Friday, December 11, 2009

Things Every Girl Should Know: Pilot Lights

My poor dad was drastically outnumbered in my house, with my mom and four daughters. Maybe that's why we had 2 male cats (but the dog was female!). Thing is, I don't think any of us really counted as full "girls". We were all tomboys, and sure, sometimes girly as well - we loved our Barbies and I went through a pink and purple phase (enough of one that I still have a hard time wearing those colors). But we'd have to push our dad to let us do "boy" things and have him teach us "boy" things like how to throw a football or a punch, how to make a fire, car maintenance, power tools. Fun things like that, that he didn't think girls would be interested in. But we were. Apparently it was hard for him to wrap his head around that.

Some things he eventually succumbed to teaching us - or attempting to, at least. Let's just say that when we finally got around to learning how to throw a football correctly, we were in high school and were not as quick studies as we probably would have been earlier in life. But man, we tried. And it was a lot of fun to be able to go outside and spend a few hours throwing the football around with our dad (and 4 girls!).

So there are a few things that I've had to learn after being set loose on the world on my own, without a dad to protect my girlish sensibilities. One of those things was how to light a pilot light. Not being exposed to this probably had more to do with the fact that we just didn't have many gas-powered things in our house growing up. I've noticed that big difference between the west coast and east coast: east coast, most heating is gas; the opposite in the west.

Which brings us to 10 years ago, when I had just moved in with my boyfriend (now hubby) in a house in New Jersey which had been "redone" by the landlord. Let's just say he got a little mixed up when it came to wiring the water heater. So every time the power would go out, the pilot light on the water heater would go out too. Not very handy, especially on those days where you wouldn't know the power had gone out during the day, and then you don't use the hot water till the next morning when you're late for work and waiting for the shower to warm up, and waiting and waiting...Yeah, a bleary-eyed walk down those scary basement stairs in a chilly house in winter into an unfinished, scary basement with who-knows-what living down there, to the looming water heater. The last thing I needed was to have no idea what I was looking for or supposed to do with it once I found it.

So I learned over the phone. That's right. Andrew talked me through it with me holding the phone, a flash light, a lighter, and then trying to hold the pilot button in for 30 seconds...not a pretty picture. But once I figured it out, I remembered - well, except for that time when I forgot to then turn the dial to "on" and not keep it on "pilot". That didn't work too well. But after that, I was good to go. By the way, if you're thinking, but isn't there supposed to be a diagram and instructions to tell you how to do it? Yes, "supposed to be" are the operative words there, and when you add in years of dust and general nastiness and a flashlight, the likelihood of reading that diagram - or even having one to start with - is very, very low.

And if you have no idea what I was talking about in that previous paragraph, then maybe you need a refresher on how to light a pilot light. Seriously, every girl should know this. You never know when it'll come in handy (and boys are intrinsically born with this knowledge, so you all don't need to learn this, right?). Here's a pretty good tutorial for it (from which I have gleaned these cute and handy images), but I'm going to offer a couple of hints from my experience as well.

- If you're dealing with a gas heater (like we have gas wall heaters: very old-school, but the same ideas apply to all kinds of gas appliances), make sure you turn down the temperature on the thermostat or dial before lighting. Trust me, you don't want a giant gas fireball resulting, especially while your hand and face are hanging out down there.
- Also, I always turn the dial to "Off" first and give it a minute or so, just to make sure I'm not dealing with excess gas when I light that flame up (refer back to the fireball comment above).
- And along those lines, I like to light the lighter (preferred over matches whenever possible, especially if it's a long lighter) before I push in the "Pilot" button to make sure I don't have that build-up of gas I might not notice, and listen for the happy "poof" of the gas lighting when you do push in the button. Sometimes it can be hard to find the actual area you want to light, so if you haven't gotten it lit and you're still pushing out that gas from the Pilot button, let go and give it a minute to let the gas disseminate. I'm telling you, the fireball is a scary thing, even as much as I love fire.

- When you do get the flame lit, it may not be necessary, but when you're pushing in the button while turned to "Pilot", give it a little longer than you think you need (thus the 30 seconds). The most annoying thing is to have the flame go out while you're turning the dial to "On" and not realize it (like on our water heater where it was nearly impossible to see the actual flame).
- Oh, and make sure you do make that dial turn from "Pilot" to "On" like I mentioned before. It's even more of a pain when you're in the shower and the water goes from hot to frozen.
- After turning the dial to "On", then turn up the temperature and make sure you hear that reassuring "poof" of the flame doing its job and getting nice and big to make things warm.

OK, girls (and boys), are we all studied up? Did you go and check it out on your own appliance? It's so worth it to figure it out in advance, because you know that when you will need to do it yourself, it's always the worst circumstances.

And for you Bay Area folks, PG&E is awesome. Did you know that you can call them up and they'll send someone out to check your gas appliances and light your pilot lights for you? It's great when you move into someplace new and have no idea how old and dusty those old wall heaters really are. They're the ones who risk their eyebrows and limbs so that you can be assured to have heat on those winter nights. And make sure to ask them if there are any electric starters - things that are good to know for when the power goes out and you need to know if you can light that gas stove with the knob or if you'll need to use a lighter (or, in our case, that the gas oven has an electric starter and a pilot light you cannot access to light directly).

So go forth and be knowledgeable in the ways of gas appliances!

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