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Tyler VanOurkerk, who is a service technician with Esser Plumbing and Heating of Perham, said there’s been no shortage of work this winter, with subzero temperatures causing problems for people’s heating systems. Marie Nitke/FOCUS

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Stephanie Ellingson knew as soon as she walked in the door that something wasn’t right.

It was a couple of Fridays ago, when temperatures were just starting to dip below zero at the start of a forecasted string of bitterly cold days. She got home from work at about 5:30 p.m. and hurried inside, hoping to quickly brush off the chill.

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Instead, her usually-warm Ottertail home had a chill of its own. For some reason, the heat wasn’t working, and it had probably been off for most of the day.

Ellingson found herself in need of a repair person, and fast. And on a Friday evening, right at dinner time.

“I thought, ‘What a night for the furnace to go out,’” she recalled in an interview last week. “But, Stuart Fleischauer to the rescue!”

Fleischauer is the manager of All Seasons Heating and Cooling in Ottertail. He was just sitting down to supper with his family when he got the call from Ellingson. Without hesitation, he left his own warm home and hot meal behind to go out into the cold and travel to Ellingson’s. Before long, he figured out that her furnace’s blower was shot. So he went out into the cold again to get a new part from his shop, and then went back and replaced it.

VanOurkerk replaced a part on a geothermal heating system at a rural Richville home Tuesday. Marie Nitke/FOCUS

He got the furnace back up and running that night, before the worst of the cold snap set in, and Ellingson could rest easy instead of shivering under the covers.

It’s a situation that Fleischauer said happens a lot in the winters, especially during and right after really cold spurts.

“It can happen several times a week, when the weather’s cold,” he said of getting calls ‘after hours.’

Dinner-time calls are “normal,” he added, since “that’s when people get home from work and realize things are cold.”

While calls later at night, after 10 p.m. or so, are rarer, they do happen on occasion.

Just over a week ago, Fleischauer said, he got out of bed for a 1:30 a.m. emergency call after an out-of-town homeowner’s temperature monitoring system sounded an alarm. Something had malfunctioned and it had gotten down to 40 degrees inside the house. Fleischauer had to get an extra key from a neighbor and fix the problem before it got cold enough for pipes to freeze.

Joe Guck, the service manager for Esser Plumbing and Heating out of Perham, said it’s the same story for him and his four service technicians.

“Furnaces work a lot harder when it’s cold, so that’s when they’re going to break,” he said. “The guys put in longer hours. They get called out ‘after-hours’ almost every weekend. They probably got 10 calls that really cold weekend. It’s an around-the-clock deal.”

That “really cold weekend” was just a couple weeks ago, Jan. 4 and 5, when the so-called ‘polar vortex’ descended on the U.S. and created some record-breaking cold temperatures. In Minnesota, temps reached down to lows not seen in at least 10 years, bottoming out at 20 to 25 below zero in the Perham area, with wind chills closer to 50 below.

Overall, it’s been a remarkably cold winter in Minnesota, with nearly twice as many below zero days already than there were all winter long last year. According to MPR’s chief meteorologist, Paul Huttner, there were 12 days that were at or below zero last winter; as of Jan. 7 of this year, there were already 20.

It’s no shocker, then, that things have been busy for local heating and gas companies. All of those contacted for this story said the last few weeks have been hectic. And as of Monday, they were gearing up for another likely spurt due to more subzero temps in the forecast.

Ed Weller, who owns and operates Weller Oil Company out of New York Mills, said the cold weather has a big impact on his business. He supplies furnace fuel and heating oil for customers around the area, mostly rural residents and farmers.

“It affects it a lot, actually,” he said of the cold weather. “People seem to go through fuel more, and you feel bad because of the high prices of everything right now. Sometimes it’s sad; you see people bundled up with jackets at their houses, trying to get by with the minimum.”

Weller said most of his customers are good about keeping an eye on their fuel levels, which saves him from having to make too many after-hours trips, “but there are still times when you get a call in the middle of the night, and you gotta go.”

Sometimes, equipment just breaks down and there’s nothing a homeowner can do. But some breakdowns can be prevented through basic maintenance. Guck recommended keeping the furnace clean and regularly changing the filters.

Another tip is to have furnaces serviced every year or two, according to Fleischauer, and to make sure chimneys are clean and clear. In addition, people who will be gone on vacation should have some kind of monitoring system in place, or should have a trusted neighbor regularly checking on their house. Some newer monitoring systems can be easily checked from a computer or smartphone.

Equipment problems most often occur either during a cold snap or right after one, Fleischauer said, when it’s common for furnaces to shut off and then not want to start again. And windy days can lead to exhaust plug-ups on a furnace.

“The cold weather, it’s not good,” said Weller. “Anything below minus-5, it’s not good on anything.”

If people do run into trouble, Fleischauer said, the good news is that there’s hardly ever a problem that can’t be fixed pretty quickly.

And, thanks to the workers who brave the cold to keep others warm, there’s never a time when a problem can’t be immediately addressed.

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Marie Johnson
Marie Johnson (formerly Nitke) came to the Perham Focus after several years as the Education and Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Herald-Review of Grand Rapids, Minn. She lives in rural Ottertail with her husband, Dan, and their spunky yellow lab, Louisa.
(218) 346-5900 x228
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