Caught in the Vortex

FurnaceI finally understand how the characters in the Stephen King novels must feel when they find themselves being attacked by unusual things like automobiles and hotels.  Just last Monday my own furnace tried to kill me. Call it anthropomorphism if you like, but somehow the furnace knew that temperatures in Illinois were going to top off at minus 15 on the Fahrenheit scale – that’s minus 26.1 Celsius for our friends in Europe – and that it would be the coldest day Illinois had seen for decades. Outside, winds were reaching 45 mph, a foot of new snow was falling, and the roads were impassible without four wheel drive. The weather guessers called the whole thing an “Artic Vortex”, and if you were a furnace with homicidal inclinations you would have known that there would never be a better opportunity to kill me in my sleep. So my furnace made its move.

It was a sneaky attack. The furnace didn’t want to tip me off. It kept the blowers spinning and it kept making all of its usual noises. But it quietly turned off the key ingredient – fire. Things could have gotten ugly.

Fortunately, I woke up before I was frozen solid. And — like an intrepid Stephen King character — I sprang into action. I plugged in every heating device that I owned. Soon my electric meter was whirling around so quickly that it could practically have taken flight. And I prevailed. For the moment, my furnace and its dastardly scheme were thwarted.

First thing in the morning I started looking for an HVAC guy to come over and do an exorcism, or whatever it is that HVAC guys do when a furnace tries to kill somebody. The HVAC guys weren’t easy to get hold of, even at winter emergency rates. It turns out that there was some kind of an uprising going on, and that furnaces all over town were on a murderous rampage, spinning their blowers and aiming deadly, freezing air at their owners.

Eventually an HVAC guy did come to my rescue, trekking bravely through the wind, snow and cruel temperatures. When he arrived I explained my Stephen King theory, and how it couldn’t possibly be coincidence that my furnace had chosen this day of all days to go on the fritz.

The HVAC guy pointed out the “last maintenance conducted on” sticker affixed to the furnace cover and politely suggested that — while demonic possession was certainly a possibility — lack of regular maintenance could produce similar symptoms. He dug around in the heater guts for a bit, didn’t see anything obvious, and decided to go high tech. He pulled out a laptop computer and plugged it into the serial connector on the furnace’s main controller board.

I was still shaken by my recent brush with personal extinction, of course, but not too shaken to notice that he was using a USB to serial converter in a blue plastic housing. I took a closer look and recognized one of my own products, a USOPTL4 converter from B+B SmartWorx.

So we talked about USB to serial converters. He said that he preferred our B+B models over their competitors because of their built-in isolation and high retention USB connectors. He was using RS-422 mode to interface with my diabolical furnace, but he mentioned that he needs the RS-485 mode for many of the commercial units. He also liked the fact that his version of the USOPTL4 had a locked serial number, so that he didn’t have to worry about keeping it with one particular laptop. I felt like a proud father.

Eventually his diagnostic software discovered what my furnace was up to, and he put a stop to it. Minutes later the furnace was pushing out hot air as if nothing had ever happened. You can imagine my relief.

Before he left I asked him what a person with a malevolent, bloodthirsty furnace can do to curtail its abominable activities. He pointed at the new maintenance sticker he’d attached and said, “Try calling me in the Fall next time.”