A chronicle of the meanderings, false starts (which in retrospect, while sort of embarrassing turned out to be highly instructive), epiphanies, selective apathy (still evolving), wild mood swings, opinions (subject to frequent change), and life lessons of an inveterate dabbler (and her latest dabblings).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Heat Vent Treasures (or, the Ductwork Adventures of an Inveterate Renter)

Tom and I live in a quaint little hut mere blocks from charming downtown Whitefish, Montana. Well, "hut" is probably somewhat of a misnomer. It's more of a shack really. It has a certain beach-side flair, with its little sailboat cutouts on the white shutters, and its powder blue siding (makes me think of that blue and white striped ticking you see in Pottery Barn catalogs). I think perhaps it might have been a lake cabin at one time, and been transported to this lot in town. I have a fondness for small spaces (I'm only going to say that the square footage is in the three digit-range. And not the upper range.), and we both live very simply and have a visceral terror of accumulating too much personal impedimenta, so it suits us. Although there is perhaps not quite enough storage for my burgeoning jewelry paraphernalia. (I should put the bed up on blocks, I could get more under there).

I've never had the urge to own a home, and frankly, it's never really been in my grasp financially anyway. Well, maybe when I first moved back here, before the real estate boom, I could have got into a house if I'd really wanted to, but I hated the idea of possibly being trapped in a soul-killing job because of a mortgage payment, or not having any emergency cash savings. Mobility, options, and emergency cash have always been top priorities in my life (freedom to change jobs, to move, cash to do stuff with), and having a mortgage seemed like it would do away with those things. I was never home anyway so I never much cared what my house was like. So I've always rented. This can lead to living in a house with a relatively...bohemian maintenance history.

When I first moved into this house ten years ago the interior was appalling (a long series of men must have lived here), but it had potential--mainly because of the location, the big picture windows (so much light!) and the gas heat/forced air (unusual to find a gas furnace in such a small house). I thought, I could peel off those three layers of dog-eared wallpaper, paint that circa 1972 faux-wood paneling, wash the nicotine stains off the ceilings, paint over those multicolor patch jobs on those old sheetrock walls, and paint over the faux-marble wallboard in the bathroom and it would be just fine. It smelled like an old bar--an old bar that was in a basement--a basement with inadequate drainage--but that got a little better with a coat of Kilz and open windows. Tom joined me here some years later.

Over the years our little shack has aged like an exotic cheese. Ripened, if you will. The last couple years a really piquant odor has crept in during cooler weather that I can only describe as distinctly organic. Or more precisely, mammalian. And not live mammalian, as in, like, wet dog, but rather...dead mammalian. Like a dead rat in the heat vent.

My impression of this odor has probably been influenced by the fact that the room in which I'm sitting as I type this, the second bedroom, has a barely functioning heat vent. All the other vents in the house are busy pumping out toasty air when the heat comes on except for this one. This room is typically freezing from October to June.

Judging by experience, I didn't think the landlord would spring for a vent guy to come and clean the vents (and it's not apparently cheap to hire someone), so I Googled "smelly heat vent". I was surprised, and somewhat relieved, to discover this exact phenomenon was extremely common in everything from brand new  to fairly old houses. I found a message board where someone was looking for feedback on this exact problem, and they must have gotten about a hundred responses, all from people describing the exact same thing. A rank, pestilential odor appearing to emanate from their heat vents when the weather turned cooler. And not even when the heat was on. A few people found dead mammals, most didn't. Many had their ventwork cleaned, the vast majority of those to no effect.

So I sort of stopped worrying and just poured some Dove body spray down the vents.

But before I did that I Googled "DIY clean heat duct". Not very helpful. One guy said, well run a ShopVac down in your vents, at least get that part clean. So before I dumped the Dove body spray down there I vacuumed them out. In the process I discovered this room where I type was apparently at one time a child's room. A very bored child. Or maybe a very bad child who spent a lot of time in her room. Probably a girl. Not because she was bad but because of the tea set.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This was the last vent I vacuumed. And as soon as I had snaked the ShopVac hose down there, there was that telltale THUNK. I had just sucked up something big. (I'm thinking of a badly decomposed Fivel). Well, it being a ShopVac, the object worked its way without a problem into the canister. I continued my probing with the vacuum hose--THUNK. THUNKITY-THUNK-THUNK. TINK. WHUMP. A series of rattles (bee-bees?). Eventually I sucked up something that got caught in the hose. I took the hose outside, detached it and shook it onto the pavement, fully expecting to find something that would make me barf. This is what came out:

Plastic knife, fork and spoon; part of the blinds that must have hung in the window (formerly a classic 80s burgundy color); part of an erector set (the yellow thing); plastic bread bag fasteners; plastic wheels off a toy car; some change (just pennies, unfortunately); an ear from a Mr. Potato Head; cheap clasp from a piece of jewelry; and some other random crap. The other half of what I sucked up is still in the vacuum bag. I'm too cheap to cut it open and see what it is because the bag's only about 20% full. The other half of the tea set maybe. A barbie head. Mr. Potato Head's lips and mustache. The car that went with the wheels...

Ah, well, something to look forward to.

I excitedly turned on the heater after it appeared there was nothing else within reach of my ShopVac hose. Nothing. No hot air. I'm guessing there might be a doll baby head down there that was resistant to the power of the ShopVac. Maybe a tennis ball. Something big and round that rolled down in there. Or I guess it could be Fivel and the tea set is just a coincidence.

The smell has abated quite a bit. Perhaps because the heater is running more regularly now. Or Dove is more powerful than I ever realized.

Oddly enough I don't really have any desire for a bigger house. I probably wouldn't even use a "studio" because it would be too lonely. I'd haul my crap into the living room so I could sit next to Tom while I make stuff. Every day I expect to get a letter from the landlord saying the house is being torn down to make room for a parking lot. Or a real estate office. They're all over the place. (Har har. Good luck with that.) But for now apparently the lot owner thinks renting to us is a better deal. Thank God for the recession.


  1. Your post had me recalling years of army brat moving. When we moved to a new gov.apartment or house, there was always a small toy or other item I could find hidden away by previous inhabitants. Anyway, nice post. I have no vent suggestions though! :P

  2. Okay. Here is a funny varmint story...

    In our old house (really the one that is just three miles south that we STILL OWN...grrr) there were always mice in the fall that would creep in on tiny feet. We had a dog, a schnauzer named Madison. His food was in a big bag in the closet upstairs. Our basement was unfinished but the outer walls were studded with insulation and plastic. We had a killer box collection. I saved ever single box from the moment we got married. Everything from TV to jewelry boxes. You never know when you will need a good box. They were all piled into a corner. When we got to the point where we wanted to finish the basement, Husband declared that we would have no more boxes and all had to be broken down. This was a monumental task and required about a week of working evenings in the box storage unit that was my basement. One night I pulled a box away from the wall to notice that there was about a 12" wide and 8" high pile of dog food...behind the plastic at the base of the wall inbetween the studs. And NO VISIBLE HOLES as to how they got in. We chuckled about it that we found their secret stash. Two days later I came back downstairs and noticed something was different...every single piece of kibble was gone. And NOT VISIBLE HOLES as tho how they got it out!

    I think it is good to not have that much space. Unfortunately, I have even more and my garage is still full of things (coming up on the 1st anniversary of our move).

    Enjoy the day!

  3. I can definitely identify with your desire to be mortgage-free. I've never felt a strong urge to own a home and can't understand why everyone urges me to do so. Perhaps misery loves company?
    Great post. I look forward to seeing your creations.

  4. Oh Keirsten, if you had dead Fivel in the venting, you would not suspect it, you would know! I live in a fairly old house (rented BTW, at least a 130 yrs. old, from what we can piece together). It was built without a foundation. One room has wood flooring, underneath which is bare earth. The mice used to like to move in under there in the fall. Sometimes one would die of old age. And the room would be practically uninhabitable for about two weeks. But it was even worse when a weasel moved into that space. No more mice. But it smelled like the tiger house at the zoo...
    I did really enjoy your post and hope you find a solution for your heating/odour problem.

  5. We live facing on an undeveloped nature area...i.e. home of rats, snakes, bunnies, tarantulas, coyotes, and apparently the occasional mountain lion...when we rented next door we had an ongoing issue with rats getting in the walls and not getting out. The property manager tried to tell me that the stench in the closet was from the carpet being cleaned and the door being closed before things dried...I think not.

    The most exciting experience was being woken at 2am (when hubster was out of town), hearing a scrabbling sound...thinking that someone had broken in, to discover that a rat had tunneled through the concrete (did you know they can chew through concrete?) and was UNDER my bathroom vanity. IN MY BEDROOM!! He gnawed a little hole in the vanity wood and was pushing the gnawed up concrete gravel out the hole onto the carpet. Ultimately the pest guy unscrewed the base of the vanity, put in a trap and the rat just chose not to return while we lived there (but I hear that the new renter has had some visits)...

  6. This post made me laugh so hard. Unfortunately, or fortunately?, I cannot relate as our house in Kansas City had steam heat which I adored. I am, however, with you on the small house thing. I LOVED our Kansas City house so much even though it was tiny. It felt much more homey. We are now renting in Colorado and though I like the house we're in okay it just has no character!