Return to:
Windy Meadow Farm
    Horses and Riding
  Farm Life
List of other articles on by:




The Old Tenant House

Michael Hillman

Read Part 6

Part 7: Updating the heating & plumbing systems

The first time I met Joe Reckley was almost 18 years ago. It was a hot summer day and the pump in our well had bit the dust - or at least I hoped it was the pump. I fretted away the time calculating the cost of a worst case scenario, which was a dry well and the cost of which gave me pause, so I poured a double Gin and Tonic.

Now if you have ever met Joe, you know 'fretting' is not something he puts too much stock in. Ignoring my questions on where we should drill the new well, he removed the cap to the well and began to pull the rope holding the pump in the well - all 240 feet of it.

"Wow, whoever drilled this well never wanted it to run dry," puffed a tired Joe as the pump finally reached the surface. Sure enough, Joe was right, after 20 years of service, the pump had simply worn out.

Less than half an hour later a new pump was in the well and pumping water. "Twenty years is a long time for a pump," said Joe as he wrote up my bill, "most people consider themselves lucky if they get 15 years out of a pump."

As I hadn't inquired on cost before I called Joe, I steadied myself for a whopper of a bill. I was thinking it would be somewhere in the area of $3,000 or more.

"Umm Joe, did you misplace a decimal point?" I was shocked when he handed me the bill.

"No, that's right. Why? Is it too much?" He asked the last question almost apologetically.

Too much? I thought, "on the contrary, it was one tenth of what I had expected."

It was that day Joe hooked me as a lifetime customer of Reckley's Plumbing and Heating, which after Zurgable Brothers' hardware, is one of Emmitsburg's oldest businesses. So when it came to who we would entrust to update the 50 year old plumbing and heating systems in the house, Reckley's Plumbing and Heating had the job by default.

Oil or Gas Heat

The first question that needed to get answered was whether we wanted to abandon oil and go to propane as our fuel source. Now I have to admit, after suffering through winter after winter feeling like I was burning dollars and not oil, I was open to a change.

As much as I wanted to switch to propane, I found the 'strings' attached to that switch unpalatable. Unlike oil, the propane tank for safety reasons had to be located outside of the house. Given the focus on the renovations was to open up the view to the mountains, the last thing I wanted was to spoil that view with a propane tank.

Now I could bury the tank, but that would mean I would have to buy a special tank which would cost more than a new oil heating system would cost all together. So, we stuck with oil.

With that decision made, it was time to decide what type of oil burner to get. Joe brought over several catalogues to help me make an educated decision - had he known how much I trusted him, he could have saved himself the effort.

"Joe, you're the guy who'll have to install it and service it. So just tell me what you recommend and let's get it."

A befuddled Joe asked, "don't you want an estimate?"

"No,' I replied, "if you were going to cheat me, you would have done it a long time ago. The job's yours. Just order what you need and do it."

Re-plumbing the heating system

As the portion of the house that housed the old boiler had been torn down, Joe was faced with re-plumbing the whole heating circulating system in the house.

Once the new high efficiency boiler was installed in the addition's basement, Joe and his crew set about deciphering the existing Gerry-rigged circulating system. Even my nuclear engineering background didn't prepare me for the questions balancing the heating system presented. Unlike modern heating systems, our system was one single loop with 'diverters' that directed the hot water to individual radiators.

To make matters worse the downstairs had twice as many radiators as the upstairs. While logically one would think the reason would be because heat rises, in our case, it wasn't. Instead, one room in the house would be hotter than Hades while another room was cold as an iceberg.

Fortunately, Joe had seen this type of system before, and was able to reach way back into the depths of his talent and supply-bin and pull the necessary components to 'balance' the system. Of course we wouldn't know for sure until the winter, but Joe seemed pretty sure he had nailed it. As time would soon tell, he had.

The Chimney

One of the biggest questions after oil vs. propane was whether we wanted a chimney or a 'power vent' for the boiler. Frankly, I was sold on the 'power vent' the moment Joe mentioned it.

Every time I painted the roof of the house, I struggled to paint the old boiler's chimney. Standing almost 10 feet above the slanted roof line, it was next to impossible to stand a ladder against it to reach the top.

On more than one occasion, I found myself stacking whatever I could next to the chimney-roof junction, and with bated breath I would climb the makeshift mound clinging to the chimney with one hand while holding a bucket of paint with the other.

Once, while grasping the top of the chimney, the 'mound' gave way, leaving me dangling. My wife couldn't resist inquiring about the truthfulness of my so called nuclear engineering credential, and left me hanging for all in the neighborhood to see. Fortunately, Joe Wivell eventually drove by and rescued me.

Needless to say, I was happy to see my chimney nemeses removed as part of the renovation, and was loath to replace it. The only downside of the power vent was a requirement that prevented windows from being within a certain distance of it. Fortunately, Joe was able to position the power vent in such a way that we only lost one window in the addition - a window we now are happy we never installed anyway.

The Plumbing

Next to hanging out with Tony Orndorf while he did his drywall work, hanging out with Joe and his crew was quality time for our dogs! As most of the work required his crew to work at doggie nose level, Joe's guys had to fend off hours of face licks as they installed the new plumbing. But as Joe's crew were all dog people, no one cared.

Given that the new kitchen sink and dishwasher were 12 feet from the old counterparts, the location of the washing machine was moved, and a brand new bathroom was to be installed meant utilizing the old plumbing was out of the question.

In the long run it was cheaper to run all new pipes. A good call on Joe's part, for when he cut the old pipes apart we discovered the reason it took 2 hours to fill the washing machine. 50 years of scale build up had almost closed all the pipes in the house and we soon found out the drains weren't much better.


The true test of the quality of Joe Reckley work came the first winter in the form of getting through the heating season without needing to refill the oil tanks. In spite of the fact that the house was 40% larger, the new high-efficiency boiler used half the oil that the old boiler used, and all the while it was delivering a better quality heat.

As for the plumbing, it's amazing how much better life is when you can turn on a faucet and fill and glass of water in seconds as opposed to minutes or hours.

Am I a satisfied customer of Joe Reckley's Plumbing? You bet I am! Try him yourself and see why.

Read Part 8: It was a cold and windy night....

Read other humor stories by Michael Hillman