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January 21, 2008 [ More archived home pages here ]

Chicago Cold Weather Record


The above image, Bitterly Cold Journey is also available as a Desktop

Today's song is A Hazy Shade of Winter by Simon and Garfunkel, released in 1968.

Sunday, January 20, 1985 in Chicago was the coldest day on record for that city. I remember that day very well. I'm reminded of it by yesterday's article in the Chicago Tribune. There is a story behind my memory.

At that time, my wife, daughter, and I were living in our first home (shown below) in Berkeley, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. The region had just experienced a blizzard and snow was piled high along sidewalks and streets. I awoke that morning feeling very cold and upon opening my eyes, could see my breath as I exhaled. I knew something was wrong, seriously wrong.

I immediately checked the house thermostat and discovered the temperature was 48 degrees inside the house. I quickly woke up my wife and daughter and told them to get warmly dressed because something was wrong with our furnace. I then went to look at the furnace and after a brief inspection discovered the thermocouple was not working properly.

The old-style thermocouple had corroded over time and only a small amount of bimetal was present between the contacts. I managed to insert a flat-blade screwdriver between the old-style thermocouple contacts, establishing a jerry-rigged fix to get the furnace to start. I told my wife and daughter to stay on the couch in the front room so that no unnecessary vibration caused that temporary fix to break.

I then dressed as warmly as I could with long underwear, two pairs of socks, layered tops, winter coat, a hat, scarf, and gloves and headed for the garage. The wind chill at that time was -80 degrees. As soon as I stepped out the back door I was cold. I ran to the garage and attempted to start my car. My engine cranked so slowly that I wasn't sure it would start. At this same time the entire inside of my car frosted over by my breath freezing on the inside of the car. Eventually my car started and ran rough for about ten minutes before I put it in gear to drive out the driveway.

I drove over to the hardware store in Bellwood, Illinois and that took about 30 minutes because of the bad road conditions. Once inside I asked one of the knowledgeable staff about a replacement thermocouple. He asked me what type of furnace I had. I didn't know. He asked me who designed my 1954 built house. I knew that answer, "a McGraw-Hill", I said. He then said, look through his supply book and see what I could find.

I was lucky, on one of the pages was a picture of the exact type of thermocouple my old furnace used. I showed it to him and he went to see if they had one in stock. As it tuned out, that store didn't, but an affiliated store did and he told me to come back in a few hours and I could pick it up then. So I returned home.

At home the furnace was still running and had not yet shut off. Because of the temperature differential between outside and inside, my old furnace took a long time to warm the house. A few hours passed and the furnace was still running when I returned to the hardware store to pick up the new thermocouple.

I arrived at the store, paid for the item, purchased some teflon tape for the gas connection and returned home. After arriving home, my furnace ran for another hour before finally cycling off. It had run for over six hours in the jerry-rigged condition while slowly bringing the house back up to 70 degrees. It took that long to overcome the 150 degrees of apparant temperature differential between the inside and outside!

I opened my toolbox and in less then ten minutes I had the new thermocouple installed and ready for service. I tested the new gas connection and all was fine. The furnace started back up and worked as expected for the rest of the time we lived in that home. We moved from that home in July 1988.

It was a close call for us. I was fortunate that the hardware store staff was knowledgeable about the types of homes in our neighborhood back then. They had the experience over the years to know about furnace issues and were therefore able to help me find what I needed.

I emailed my daughter the link to that Chicago Tribune article. She responded that she remembered the day mostly for having to wear so many clothes in the house. I remember it for the instant frigidly cold I felt while outside and the helpful people at that hardware store. I'm thankful a bad situation was resolved with a portion of my own resourcefulness too. It could have been a lot worse with -80 degree wind chill rapidly removing heat from our small house.

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Found on the web links for January 21, 2008.

Don


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