*exasperated sigh*

So I woke up at quarter to four this morning and immediately knew there was something wrong with the new space heater. It was noticeably cool in the bedroom, and you know, the space heater is supposed to make that not happen.

Since I had just replaced the propane bottle yesterday morning – the last time the space heater stopped working – and particularly since the bottle now in service was the brand-new bottle, I jumped to a conclusion as to what had caused this little problem. After getting Little Bear squared away I suited up and went out in the dark to exchange bottles. Again.

Good news/Bad news: The new bottle wasn’t empty. Guesstimating by weight, I’d say it’s completely full. Therefore something bad is happening. Something expensive. But to eliminate the bottle as a cause of the problem I went ahead and swapped them out, then went inside and tried to light the pilot.

The pilot was not interested in re-lighting. At all.

Let it be said that this does not comprise anything like an emergency. The space heater was never intended to replace the woodstove. Heating the cabin as a whole is and will remain all about the woodstove.

But, especially since learning how useful a propane heater is when you get sick enough to be no longer capable of keeping a woodstove burning, I’m fond of that space heater. It has only one major disadvantage from an off-grid perspective: It’s full of machinery I really don’t understand.

Living off grid there is only one law. Murphy’s Law. It covers pretty much everything.

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Now, some people get Murphy’s Law wrong. It’s not a counsel of despair. It’s a directive. Since anything that can go wrong will go wrong, all objects fall into a series of categories determined by how you must behave toward them. For example:

Things that must work
Things you can get along without

The category “things that must work” then settles into a pair of sub-sets:

Things you can fix when they break
Things that must be replaced when they break

When you live off-grid in the boondocks, like it or not you are your own general contractor. Also, your environment is set on a malevolent mission to break all your stuff. You can expect to be called upon to fix things at any hour of the day or night and in all weather conditions, especially bad ones. This will either drive you so crazy you eventually move to Portland and bore big holes in your earlobes, or you’ll learn to relax and just sort of know where your wrenches are.

You can’t keep Murphy at bay, but you can plan things to make the battle against him a tolerable stalemate. Two principles: Simplicity and Redundancy.

Murphy’s Law could be re-stated something like, “The more things there are to go wrong, the more things will go wrong.” Keeping it completely simple isn’t always practical or desirable, but keep it as simple as practical. Example: If you’re supplying your own water, you will need some method of pressurizing the water to induce it to flow usefully through pipes. This can be done with an expensive and power-hungry pump and pressure tank arrangement, with a correspondingly complex system of pipes and valves. Or, if you have a hill, you can just put your water tank on a hill. I’ve seen it done both ways. They both work, but I know which way gets the most service calls.

This business of simplicity’s effect on reliability is hardly a new observation. It’s probably as old as the concept of machines. Marine engineer Alfred Holt said in 1877,

It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later, so it is not to be wondered that owners prefer the safe to the scientific …. Sufficient stress can hardly be laid on the advantages of simplicity.

The desert has this in common with the ocean: It’s always trying to break your stuff.

In building stuff around the Gulch I try to keep this in mind: Keep it as simple as practical, and wherever possible stick to things I know how to maintain and repair. When I installed a vented, thermostat-controlled heater in the new cabin addition, I was aware that I was violating both those rules. So I fell back on my second principle for making off-grid life endurable…

I woke this morning to find bedroom temperature in the low forties. Since I had just installed a brand-new and untried propane bottle, I assumed that was the problem. (Corollary to the KISS Principle: In diagnosis, check the simplest thing first.) So I went out and swapped out the propane bottle. Could have been a leak had emptied the bottle (no), could have been a defective valve on the bottle (apparently no). The pilot light still wouldn’t light. Okay, possibly there’s a problem with the flexible pipe, if something crushed it. Could be a defective pressure regulator. I’ll check both those things when it warms up outdoors. I have spares for both.

I do not, however, have a spare gas valve or thermocouple, and a defect in either of those will turn off the pilot. I’ve never seen a gas valve fail (though if you believe it can’t happen, go back up and re-read Murphy’s Law) but I really should have obtained a spare thermocouple before now because they do fail. Bottom line, if the problem isn’t in the pipe or the regulator, I’m out of luck for luxurious bedroom temperatures for a while.

Then for a while I’ll just have to fall back on the woodstove, the operation of which is as simple as lighting a pile of sticks with a match. I have lots of matches.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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9 Responses to *exasperated sigh*

  1. Ben says:

    On the bright side, you Will eventually figure out what’s wrong, and after you do your new heater will seem far less intimidating. It’s all in the learning curve.

  2. al says:

    In my past experience the thermal couple is the most likely culprit. I always kept 2 tied to each thing that needed one. Just me.

  3. Mike says:

    The issue may just be that you opened the QCC valve on the cylinder a little too fast and caused the safety to kick in. The QCC valve must be opened very slowly. If it is opened too quickly, the excess flow valve, a safety device that senses the flow of propane, will shut down and not allow propane to pass.

    1. Close all appliance burner control valves,
    2. Close the cylinder valve,
    3. Wait two minutes and very slowly open the cylinder valve (important that the burner control valves remain closed) to full open

    I hope it is just a simple matter to correct this issue. Luck to you Joel…

  4. Jack says:

    Joel, forgive me if you already know all this but the little Empire heater in my lair has been flawlessly reliable and I’m only commenting because of your “It’s full of machinery I really don’t understand” statement.
    If the gas line to the heater was left disconnected long enough in a position to “drain” the gas in it out while you were changing out the tank there could be a slug of air in the line that has to be purged before the pilot will light. That slug of air when it’s pushed up to the main burner and pilot will of course cause the flames to go out and the main valve will then “lock out”. It’ll take a very, very long time to purge any significant volume of air in the line out through the tiny pilot orifice. A quicker purge is done by loosening the gas line connection at the heater’s main valve until you’re sure that the line is purged (of course no open flames while performing this purge), re-tighten the connection and try lighting the pilot again. Be sure to hold the main valve knob in the pilot position long enough to purge the pilot line, ten seconds should be plenty long enough. Once you’ve successfully purged all the air you should be able to get a pilot flame even if you have a bad thermocouple as long as you’re holding the main valve down in the light pilot position. If when you release the main valve knob the pilot won’t stay lit then you’ve likely got a bad thermocouple or a loose connection of same at the valve.

  5. Jack says:

    I would add that there could be other problems like a dirty main valve due to dirty tanks or sourced propane but you had this problem after changing tanks and the heater is new and of a very reliable brand. Still, even after 30 years in the heating and air conditioning business I can’t claim to have seen everything.

  6. John says:

    Small engine & chainsaw maintenance & service.

    Small solar system set up and maintenance.

    Small gas heater maintenance & service.
    Coming soon.

    (They are 99.9% reliable right? )

  7. dilligaf says:

    I am with Jack. You got air in the line.

  8. As a former HVAC tech, who has seen a LOT of the exact system you have in your cabin (pilot flame, thermocouple, thermostat, gas valve) I can say without reservation that the gas valves do fail. I always carried many spare thermocouples, at least one spare gas valve, and aluminum pilot tubing with swage fittings.

    Typically it was the thermocouple (since we mostly serviced natural gas main supplied heaters, we didn’t see the air lock issue much, purging the line through the pilot was standard practice after maintenance), but the valve itself can go bad, or more often get plugged due to the inside of a copper pilot line reacting with the sulfides in the natural gas. That produced a fine silver dust that got into everything…hence the replacement aluminum lines and fittings.

    Low voltage thermostats are dead simple…typically a bimetal coil and contacts. They either work or they don’t, and seldom need replacement.

    The only other issue I typically saw was the high temp cut off going bad…that was a bi-metal temperature switch in the heat exchanger that would interrupt the circut to the gas valve if the heat exhanger got to hot…installed in case the heater outlet screen was covered or plugged.

  9. jon spencer says:

    The Empire heater that we have at camp, has not the $15 thermocouple but the $65 one.
    Found that out last year.

To the stake with the heretic!