A Time of Dread and Beauty – Fall Leaves & Boiler Rumblings

By Phineas J. Stone

Fall is certainly in the air this week, and we all love fall in Boston, but we always bookend that love with the dread of what’s soon coming.

As beautiful as the leaves are on the trees – though this year’s drought may have stifled that a bit this year – and as great as it is to take a trip out to the apple orchards, we know that winter is coming. This time of year, there’s no telling how bad it’s going to get.

We all run around like squirrels burying acorns, trying to get the last of the outdoor activities in before it’s time to hunker down, retrieve the snow shovels from the basement and invest in some sort of salt or de-icer for the steps/sidewalk. Only a few weeks ago, I had the boiler man over to take a run of my furnace.

“Tip top shape,” he said. “Running at the highest efficiency.”

While that’s always good news, it only means that I’m going to burn a little less heating oil than if I were inefficient. The dread of winter and anticipation of those renewed oil bills is hardly soothed by the salve of red and orange leaves, and hot apple pie.

The greatness of summer in Boston is that the oil tank lies dormant, and October is really the last month to enjoy the tidbits of oil that remain in the tank from last spring. For this reason, many jumped on the bandwagon about a decade ago to switch over to natural gas, getting a free boiler from the utility and all sorts of government credits. I watched neighbor after neighbor do so, most making the decision as they completed expensive rehabilitation projects.

Their decision paid off in the short run, but now they’re not so smart.

Many might have forgotten, but only about 10 years ago there was a panic for those with oil. While a gallon of the precious winter fuel used to cost about 75 cents, it had risen to almost $5 a gallon. Elderly remaining in their old homes were freezing, quite literally, in solemn quietness. Few knew how dire the situation was.

I held my ground, though I was criticized.

A state energy cabinet member even looked at me in disdain once during a conversation back then, saying that people like me needed to realize that we had run out of oil in the world. Oddly enough, the top energy secretary for our state said to me that the supply of oil in the world was nearly depleted.

How wrong was that guy? I believe some time down the road he said another crackpot quip and got himself fired. Count me as not surprised.

Nevertheless, I didn’t convert; I kept the old tried and true ways of Boston – heating with oil.

I did so because I had read a great deal in the early 2000s about a new technique in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania called “Hydraulic Fracturing,” or Fracking. Many of the proponents said there were vast reserves of oil and gas deep down that we might tap into if we could get there. I was convinced, and not long after, we got down there.

Oil is back to being affordable and in a major way, and gas should be, were it not for a lot of activists such as Al Gore’s daughter tying up the very-necessary pipeline from Pennsylvania into Boston. New York City has that pipeline, and their natural gas prices are minuscule compared to ours. Sooner or later that argument is going to hit the fan in a major way around here.

But it’s not my fight because I stuck with oil.

For generations people in Boston have fired up the heating widget with fuel oil – whether they were large apartment buildings or small, old South End or Bay Village bungalows. The U.S. Census actually records how people heat their homes. In the 1970s, nearly 80 percent of Boston heated with oil. Only in the last 20 years has that figure reversed, leaving now about 40 percent of us with fuel oil. The reason back then wasn’t because they were backward.

Far from it.

For the uninitiated, Boston is really cold in the winter; I think we can all agree on that. So the cold permeates the ground thoroughly. When it’s bitterly cold, I suspect (though the utility disagrees) that there is a good deal of trouble getting the gas volumes to congested neighborhoods that is needed. That’s especially true if one is next door to a high volume or institutional user in an old neighborhood with antiquated gas lines. A friend of mine lived through that nightmare in Roxbury, and thank God for fireplaces.

Oil is self contained. As long as you keep the tank filled, you’re in business. There are no leaks in the streets and there is no public infrastructure or the like that can totally derail your program. It’s all on you.

But that’s where the dread comes in.

The oil guys nowadays take credit cards, which is better than when you had to shell out cash on the curb to a sleep-deprived, petro-doused fella driving around in a small tanker. Nevertheless, they don’t send a bill in the mail and give you a month to pay. If you want the good price, you have to pay that day.

So about this time of year, when I and other Bostonians start to hear the rumble of the boiler below us – or the creaking of radiators circulating water or letting off steam – we know that dollars are burning – and more and more dollars will need to be sacrificed in the coming months. The surpluses of the summer are gone.

One begins to get skittish about facing the music, actually going down and checking the oil gauge to see where it stands. It’s always a disappointment. One always thinks they have more than they do.

That again is the dread of it all.

Fall is a great time of year in Boston. It’s truly got to be the best season and one that is very unique to our region. However, it also brings the rumble of the furnace at night and in the morning. Soon, that rumble will extend to the late morning and afternoon and evening.

And Fall gives away to the winter hibernation, where oil tanks and fill ups take over the family balance sheet and steal away out summer getaway capital.


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