28 January 2011

Always check one's most vital winter equipment BEFORE winter...

Most of you will have the good sense to know that one should check one's most vital winter equipment BEFORE winter.

The ignorant amongst you will understand that we had so much else to do just to get INTO the house for winter that we assumed the fire burning happily away in the kitchen would last us throughout the cold season...

Alas, this was not to be the case.

Last week we had a chimney fire. Our most precious fire, the one in the kitchen that also breathes warm air into our bedroom, started spewing noxious gases into our bedroom. At the time, Stu suspected a chimney fire because of the heat in the stones behind the fire and the colour of the smoke coming out of the chimney. But neither of us realised the danger associated with breathing in the smoke. The fumes were shocking but we went to bed anyway in our poisonous room and woke up with rasping throats. In hindsight, it's amazing we didn't die in our sleep (the gases coming off a carbon build-up in a chimney can be equivalent to carbon monoxide poisoning!)

Anyway, we immediately phoned the muratore (wall, roof and chimney expert). Aldo is our favourite tradesperson because he is patient, reliable and honest. He said he would come. We didn't push the 'when' because we were already aware of the dangers of getting on a roof during winter and even suspected that he might not be able to help us until Spring! Instead, we waited for a phone call from him to confirm his visit. It didn't come while my sister Joanne and two young nephews Nic and Sam were here but it did come the day we dropped them off at Malpensa for their return trip to Australia (2 days ago).

I was in a rather emotional state after realising how empty and quiet the house was, when Aldo phoned and said he would arrive immediately!

Despite my red eyes, we showed him our problem and he said he would come the next day with a cherry picker. He demonstrated some concern about the muddy state of our driveway in terms of manoevring the cherry picker but it didn't last long once he remembered that very cold temperatures were forecast for the following morning so any mud would be frozen anyway.

So this morning at 9am, Aldo, two young men and a cherry picker drove up our driveway. It was particularly frosty at minus 5, perhaps the worst we've had yet. There was ice everywhere: the grass, the trees and the roof where all frozen. And of course the mud.

As I watched them stabilise the cherry picker, I felt sad that my nephews had missed this 'event' by only days.

However, the grown up Italian men were like boys anyway, as they 'played' with the cherry picker. They argued over who should use it and laughed at each other's lack of ability to move it smoothly and in the right direction.

Two of them went onto the roof while the other managed the engine of the truck which was connected to the power source for the extendable arm. The two on the roof looked long and hard at the chimney, then decided to cold chisel off the brick top so that they could see inside the cavity all the way down to the kitchen. Aldo had a very small torch to assist their viewing so I wasn't surprised when he asked me if I had a stronger torch. Of course, to collect my torch, he needed to come back down via the cherry picker. Cynically, I wondered if this wasn't just an excuse to have another 'ride'. There was quite a bit of hidden laughter as the other two men watched Aldo negotiate the arm down without breaking all the tiles on our roof in the process.

Once back on the roof, he yelled down that the chimney was clean and that a stainless steel chimney flue had already been installed in the brick cavity! We felt embarrassed but he explained that if the stench had been so bad it might have completely burned off the offending layer of carbon. We were also wrapt to hear about the flue because this seems to be a priority for everyone who restores houses and we weren't sure if ours had been done or not.

It was at this point that Stu's life turned to crap. Aldo invited him to come up in the cherry picker to have a look down the chimney himself. Aware of Stu's fear of heights, I quickly volunteered him and in no time at all Stu found himself in a very wobbly cherry picker with a very dodgey driver.

Once Stu had been returned safely to ground, Aldo announced that he would 'go and get the stone'. 'The stone' was to replace the bricks that had formed the top of the chimney. During the Autumn rains, we'd been plagued by a leaking chimney and he had explained to us then that it was normal Piemontese practice to replace weak brick chimney tops with a single piece of stone.

When he returned half an hour later, he had a beautiful piece of grey granite with him. Once up on the roof, he positioned the granite perfectly, finally cementing it into place. I noted the pride he took in ensuring that his cement mix was right. When he built the stone wall in the kitchen for us a few months ago, he was very fussy about his mix. A real craftsperson.

While he was doing this, he asked us to light the kitchen fire so that he could see if the smoke was still coming into our bedroom.

A few minutes later, we had all three men in our kitchen. Aldo's two young helpers looked and behaved like they'd never seen a fire before. Within seconds, Stu's humble fire which was focused on maximum efficiency in terms of wood usage, had been fed like never before! It was a veritable bonfire as it roared away in its confined space! Then they sat back and marvelled at how much heat came out of the fire and how far into the room the heat extended. It was really quite hilarious.

But once the initial excitement was over, they all looked at the flue and the fan and decided that not enough air was getting through the fire and that this was causing the build up of carbon inside the chimney. To avoid future chimney fires, Aldo told us we should run the fire fast and hard (a bonfire) every few weeks. 'Make it eat the wood!' he exclaimed.

So we are warm again, albeit because of a very attentive Italian tradesperson rather than any great pre-winter planning on our part...

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