On the scale of days, today was a good one for me. I saved the lives of an entire family, repaired part of a French drain in my yard, finally completed the replacement of a bathroom exhaust fan in the attic, and scratched two items off of my to-do list.
This morning I was in the hardware store collecting all the parts I would need for my two projects. Among the other things on my list were some landscaping stakes to hold the cap on the French drain terminus. These turned out to be particularly elusive so I walked the aisles near the French drain supplies until I spotted an employee. He was with another customer so I walked up close enough that the employee would know I was waiting and, well, waited.
The problem the other customer was trying to solve was an uncapped vent in the wall of a downstairs utility closet that housed his water heater. He was showing the store associate a photo of a finished round hole straight through the wall with screens on either end to keep bugs out. The problem was that with the onset of winter the whole bottom floor of his townhouse had become perpetually cold.
The guy had previously purchased a cap to close the hole but the cap had turned out to be too small. He was back to buy something bigger but the only other alternatives on offer were too large. At this point he was ready to improvise. Even a partial solution was better than letting all his heating dollars escape through the wall.
The store employee was recommending stuffing the hole full of insulation but what had piqued my interest was that the duct caps didn’t fit. Ducts come in standard sizes so if none of the various caps designed specifically for ducting were the right size, I reasoned that’s not actually a duct. But it was finished which meant it was deliberate. That left only one option.
“Excuse me,” I said. “That’s a gas water heater, right?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “Can you tell from the photo?”
Sure enough, the flue was of the gas design and a gas supply line was clearly visible emerging from the wall. The problem “duct” was behind and near the top of the water heater. A yard and some trees were visible through the hole in the wall, plain as day.
“I really don’t think you want to block that off,” I said.
“That looks like the fresh air supply. Every gas-powered appliance works by combustion so it needs fresh air in order to burn. The exhaust has to get outside of the house and that creates negative pressure which pulls air in to replace what goes up the flue. In an open basement the water heater as a lot of building envelope to draw air through so the negative pressure doesn’t build up. But in a small closet the only place it can draw air from if you block the vent is through the door. That’s not a lot of airflow which means lots of negative air pressure can build up in the closet. If it gets bad enough it can actually stop combustion gasses from going out the flue and instead they spill into the utility closet, then into the house.”
“Combustion gasses? Like carbon monoxide?”
“Exactly. And every time someone turns on a bathroom exhaust fan or range-top exhaust fan it creates negative air pressure in the house that pulls the carbon monoxide from the utility closet further into the house. Clothes dryers create lots and lots of negative air pressure because they push so much air out and run for a really long time.”
“What if I seal the door tight and close the duct too?”
“No, don’t do that! With no fresh air coming in at all, eventually the flame would starve for oxygen and not burn cleanly. At best that creates a lot more dangerous gas and at worst you end up with a pilot light and a closet full of partially combusted natural gas just waiting for someone to open the door and let oxygen-rich air in.”
That must have given him an unpleasant visual if the shudder that passed over him was any indication. Maybe he’s seen the movie Backdraft.
“So, what do I do?”
“Turn the heat up, maybe? Seriously, there may be structural ways to address this but I have two specific suggestions. First, get a pro to look at it. They know how much draft a water heater creates and how to calculate venting requirements based on that, the size of the room, the number and volume of exhaust fans elsewhere in the house and so on. Maybe you can seal the duct and put a louver in the door. Maybe you weather-seal the crap out of the door and leave the wall vent in place. There has to be something you can do to help with the cold problem just let a pro work it out so you know it’s safe.”
“And the second suggestion?”
“If you change the design of the venting in any way, and maybe even if you don’t, consider putting a carbon monoxide detector in there. Smoke detectors are required by code but I don’t know whether carbon monoxide detectors are or not. In any case you don’t mention having one in there but that’s probably where you need it most.”
There didn’t seem to be anything left to say and a silence passed between us. When he finally replied, he stared at the duct cap in his hand and spoke so softly that I could barely hear him.
“If this had fit I wouldn’t be in the store today. I never would have known I’d done anything wrong. I could have killed my family.”
“But you didn’t,” I said and put a hand on his shoulder. This broke his reverie and he looked up to meet my eyes.
“Did you happen to see where that guy went?” I asked. “I was hoping he could help me find something.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Don’t move, I’ll go get him.”
I called back that wasn’t necessary but I was too late. It occurred to me that if I waited until he came back he might want to exchange phone numbers or something. That’s all I need. Someone else to disappoint when they realize that between working out of town and spending time with my own family when I’m home that I don’t have time for them. Someone else who is a friend but not a close enough one that the friendship survives the inevitable autistic utterance in an unguarded moment when I accidentally let my filters down. Someone else who will want to exchange Christmas cards.
I may have just saved his life and those of his family but that hardly seems like the kind of common interest you want to form a friendship around. That kind of thing just makes your awkward silences that much more awkward.
“Hey, remember that time I saved your life?”
“Yeah. And the family too.”
“Yeah. Good times.”
Or, I thought, I could get the hell out of there and let the friendship end where it began — on a high note. Random acts of kindness are supposed to be selfless and anonymous. That doesn’t change just because one act turns out to have life-changing impact. You don’t hang around and bask in it or worse impose some sort of obligation of relationship on the recipient.
No. Instead you just give thanks for the opportunity to serve and fade back into the background of life. Taking a stranger’s cart back to the store or explaining ventilation and combustion to them may have vastly different impact but they take about the same amount of effort and it’s the effort that counts. You don’t go looking for high-impact acts of kindness and feel disappointed when they don’t live up to expectations. Rather, you keep an eye out for opportunities to serve and privately celebrate even the most modest of successes.
Moving briskly, I made my way up the aisles until I found the doors to the garden department and ducked through. There, on a rack across from the doors through which I’d just come, were boxes full of landscaping stakes in a variety of sizes. The ones I needed were in stock so I grabbed a 3-pack and headed for the cash registers.
“What luck,” I thought as I walked. “I finally found the landscaping stakes and it was mostly because that guy bought the wrong size duct cap last time. Now I can go home and knock a couple of things off of my to-do list.”
And that is exactly what I did. It was a good day.