Worst winter ever. Deadliest winter ever?
March 9, 2008 3:47 PM   Subscribe

Ice has destroyed my oil furnace chimney. Will it kill me?

Well, this record-breaking Bad Canadian Winter has killed my chimney. I was up there on a ladder yesterday, trying to get a look at the damage, but ice sliding off the roof clipped my right leg really badly -- a bruise running from the back of my right ankle to the back of my right knee -- and the ice, piled up behind the chimney, is pushing it with enough force that I can't push it back at all. I can't get on the roof, first because it's physically nigh-impossible, secondly because if the ice slips out from under me I'm dead. It's a long way down.

So the question I have right now is: the oil furnace is my sole source of heat for the upper floor of the house. The chimney runs up the outside of the house, so leakage isn't a huge concern (it'll run through the overhang, or at least I hope)... but is running oil heat going to kill me? I don't want to die of carbon monoxide poisoning, but I don't want to freeze to death, either.

Fortunately, the lower floor -- where the water intake is -- is on electric heat, so there's no danger of the place overheating. I have a carbon monoxide monitor and the house set on 10 degrees Celsius, so I'm wearing a lot of sweaters and a toque and praying for warmer weather.

It's gonna be freezing again tonight, Monday, and Tuesday. Warm up a bit Wednesday and Thursday, and then right back down into hell for another week or more.

I'm stymied. I'm going to call the roofing people to see if they can give me some advice tomorrow, but more opinions are always welcome. It's really bloody hard to get back there, so I can't scaffold my way up... I'm a bit freaked out by all this.

Picture here.
posted by Shepherd to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
Sorry to hear about your situation.

If you have a second CO monitor, place it at waist-level near the furnace. If CO backs up and builds up near the furnace, you'll at least get a quicker warning about this problem than having a CO monitor elsewhere in your house.

If you only have one CO monitor, I would leave it where it is, if it is already where you can hear it while you are sleeping. You want to be woken up, if CO builds up to dangerous levels.

Another option is to turn off your furnace and ask to stay with friends or family, if possible, until you can have the chimney looked at.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:08 PM on March 9, 2008

If you do abandon ship and leave the heat off, leave a faucet dribbling so your pipes don't freeze up.
posted by Class Goat at 4:13 PM on March 9, 2008

It's tough to tell from the picture angle, and I'm not an HVAC expert, but I think one of three things are possible.

1) The ice bent the chimney to something slightly more vertical than a 90 degree bend but did not compress it to the point that it is fully obstructed. I think this is your most likely situation, and is most likely ok for a night or two. The general rule of venting is that there needs to be a slight upward pitch for any horizontal section, and that's what it looks like you have.

2) The ice broke the chimney off, leaving a hole in the chimney and the top part half on. This is probably ok as well, since the exhaust gases are warm enough to melt any snow that might have gotten in the hole and will be able to escape.

3) The ice compressed the chimney when it bent it to the point where there is not enough crossectional area for the exhaust gases to escape. This one isn't so good, since they will have no place to go.

Carbon monoxide would be my main concern, and I cannot emphasize enough that it should be yours as well. I would not run the oil heater at night, and be extra vigilant for lethargy, headaches, etc. To give myself peace of mind what I'd do is let the oil heater run for a while (with suitable detection going ), then go downstairs and burn a small piece of newspaper or candle or something else smokey right near the intake to the vent. If you see the smoke rise up the chimney you'll have a data point that it is drafting properly.
posted by true at 4:15 PM on March 9, 2008

Around here I would call the HVAC people, not the roofing people. HVAC companies are used to "OMG!!!! Emergency!!!!" phone calls and usually have really fast response times, unlike roofing companies which come when they have a spare moment. Give them a call Monday morning and get a technician out to your house before running the furnace.
posted by Forktine at 5:15 PM on March 9, 2008

Monoxide detectors won't go off until the concentration reaches 80ppm, a compromise level intended to reduce nuisance tripping. Most of them will, however, read out the actual level if you push the button, even if it's below 80. Might be interesting to watch that when the furnace isn't running, and when it is.

I'm worried that the chimney is crimped shut. Can you whack on the frozen stuff with a pole from the ground and get a better look at it? Obviously that top piece is gonna need replacing anyway, so if you just chop into it with a hatchet or something to create a makeshift vent port, I don't see that as a big problem. Venting below the eave could make it easier for exhaust gases to come back in, so unless your furnace room has a dedicated combustion air intake, you might want to crack a window on the opposite side of the house deliberately, to encourage the house to inhale from there rather than from air leaks on the exhausty side.

Close off any rooms you're not using, and use fans to move air from the electrically heated part of the house as much as possible, to minimize the time that the combustion furnace has to run. Here's hoping your power doesn't go out.
posted by Myself at 5:20 PM on March 9, 2008

Thanks for the pointers to date. I've got the furnace off now, and it will stay off for the night; I've actually got a 220 construction heater downstairs, so I may just pull the stove away from the wall, unplug it, and jack in the construction heater to heat the upstairs 'til all the ice melts off the roof (hopefully within the next three weeks). My electricity bill will obviously be hell on wheels, but at least I won't be dead.

I'll call the oil company tomorrow to see if they can send somebody out to take a look, but I'm not optimistic. The roof is a good 36' off the ground, and there's about five feet of snow -- no kidding -- on the ground. It's a major operation just to get a ladder over there, let alone what a repair crew would need, until we get a good run of warm weather to get this snow off the ground.
posted by Shepherd at 5:52 PM on March 9, 2008

Is that a window right there? I would try to broomstick poke the snow and ice on top of the chimney to see if you can get a better view at exactly what it did. Those chimney pieces have seams so it could have just been knocked loose and need to be re-attached (which does look like it would be kind of tough.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 9:37 PM on March 9, 2008

I've just tried that this morning -- unfortunately the window is above the sink, and if I balance myself precariously I can kind of whack at the icy overhang by holding onto the very end of the shovel with both hands. No good -- it chips a bit of the ice at the bottom, but makes no difference overall. I've pulled the hell out of my left shoulder hanging onto the ladder while being hit with that giant chunk of ice on my leg, so even holding the shovel is a challenge.
posted by Shepherd at 3:59 AM on March 10, 2008

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