I began my career in the HVAC business in 1970 as a truck driver for an AC/refrigeration wholesaler. I stayed there just six weeks because my father — who worked for a manufacturers’ rep — told me there was an opening for a clerk at the rep. It paid $110 a week, which was $10 more than I was getting driving the truck. Plus, I’d get to work with him as my boss.
It was good to get that small raise in salary because the first wage-and-price freeze was about to kick in, and the first OPEC oil embargo wasn’t far behind. The 1970s were going to be interesting.
Most people, when thinking back on those days, remember disco, but I mostly remember the wacky stuff people were doing in an attempt to lower their fuel bills.
For instance, an article appeared in a magazine recommending that homeowners replace the outside vent on their clothes dryer with an old pair of pantyhose, held in place by duct tape. This would give them a way of capturing the heat that would otherwise go outdoors. Just vent that costly heat into your house. Waste not, want not.
The article also suggested that they use the captured lint, combined with a paper towel, as a fire starter in their new fireplace or coal stove. Lint, the author explained, is highly flammable. Many homeowners figured that out when they decided that emptying the pantyhose was just too much trouble. Who wants to be moving the dryer every few loads? It’s far easier to call the fire department when the laundry room goes up in flames.
Oh, and then there were the people who rerouted their fintube baseboard loops through their fireplaces or coal stove so their boilers wouldn’t turn on as often. Plenty of people learned about the power of steam through that experiment. All it took was for the thermostat to get satisfied and stop the pump.
And then there were those who piped soft-copper coils in their chimney flues to pick up that heat that would otherwise be lost to space. They learned about flue-gas condensation before there were condensing boilers. Oh, and also carbon monoxide poisoning.
The seventies put on quite a show.
I asked the Wallies at HeatingHelp.com to share their remembrances of those crazy times. One mentioned how his customers loved to close and seal all ways air could get into the house, and this included the air that was trying to get to the oil or gas burner. Whoops!
Another told of a person who lowered all the ceilings in his house by six inches to conserve fuel. This wasn’t a new idea, considering that it was the invention of air conditioning that led builders to go from 10-foot ceilings to eight-foot ceilings way back when, but would lowering the ceiling six more inches really make a difference? The Wallie said that it became a bit of a problem when the homeowner added an extension to the house. Hmm.
But the seventies sure did inspire creativity. People had plenty of time to think when they were waiting on those mile-long gasoline lines.
“Blowers for the fireplaces were my favorite mishap,” a Wallie said. “There’s nothing like blowing some fresh oak or maple firewood smoke into the whole house instead of just the den. And I suppose the blower might have also blown around any cigar, cigarette or pipe smoke as well.”
Another Wallie remembered how solar energy was touted as the next great thing. “Everyone was making solar collectors, using liquids of all types,” he said. “They even had empty beer cans mounted in a wooden box covered with a transparent plastic, and mounted on the window sill.”
Another regular on The Wall wrote: “I saw all kinds of wood-burning devices vented into a flue common with an oil burner. There’s nothing better than a barometric damper when it comes to feeding air to a chimney fire.”
It seemed like nothing went during that seventies show. Need more proof? Listen to this Wallie:
“My parents taped plastic to all the windows. We had a cast-iron, potbelly stove in the corner of our kitchen. When Burns Bros had a coal delivery in the neighborhood, we'd ask the driver for a couple bags of coal. He let us sweep and keep what he spilled every week. It was enough to keep us warm. Several buildings in the neighborhood burned coal. I was 12 years old, and I watched my neighborhood friends siphon gasoline out of parked cars and sell it to drivers waiting in long gas lines.”
Hey, what could go wrong?
A retired contractor from Cape May County, New Jersey wrote: “I installed a bunch of those Enertrol fuel-saving devices. I also remember the manufacturer had a problem getting homeowners to believe that a little red plastic box that was smaller than a thermostat, and with just a couple of wires coming out of it, was worth the price they were asking. Within a year, however, they put the little box inside a 4” X 8” X 10” sheet-metal box, with wire terminals and a relay or two and then raised the price. It sold like crazy.”
This proves, once again, that if you can’t make money in America, you simply aren’t paying attention.
“I think my brother has an old picture of my father when he was in his 50s,” he continued. “Dad’s standing next to a 100-pound bag of coal for sale at $19.95 in the 1970s. He used to talk about how he delivered a ton of coal as a teenager for $19.95.”
Quite a few of them remain, and still with that baseboard heat, which I suppose says a lot about either the comfort, durability and convenience of those Intertherm, or about the stubbornness of folks (like me) in admitting we made a mistake.
And that made me smile, remembering when I was making $110/week. I bought a brand-new Datsun 510 for $1,900 in 1970, which turned the head of a very young Lovely Marianne.
A Wallie from Illinois said: “Ahh, the 1970s. A group of our electric coops bought a 20% share in the Clinton Power Station that was in the planning stages when the crisis began. The station was going to be nuclear-powered. The idea was that electricity would be so cheap, it wouldn't even need to be metered. Construction cost was budgeted at $427 million. The actual cost, when opened, was $4.25 billion. Our coop rates reflected this as the decade drew to a close. Illinois Power eventually sold the finished station to Exelon for $40 million in the late 1990s. It's still operating.
“Many of the houses built around here during that era are 'Gold Medallion' homes. They were built to be all-electric, usually with Intertherm, hot water, electric baseboards for heat. They also had a cool Gold Medallion doorbell at the front door. Quite a few of them remain, and still with that baseboard heat, which I suppose says a lot about either the comfort, durability and convenience of those Intertherm, or about the stubbornness of folks (like me) in admitting we made a mistake.”
Sort of makes you wonder about our current situation where many are demanding we electrify everything.
What could possibly go wrong?
“I think that era also put an end to widespread oil heating in this part of the world,” our friend from Illinois continued. “We already had decent propane infrastructure for grain drying; so it didn't take much to use the same equipment through the winter for farm-home heating. My fuel man told me a couple years ago that he only had one heating-oil customer left. People that can't get natural gas generally use propane, geothermal or a propane/air-source heat-pump hybrid.
“As far as transportation goes, I was still a kid, but I remember my dad parking his 3/4 ton, 4X4 pickup truck and purchasing a (gasp!) El Camino for 'everyday' trips. There's nothing that says macho to the other kids in your grade school than getting dropped off at practice by an El Camino. It was baby blue.”
Ahh, baby blue. So innocent. Just like those days now seem.
Let’s hope we learned from them.