On my lifelong journey toward understanding the peculiar ins and outs of older American heating systems, I’ve made some mistakes. Thankfully, none managed to settle me into a stay at White’s Funeral Home.

One of my more memorable mistakes was standing next to Dave Nelsen (may he rest in peace) in the basement of an antique Long Island mansion as he tipped over a Honeywell heat generator and spilled about a pint of mercury onto the rich guy’s floor. Dave and I were of an age where neither of us knew what a Honeywell heat generator was, and he, in what I suppose was a search for instant knowledge, first shook and then tipped the evil thing.

“Something’s sloshing around in there,” he said. “Must be sludge. Ah, crap.”

Now this happened a long time ago, well before we were all terrified of that shiny liquid metal. Mercury was in our toys when we were children and our science teachers let us play with it on our desks. It was a jolly liquid that conducted electricity. It was in our thermostats and thermometers and everyone loved it. What could be wrong with mercury?

Dave and I were more concerned about the mess. Who knew it was out to kill us all? We scooped up the tiny globs with pieces of cardboard and a shop vac, and put it out of our minds. Lesson learned: Don’t tip a Honeywell heat generator.

I did some digging in the library and learned that Mark Honeywell invented his heat generator to compete with the folks who were selling steam heat. He was a serious hot-water guy, and those steamfitters must have been getting under his skin because their systems ran hotter than gravity hot-water systems and were less expensive to install.

The heat generator was a simple device with just one moving part, that being the pint or so of mercury. Honeywell used a pipe within a pipe that dipped into the mercury pot to separate the system water from the water in the attic-mounted, open expansion tank. He could then run the hot water up to about 250° F, while still having a system open to the atmosphere. The super-hot water would circulate much faster, and that was important in the days before Homer Thrush invented the circulator. Honeywell had come up with a brilliant device, and upon that rock he built his church.

So years later, we still find these mercury-filled time bombs in basements and they continue to tempt the sad souls of the heating trade.

I have come to accept the wisdom of this simple rule: If you’re staring at an odd, old device and you don’t know what it is, put your hands in your pockets and back away from the thing.


The mercury mess

Which brings me to Jeff Kauffman, a poor soul in Massachusetts whose only crime was he bought an old house from someone who, years ago, had hired a contractor, who was in the Age of Ignorance, to work on the antique heating system.

Jeff was remodeling the bathroom when he spotted a tiny puddle of mercury over there in the corner. He poked it. It wiggled. He checked online and knew what that shiny stuff was. He washed his hands and called the fire department.

The firefighters showed up and also poked the puddle. They called the chief, who gave it an authoritative poke of his own. Jeff grabbed his family and took them over to his father’s house for the night.

The next day, the Department of Environmental Protection and some more firefighters showed up, all wearing hazmat suits. They vacuumed for a few hours and then told Jeff he would have to hire a hazmat-cleaning contractor to finish the job, which was complicated.

The Board of Health showed up next and sealed the house. Back to Dad’s for the night.

The hazmat-cleaning contractors, looking like they were ready to walk on Mars, started work the next day. They showed a 0.0 level for mercury everywhere outside the room with the mercury. So far, so good, but the Board of Health still wouldn’t let the Kauffman family return to their house. Hello again, Dad.

The Fourth of July came and went, and the following Monday Kauffman sent a letter he received from the hazmat-cleaning company to the Board of Health, who then cleared the house for reentry.

That evening, while sweeping the kitchen floor, they noticed more mercury in the dustpan. Back to Dad’s in a hurry.

The contractor returned and cleaned for weeks. They tore down the kitchen ceiling and ripped up the floor. Even the fridge had to go, but they did get to a point where they thought they had gotten it all. They sealed the house for an air test and that went well. Jeff and the gang moved back in. Welcome home.

Care to guess where the mercury had come from?

Right! One of Honeywell’s heat generators once served this house. It sat in the attic with the open expansion tank, just waiting for the ’70s to arrive along with a heating contractor who would convert the gravity system to a pumped system. And because this contractor has not gone to the library to study, and because he did not know what he was looking at, and because he did not put his hands in his pockets and back away from the thing, he did what Dave Nelsen and I did when we were in our own Age of Ignorance. He tipped it and gravity did the rest.

Oh, and he didn’t bother with the cardboard and the shop vac. He just let it soak into the kitchen ceiling. Hey, it’s just mercury, right?

So how much did this adventure cost Jeff? Well, it was $38,491.54 for the cleanup. He still has to pay for the mercury disposal, so that’s an open end. And he had to rebuild the kitchen and buy a new fridge. He figures it will be about $50,000 by the time he’s done.

But no problem. Just call the homeowners insurance company. That’s what they’re there for. Right?

Kauffman did just that. His agent listened, commiserated and then told Jeff he wasn’t covered because the spill had taken place while the other guy still owned the house. His policy wasn’t in effect at the time, of course, so he was on his own now. He could sue the previous owner if he wanted to, but that would probably be a waste of time and even more money because it would be tough to prove exactly when the spill happened, or who had done the spilling. It was all speculation, based on common sense, sure, but speculation nonetheless.

So there you are.

We’ve all done some dopey things from time to time, and that’s the key — from time to time. The dangers of feral mercury were unknown to just about everyone at that time. When it came to mercury, it was an Age of Ignorance. We could say the same of asbestos and tobacco and so many other things that used to be OK but wound up being not OK once we got smarter.

I suppose it all depends on where we happen to be standing in life’s timeline. We’re all ignorant at some point. I can only hope that we continue to study and learn and get better at what we do. After all, if it wasn’t for us, a lot of people would die from the cold and the heat. But you know, as I get older, I’m liking that simple rule more and more:

If you’re staring at an odd, old device and you don’t know what it is, put your hands in your pockets and back away from the thing.

This article was originally titled “The Age of Ignorance” in the February 2016 print edition of Plumbing & Mechanical.