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My new furnace has a start button that starts the pilot light with a burst of heat. It is an unexpected bonus, but I appear to have lit my last pilot light – and my sigh of relief sounds like the whoosh of sound as the new furnace kicks into action.

The old furnace, you understand, was installed in 1974 when the townhouse was built. That is not so bad as you might think, because my townhouse has enough passive heating that I usually only need a furnace for a few months each year. Still, the old furnace was not quite on the cutting edge of technology or efficiency.

The pilot light, in case you have never seen one, needs to be started for the furnace to work. The problem was, in the old furnace, it was five centimeters off the floor. To light it, I had to put my face to the floor, and thrust with one hand a long match in the general direction of the pilot. Meanwhile with the other hand, I depressed a button, then, when I saw the flame leap up on the pilot like a miniature gas burner,  keep the button depressed for at least a count of thirty, carefully avoiding contact with the nearby wires. Finally, I would slide the button to the On position, and, wait holding my breath until it seemed that the pilot would stay lit.

That was not be the most convenient maneuver under any circumstances. Often, the match would burn out or burn through, and I would have to move the button to Off, wait for the gas to clear, and try again. If I improvised the long match with a match from a booklet taped to a chopstick, two times out of three, the head would fall off before it reached the pilot.

It didn’t help, either, that the furnace was less than half a meter from the hot water tank, and the furnace room was often piled with boxes waiting to be given away to whichever charity would pick them up. Often, I had to twist sideways while lowering myself down the side of the furnace – and, worse, repeat the movement to pull myself upright, avoiding touching the water tank on both the descent and the ascent.

Usually, too, I was relighting the pilot in the middle of the night, and awkward from sleep.  Most times, high winds had blown the pilot out, and I would no sooner drag myself upright and be leaving the furnace room than I realized that the pilot had blown out again.

Did I mention, too, that with my face so close to the pilot light, all the while I was trying hard not to imagine the flame exploding and giving me a facial massage, or my hair catching on fire? Over the years, I learned the process and overcome my fears, but, for the first few years, I was often visibly shaking as I went about the task.

Sensibly, the new furnace faces away from the water tank, where there is plenty of room, and its pilot light is at chest-level when I sit cross-legged on the floor. However, the manual warns of dire consequences if you try to light it with a match, so I am not about to experiment to see what happens. That seems just like technology – just when a task is made easy, it becomes unnecessary.

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