The Death of Warmth in Winter

It started late on Saturday night.  A loud bang was followed by mechanical coughs and splutters that settled into a baritone thrum.  Reminiscent of a loud snorer disturbing their own sleep, it had me wide awake and worried in an instant.

There was no mistaking the source of the noise since it was echoing through the air vents.  Something was up with the heating.  Something really not very good.  What I know about HVAC systems can be written on a postage stamp but even then I knew something was really badly wrong.

In the past month, across a period of just ten days, I have had to replace three appliances.  First, my food processor exploded while I was making pesto.  The kitchen looked as if I had been massacring aliens.  Then my dryer stopped drying.  In winter with a family of six, four of whom are mucky pup boys, this was pretty catastrophic.  Within 24 hours, my house looked like a steamie* with laundry drying in every room.  A new dryer was ordered and delivered but 24 hours later my washing machine died.  There are all sorts of appliances I can live without with relative ease.  A washing machine is not one of them.  The up side was that I could replace the ancient top loader with its damaging agitator with a much more energy efficient front loader.  It was an expensive ten days but surely I had had my “pattern of three” and there would be no more domestic destruction.


The violent wheezing of the heating system became louder, more insistent, and then the death rattle started.  It was time to shut the whole system down before anything exploded.

This all happened over President’s Day weekend so we couldn’t even get anyone to come out and assess the problem until the Tuesday.  Thankfully the kids returned to school that day so they could spend hours in a heated building.  The HVAC engineer took a look, sucked his teeth, and gave the prognosis.  The system was dead.  That was the diagnosis.  The treatment plan was that we could try and source the relevant parts and invest more in the old system or we could rip it all out and start from scratch with a more modern, energy efficient and definitely functioning system.

When we bought the house, we obviously noted that the HVAC system was over 30 years old.  We knew, therefore, that it was moribund and that was reflected in our offer.  Still, the sudden death of the heating system during one of the coldest periods of the winter was a blow.  We opted to have the whole system – heating and air conditioning – replaced.

It has been a long six days between the rasping, dying gasps of the old system and today when a squad of engineers installed the new system.  The house has become progressively colder with each passing day.  A couple of days ago, I awoke to the alarm on my phone which I could not switch off as condensation on the screen was stopping the touchscreen from working.  Steam wicked off our bodies when we step out of the shower.  We wore multiple layers and huddled under blankets in order to function at home during the day and at night we slept, still wearing layers, under multiple blankets.  This morning, it was a real struggle to force myself out from under all of those blankets as the interior temperature of the house was a mere 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius).  Still twenty degrees warmer than the outside temperature but that was no small comfort as I tried to get dressed in record time and struggled to spread peanut butter that was completely solid in the jar.

I have been reminded through all of this to not take small, everyday luxuries for granted.  I spent my early childhood years in a house without central heating.  Only the living room had a heat source, an electric bar fire.  I remember the thrill of pressing my chilly bare feet against radiators for the first time when my parents had central heating installed.  In our late teens, Mr Pict and I lived in a tenement flat in Edinburgh’s old town that was very difficult to keep warm.  The ferocious wind would whip across Arthur’s Seat and batter straight through our windows and the cold would seep into our bones.  That was over half my life ago, however, and I had forgotten just how miserable it was to live somewhere so completely cold.

So it has been a miserable week of discomfort and frozen digits but I am mindful that this whole time we have still had a roof over our heads, have had access to hot running water, have had hot food for our bellies, and have always known that this experience would only last for a finite time.  That is not the experience of the homeless, struggling to find some respite from the cold, some period of shelter, every day.  That is not the experience for the refugee families camping out wherever they can on a precarious journey to safety.  That is not the experience for those living in poverty who cannot afford to heat their homes.  I am so incredibly glad that we have had heat restored to our house today and I am even more glad that for us this has only been temporary.

*Public Washhouse


22 thoughts on “The Death of Warmth in Winter

  1. Wonderful, wonderful!! Such a great attitude to raise your boys with – you so often add more hope to my ‘future of the world’ pictures!
    Now I’m imagining you all basking in the luxury of a warmed house, all dressed in your freshly washed and dried clothes and feeling grateful!! Way to go Picts!!

    • Thank you. That is sweet of you to say. I find taking a step back from my own problems to take a wider perspective helpful in just battering through those problems. I am just off to collect the kids from school soon. They will be so excited to come home to a much cosier house than the one they left this morning.

  2. Oh Laura, I feel for you, and I am glad you are warm. Two winters ago we spent 5 days without heat after the ice storm. We finally had to shut the water off and go to a hotel – the outside temps were about 10 degrees and it just got too cold. I am still sensitive to the idea of being cold and and the house seemed so unfriendly without heat – almost not like a shelter.

    Your attitude is a good one. Thankfulness for warmth. And hope we all may have it.

    • Oh that ice storm was terrible. That was my first winter in PA, just a couple of months after we emigrated. That was a hard adjustment. We were lucky as we were living next door to a school at the time and so our power was restored after 24 hours. I can only imagine how unbearable it must have been to endure those temperatures for days on end. You were quite wise to decamp. I must say, I was tempted to do likewise but did not want to abandon the cats or put them in a cat hotel so soon after adopting them.

  3. You have the right perspective here, Laura. Your situation was temporary. Blessings on those for whom that is not the case. I can’t imagine dealing with these cold temps.
    And, for us, Christmas is the time for appliance breakdown over the years. And always, when there is no service available. I feel your pain. ☺

    • Yes, appliances sure do pick their timing. My washing machine died just as we had house guests arriving. Thankfully I had laundered the guest bedding in advance.

      Throughout this week, my thoughts have been on the poor souls who are having to sleep rough for one reason or another. I cannot imagine feeling that cold, that vulnerable, and not knowing when if ever that experience might end.

    • Thanks, Laura. It was pretty grim but one can get through anything if one knows it will come to an end. It’s now very cosy at home and oddly I find that I had forgotten what that felt like. I think I truly was guilty of taking warmth for granted.

      • Sometimes when things are just right in my house I take a moment to remember that I live in paradise. I often forget. A roof over my head and food in the freezer. Books, paints, pets, and family. (And indoor plumbing!!)

  4. Why do electrical appliances all seem to give up the ghost one after the other, we’ve had the same problem, it’s like a conspiracy!! Glad you are warm again now too, we lived in a house with no central heating when I was young and I too remember that icy cold, I will not take my central heating for granted today!!

    • Well in our case we had inherited them all with the house (with the exception of the food processor) and everything was just old. The youngest appliance was from 1990. We knew it was coming. I would rather have just upgraded on my own timeline. The heating system dying during one of the coldest periods of winter was quite unpleasant timing.

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