Saturday, March 8, 2008

Heaters that don't work

We have the Cadillac of heaters in the bus, or so I've been told. This may explain why I have always favored Fords.

Down in the bowels of the bus sits a little diesel furnace called a ProHeat. The original market for these furnaces was to keep highway tractors warm without having to run the engine while the driver is sleeping. Its a fairly simple unit designed to burn diesel, hooked into the engine coolant loop and in theory capable of keeping the bus warm when it isn't warm outside. And quite a bit of the time that is exactly what it does.

Last November I fired the ProHeat up and it worked fine. We got the bus packed and left for Regina with no hint of trouble. Then the first night in Regina we woke up to a cold bus. Fortunately the furnace fired up again and we were able to get the engine running. From then on we ran the generator so we could run electric heaters but most of the time we kept the engine running until we got to warmer places.

Over the years I have replaced most of the pieces that are bolted onto the basic ProHeat chassis. I pulled it apart again this winter and cleaned it which appeared to get it working again but only briefly. The last two nights I have woke up to a cold bus and I'm about at my wits end now. A few days ago I posted my troubles on a bus conversion forum and last night I got a call from a guy in Michigan who told me more in a 15 minute phone call than I have figured out in 4 years of ownership. He gave me the name of another guy who really knows his stuff - just got off the phone with him. I'm still not sure what the problem is but at least I have some ideas so I can spend some more money on it today. When I was a kid I remember father cursing about oil furnaces - now I've got one and I'm pretty certain I know why the world changed to natural gas.

Other than the heat issue life is pretty good here at camp Sunstrum. We were in Banff last weekend. Al and Camille came out Tuesday and took us out for supper. We had the trucklet hooked up for an early departure Wed morning and I had Marilyn at the airport well before her 9:15 flight to Saskatoon. Then I moved back up to Airdrie where we intend to stay for at least the next couple of weeks. I've been enjoying the +10 or better temperatures while Marilyn sends me texts telling me how cold it is in Saskatoon. Of course I have been waking up to a cold bus but it warms up quickly and my electric blanket (and cat) keep me warm at night. The heater seems to always fire when it is cold (as opposed to when it has been cycling regularly) which may be a clue to what is wrong with it.

Yesterday I drove up to Stettler and met with a guy from UFA's Occupational Health and Safety division. I've been writing an ops manual for UFA's new fertilizer plants and integrating the manual into their OHSA program. That's been pretty educational for me - I hope UFA feels the same way. Next week I have to fly to Winnipeg for a couple of days and then at the end of the week I'm going to take the bus to Medicine Hat and meet Marilyn there. We'll have a visit with Marlan and then come back here to Airdrie.

Good books to read: Fooled by Randomness by Taleb & When Genius Failed by Lowenstein. I'm not sure how I ended up reading them at the same time but it was certainly appropriate. When Genius Failed is the story of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) which was a hedge fund that failed spectacularly in September 1998. The failure of an unknown hedge fund wouldn't make much of a story but this is the story of incredible hubris on the part of the LTCM partners who were largely PhDs and included two Nobel Prize winners and greed and incompetence on the part of the largest bankers in the world. In the space of 5 weeks in August and September 1998 the partners lost $4 billion that they had accumulated over the two previous years. Both the rise and fall of LTCM are incredible stories - some would say that the fact they happened to the same partners in such a short space of time is a 10 sigma event but not Taleb. Fooled by Randomness is an appropriate companion book because it deals with the way we rationalize that our good performance is the result of some innate personal quality and our bad performance is largely a result of external factors. Taleb argues that the truth is that a lot of what happens to and around us is largely the result of random events. The connection to LTCM is that the "rules" and sophisticated financial models that LTCM used to accumulate (and lose) obscene amounts of money were not sufficient to predict the random event that ultimately led to their downfall. You'll have to read the book to see what the random event was.

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