15 Apr Kitchen Work

When I glanced in the mirror last night, I was startled to see that my face looked sunburned. I haven’t been outside much and it’s been raining in Baltimore for a week. I decided it might be my blood pressure because Jill and I had just watched a French thriller called “Tell No One” and it nearly gave me a headache, it was so
intense. Was my heart about to blow? Mind you, my family on my mother’s side is riddled with heart disease. Virtually every one of her nine siblings has died, or nearly died, of heart attacks. In fact, my cousin (yes, on my mother’s side) just had a heart attack (and survives). But no, not I: my heart is steady. As it turns out, the red of my face was brick dust.

I’ve spent the last three days and nights inside the chimney of our kitchen fireplace, where I’ve been drilling brick and scraping my knuckles and bumping my head and cursing very loudly as I’ve attempted to install a ventilation system for our new range. It’s a difficult, dirty job. Just when I think I’m done with difficult, dirty jobs on our old house, I find another. The thing is, I never know exactly how hard the job is going to be beforehand because every job is a new adventure. This one, for example, is a one-of-kind challenge: set up a ducting system and a heavy-duty fan to exhaust smoke etc. from the kitchen to the out-of-doors — through a forty-foot chimney.

I mean, it makes sense: there’s the chimney, built for smoke and exhaust of all kinds. But did you know that chimney technology was NEVER effective? Until recently (i.e., the late nineteenth century) chimneys looked good but never really did the job. They were terribly inefficient for heating, often dangerous, and good mainly for sucking warm air out of and, at the same time, sending too much smoke into your house. They remain a terrible energy drain, which is why you have to seal them well when you’re not using them. The original stove in our kitchen stood in the fireplace, a pipe angled into the flue to take the smoke. The soot I encountered during my chimney adventure was probably about 80 years old, circa 1925, when the original stove was replaced by a small gas range (which was still in the house when we took it over). I got so sooty, I looked like a miner.

The flue (the space where the smoke goes up) of our chimney is about 14 ½ inches across. I can squeeze my body – sideways – into this space but I can’t turn around. If I want my hands above my head, I have to enter the flue with my hands above my head. Fortunately, I’m not claustrophobic But, as I angled and shifted and squirmed and pushed my way into that tight space, I could see how anybody might panic if left there too long. I worked with a light behind me but, because it was behind me, I often blocked its illumination. Really, I needed a miner’s helmet.

You might think this is more trouble than it’s worth . . . until your kitchen is full of smoke, which ours often is. But what kind of fan is going to push smoke up a 40-foot-tall chimney? A big fan. A fan so big, the salesman told me over the phone, I’d want a muffler for it. Hmmm. A muffler. I liked the sound of that. So I ordered the big fan and its muffler and all kinds of galvanized sheet metal ducting. The fan muffler arrived in a box the size of a waist-high refrigerator. And it was heavy, about 40 pounds. To my dismay, I discovered that it was too big to fit up into the chimney.

So I sent it back. Note: before ordering something from a hardware supplier, check to make sure they don’t charge a “restocking fee.” I discovered that I’d be charged 30% of the original cost to send the muffler back. Over the phone, I argued it down to 15%. Your local professional supplier (i.e.., not Home Depot or Lowes, but one that deals directly with contractors) will do the same or won’t take returns at all– which was what happened when I tried to return another piece of ducting. Suffice it to say, I spent some time getting my ducting together.

Whenever I’m faced with an installation I’ve never done before, I mull it over for days, even weeks, trying to picture how it might go. It’s like considering a puzzle. I’ll put it off and put it off and, then, finally I’ll do it and won’t stop until it’s done, sometimes staying up all night to see it through. Which was what I did in this case. Here’s one piece of the puzzle: I had to get a ten-inch duct to transition into a five-inch duct. You can get these adapters called “reducers,” which will transition down at three inch increments: ten to seven inches, seven to five inches. So I got two of those.

There were other complications. I had lots of new electricity to install: the motor, which I wired to a regulator so that I could vary the fan speed; four lights, and an outlet. When I flipped on the power, it tripped the breaker, which meant I had a short somewhere. Mind you, everything was installed – the fan was attached to the brick up inside the chimney and all of the ducting attached to the motor and all of that covered over with the light panels. If I discovered that the fan motor was defective, I’d have to pull everything out. Note: always check that the appliance works before you install it.

Before I started pulling things out, however, I checked the most likely culprit – the recycled light switch I had installed. Maybe it was defective (something about it didn’t look right). I discovered that it was indeed defective. Whew. Note: when things go wrong, always look first at the simplest explanation.

If you’ve got yourself a big, new kitchen range, here’s the formula for getting the right fan: for every 10,000 BTUs your stove-top generates (your manual will tell you), you will need a fan that can suck 100 Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM). Our stove-top generates 80,000 BTUS. So we’re supposed to get an 800 CFM fan. That’s a fan nearly as big as a beach ball. But that’s assuming you’re going to keep all six burners blazing—as you might in a restaurant. So I cut back to a 600 CFM fan. Which still a big fan.

So the job is done. The fan is in. It’s so powerful it takes several seconds before it gets up to full speed and, when fully cranked, it isn’t quite as loud as a jetliner taking off. We’ll have to keep the cats away from it lest they get sucked out of the house.