Monster in the basement

Rick Barnes
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Back in the days of the old Green Line furnace, coal kept the home fires burning

Evergreen Recycling tells me that over the last year I have saved more than 400 litres of gasoline by recycling beverage containers. Apparently, they determine the numbers using a complex formula developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the money I recover from recycling goes into my gas tank, so I’m not sure how that skews my environmental footprint.

I’m feeding three gas tanks and heating my home by burning plenty of No. 2 Distillate, so I’m far from leaving a carbon zero footprint, but the 400 litres I’ve saved should give me a little wiggle room.

I don’t know if there will be more or less soot in my future footprint because I am now in the process of trading my wood-burning fireplace for a propane insert. It even comes with a free remote control. How cool is that?

The fireplace unit and installation costs nearly $3,500, so it seems ridiculous to trumpet “free remote,” but the fireplace people know their market.

What baby boomer wouldn’t fall in love with a remote-controlled fire?

Not that we need another remote control lying around. As it is now, by the time I sift through the pile of remotes of different shapes and brands, locate the correct HD channel, the appropriate video input, and the matching stereo sound, Dr. Sloan has already crawled into the sack with someone new on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

While my daughter and family were visiting, she pre-programmed some of their TV favourites into the system. Long after they returned to the mainland, the TV continued to spring to life at the appointed times, “Dr. Oz” or “Blue Dragon” leaping out at me without notice.

Eventually, after spending many sessions sifting through the endless menus, I was able to locate and erase the stored commands. Well OK, maybe I watched “Blue Dragon” a couple of times.

In the days before thermostats became ubiquitous, the only remote control on a heating device I remember was a chain-and-pulley system designed to operate the air inlet on a giant Green Line coal-burning furnace that took up a large part of the basement of my childhood home.

Perhaps the Green Line engineers thought it might be a nice touch, after the operator had exhausted him/herself shovelling coal into the monster, to provide a way to adjust the air intake without having to bend over again.

The 1950s-era Green Line was to central heating what the Concord supersonic jet was to transportation. Each represented the ultimate in the technology of their day; and each quickly became dead-ends on the technological evolutionary tree as economics and innovation leapfrogged over them.

But they were awesome!

The Green Line, placed squarely in the centre of the basement of our Chamberlains bungalow, vented hot air through a large grill positioned at the midway point of the upstairs hall, outpouring — at the height of its convection cycle — a blast of air that sent ’50s dresses flying upwards like Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway grate.

The monster ruled the basement, looking as if it supported the whole house — like Atlas with the world upon his shoulders. In its brief reign, the Green Line burned tonnes of coal and left behind mountains of grey ash that had to be trucked away. But it sure chucked out heat, baking the oil paint and Tentest in every corner of that bungalow.

There were times when my sister would switch off the light and through the grate we could see the top of the chamber below, glowing red. We didn’t need to be taught not to play with matches; even for our young minds it wasn’t much of an intuitive leap to sense the power and potential danger confined under the glowing dome.

For a time, I even kept an eye on our old cat. I had seen a wordless television animation of a mouse outwitting a cat and sending him into a furnace that looked very much like our Green Line. The cartoon furnace somehow choked on the cat, puffed up out of shape and finally exploded, levelling the house and spewing the scorched cat and glowing coals high above the neighbourhood.

The Green Line never blew up, but it always behaved as if it might. Grumbling and smoking, it continued to be a source of wonder for my sister and me. At one point we discovered, perhaps even by accident, that a crayon dropped through the Marilyn Monroe grate would quickly melt into a coloured pool. After witnessing that unexpected change of state, we launched a series of experiments to determine if crayons of all colours could be transformed in that manner.

Did they melt at the same rate? What about black and white? Did they all release the same odour? If melted in close proximity, would they pool together?

We carried on this extensive research until my mother, alerted by the smell, put an end to our science experiments.  

During the warmer months, the basement behemoth stood silent and cold. Each year, at the beginning of the heating season, my father had to lift the grate and clear the summer detritus from atop the dome before he began the daily stoking rituals.

My mother, not wanting to be out-stoked by a man, became adept at unloading the ashes and “banking” the fire, producing energy outputs worthy of a smelter. She enlightened us on the properties of bituminous and anthracite while wearing an old jacket she kept near the pokers and other furnace tools, to don while tending the fire so she wouldn’t be — as she put it — “Soot to the elbows!” 

There were never any chimney issues. Green Line shared the chimney with the kitchen stove without complaint. Unlike chimneys of today, there were no separate flues, and the bricks and mortar were lined only with soot. The chimney was rarely cleaned, and when it was, the inside walls were scrubbed clean by dragging a small inverted fir tree down the chimney by means of a rope.

But all too quickly, the great coal monster was cast aside for an oil-burning furnace one-quarter its size. It was clean and quiet, confined to the corner, and totally uninteresting. Its design provided many places to insert crayons, but the exercise was pointless — you never saw them again.

The only enticement to visit the basement at all was the chance of sighting one of the newly imported European earwigs that never would have ventured into the dry heat generated under the Green Line’s watch.

Gone forever was all the science and drama of banking a fire, along with the coal dust and ash and soot.

That was a time when the term “carbon footprint” held a much more literal meaning.

Organizations: Green Line, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Geographic location: Concord, Chamberlains

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