the water, meaning it turns it like a wheel. Get it?”

“No,” the contractors say. “It’s psi and that means pressure. Pressure is something you can feel. You can see it on a gauge. That’s why what you’re telling me isn’t true.”

And that is the rock that I, like Sisyphus, have been rolling up Hydronic Hill my entire career.

Words can confuse people.

Speaking of circulators and words, how about the words gallons per minute? That has to do with a fixed quantity of water (a gallon) and a certain amount of time (a minute). But when I talk to contractors, they often mix gpm up with velocity and that has me rolling the rock again.

Velocity is about a certain amount of distance (let’s say feet) and a fixed amount of time (one second). Suppose water is moving at 4 ft. per second. You can see that in your imagination, right? But how many gallons are we talking about here? We didn’t say anything about gpm. We’re talking about speed right now and that brings us to pipe size.

If the pipe is, say, 3/4 in., the gpm will be a certain number, but if the pipe is 2-in., the gpm will slow down. It’s still the same amount of water and the same amount of time. It’s just going slower because it’s on a wider road. That’s velocity.

But often when I explain this the contractor will start talking about wider roads such as an interstate highway. “Hey,” he’ll say, “if I’m on a highway I’m going to go faster because it’s a bigger road so don’t tell me the water’s going to go slower. That makes no sense at all.”

And the guy has a point. I shouldn’t have mentioned roads.

But how about heat? Heat doesn’t rise, you know, even though most of the people on the planet have said it does. Nope, heat radiates to cold. It is hot air and hot water that rise, not heat, but contactors have told me for years that there’s no difference between the heat and the hot air or the hot water. “That’s why we call it hot,” they’ll say.

This makes me want to go look under the vanity again.

But I am, as I’ve said, a persistent old man, so I’ll ask them to explain the sun. If heat rises, how can the sun heat us here on Earth? The sun’s up there in the sky, right?

“The sun’s different,” the contractor will say.

“How so?” I’ll ask.

“It just is.”

And there’s a certain lovely haiku simplicity to that as well.

What’s in a word?

Last year, just before inauguration day, I read a news story about a woman who said, “I don’t care if they get rid of Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act covers me.”

Are you as confused as I am?


This article was originally titled “Easily confused” in the November 2017 print edition of Supply House Times.