And you thought winter heating bills were scary. For a nearly month now, I've had no heat at all. My partner and I came home one day in mid-November to find that our ancient, natural gas-fired steam boiler had broken down. Water had seaped from the corroded, sediment-clogged pipes into the first-floor ceiling, which bulged in spots. The boiler itself was gushing water in the basement. A noxious orange liquid trickled out from its base.
We shut the boiler down for good and vowed to buy a new one, but that turned out to be more complicated than we'd expected. It took weeks. After finding a contractor who still works on steam systems, and convincing someone to finance our considerable loan, we finally got the heat back on -- thanks to John Provoncha and Cary Meyer of Vermont Energy Contracting and Supply Corp.
Provoncha, 52, has been in the plumbing and heating business most of his life; his father was a plumber. Meyer, 44, came to the trade two years ago, after working as an electrican, a carpenter and a printer. Together they installed a new, Weil-McLain Ultra 80 boiler in our basement. It heats our water supply, and sends hot water up into our radiators through a gleaming array of new copper pipes. No more steam. I spoke with them about energy crises and the changing nature of their business in the cramped, dirt-floor basement of my home in Winooski.
SEVEN DAYS: This 3-and-a-half-foot-tall boiler looks more like a robot than a furnace . . .
JOHN PROVONCHA: It's a high-tech, pretty nifty piece of machinery. I couldn't even tell you everything about it. You've got a computer board in there, and you could wire it up to where if you were in California or overseas or something like that, you could make a phone call into your phone line, and turn it on, turn it off, do anything you wanted to.
SD: Are you serious? I could call it up and turn it on?
CARY MEYER: You'd have some work to do to do that, but yes.
SD: Why would I want to do that?
JP: A lot of people do it. We've got a lot of these up in the Stowe area, in some of the condos and houses up there. People living in California want to come up, go skiing in Stowe, and they'll call up, or set it to where this thing'll come on at a certain time. It'll bring the house up to 75 degrees for you. You can drop it down, you can bring the hot water tank up or down, you could almost play a computer game on some of this stuff.
And you've got to get into it, but if you get into it, it'll even tell you what's wrong with itself, and sometimes correct itself.
SD: That's crazy!
JP: Yes it is. That's why Cary and I are a real good team. I'm not as strong at electrical as he is. I've been to a couple classes on this, and it just totally blows your mind. Boilers nowadays are nothing like they used to be. Used to be just a source of heat and that's it. Nowadays, well, it's like a piece of art.
SD: And it's pretty energy-efficient, too, right?
CM: If you went in and played with the computer parameters on this, you can get it to 96 percent, which basically means it's using almost 100 percent of its fuel in energy to heat. There's almost no wasted fuel.
JP: Your old steam boiler couldn't have run in the 60 percent range.
SD: Do you guys often deal with people who are freaking out because they don't have heat?
JP: If they don't have heat, they can't wait for you to get there. And once we get the heat on, they kinda like to see us go, too. Because we're expensive.
CM: You meet a lot of nice people. I'm very surprised at it. We're doing boiler and furnace swaps right now two weeks before Christmas, and they just found out two days ago that they've gotta spend 10 thousand dollars, you know? And that's a stressful time. Money's tight for everybody. And they're still nice folks.
JP: When I first got into it, it was just something to do. But I'm actually doing something that means something. I've helped out a lot of people. I give a lot of free time out to friends and family and people who need it. In the North Country, you need heat. I don't care what you have, you can't get by without that heat. People kinda look at you, and they remember you. It makes you feel good.
SD: When your friends ask you what kind of heating systems to put in their house right now, what do you tell them?
JP: If you can have natural gas, use it. It's cheaper. More efficient.
CM: Wood is the cheapest way of heating right now, but you've got to factor in your labor. As far as fossil fuels, natural gas is the way to go.
SD: How do you heat your house?
JP: I rent, but we use natural gas.
CM: Number two heating oil. I live in a rural part of South Burlington, so I'm not on any gas network, and I probably never will be. I could run propane, and I do run some propane for half of my house, but most of my house is heated with oil.
SD: So how long do you think this boiler will last?
JP: We haven't had one go yet. Something like 15 to 25 years.
CM: I'm going to say 15 to 20.
SD: Fifteen years?!? I'm not even going to finish paying this off for another seven years!
JP: A lot of people wouldn't think twice about going out and getting another car every five years. This boiler runs twice as much as your car ever thought of running. It does twice as much as your car ever thought of doing. It's running seven days a week, all day, all night. It's heating water for you. It's giving you heat, it's giving you comfort. This boiler runs more than anything in your house. And after 15, 20 years, it's getting tired.
SD: But is it worth it?
JP: Absolutely. It's going to cut your fuel bill, I bet you, in half.
CM: You had a failing boiler. But you wouldn't believe how many boilers and heating systems we're taking out that aren't failing. People are doing it for efficiencies. We're talking about boilers that are operating fine. I've got to believe that those folks have done the math. And factor in that Vermont Gas is getting a double-digit rate increase next month. You can actually laugh at that. You've just gained it back right now.
JP: It's costing you up front, but you'll be happy.