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I need to get some cabinets painted.

So, I spent a week taking a propane furnace apart and putting it back together.

Many, many times.

Don’t worry, I was careful. This project involved propane gas, electricity, and fire. I’m not a fan of explosions, particularly if I’m part of them. But I live in Minnesota, it’s winter, and without heat in the shop it’d be about forty degrees too cold to paint.

I won’t name the brand of furnace, because I have nothing personal against the company. It’s a leftover from my livestock days, so the fact that it’s more or less functional after twenty years is a vote in its favor. I should probably replace it, but to do it right I’d have to spend $1,000 or so, and I’m not a good enough carpenter to justify that. Let’s face it – if I bought a $1,000 furnace for my shop, it would double the value of the building.

I didn’t think I needed a new furnace; I’ve been making these furnaces work for forty years. We’re not talking microchips or robotics…it’s just a valve, fire, air, and a thermocouple. You’d think there would only be a limited number of things that could go awry.

You’re be wrong.

I flashbacked to about 40 years ago. We had hogs on three farms and I had a really good guy named Bill working with me. On one of the farms, we had a feed system that I’d purchased in a moment of insanity. Little plastic disks were connected to a long, stainless-steel cable that ran through an enclosed tube. The disks picked up ground corn from giant bins and distributed it to various feeders.

Sounds simple, but it was a little finicky. There were about ten different adjustments that had to be just right. What was “just right” depended on the temperature and the humidity, and maybe the phase of the moon. It often broke, and when it stopped working, it was often hard to fix, and it usually broke when the weather was very cold, very hot, or very wet. Without the feed system, the hogs couldn’t eat, so fixing it was kind of a priority, no matter how frustrating.

At that same time, I had a brother-in-law who worked as a business consultant, and he’d recently told me about a method of tracking productivity. A guy would carry a little tape recorder that would beep every fifteen minutes, and with every beep, he’d stop what he was doing to record his actions at that moment.

As Bill and I took apart and reassembled the feed system for about the twentieth time, I told him that story just to pass the time. When I finished the story, he nodded, and kept on working.

About a half hour later, he started to chuckle and then said, “Beep. Working on the feed system. Beep. Working on the feed system.”

I laughed - hard. It got me through the day and the memory has gotten me through a lot of frustrating days since. It’s funny how often that story applies in life.

I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my heater, but that’s because there were two things wrong – a slightly plugged orifice AND a loose wire in a thermostat. It’s a lesson I should have learned many years ago. When there’s a problem that seems insolvable, it’s often because you haven’t taken a step back and looked at the whole picture.

That’s what I did in the end - just stepped back and started over from scratch, checking and adjusting one thing at a time. I took my time, even going into the house to get my reading glasses so some of the smaller parts would come into focus. In the end, the pilot light stayed lit and when I cranked up the thermostat, the flame poofed into life. This morning the shop was warm.

Tomorrow I paint.

Copyright 2020 Brent Olson

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