Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Saga of the Stove

It all started, I believe, when I decided to buy a twenty-pound propane cylinder to use for a Mr. Heater unit in the cabin and for cooking fuel while on this southwest tour. Back in October, I went to the Agway in New Paltz and they had only one unit left. I bought it, slightly upset at the price, which was something like $25. Unfilled.

When I got the cylinder home, the first night I hooked it up to the Mr. Heater and could not make it work. Not a good omen. A few days later I called the company, assuming there was something wrong with the heater or way I had hooked it up. The service agent explained that the new cyclinders have a 'vacuum purge' system, apparently to insure the consumer does not get shorted when having the cylinder filled, which has an unintended side effect. The slightest amount of pressure, when first connecting the hoses and opening the valves, somehow tells...something...inside the hose mechanism that there is a problem, and the gas flow is shut down.


I stand witness to the fact that the defect works just fine. I've had troubles every single time I had to reconnect the hose and use the thing. But after a few false starts, I understood how to cajole the set up for my Mr. Heater.

Then I hit the road.

Traveling in a van, I felt it would be a little cumbersome, if not unsafe, to keep the cylinder/hose/stove connected, but as of today I refuse to disconnect the thing unless absolutely necessary. It's just too ridiculous, trying to get the gas to flow with each fresh connection.

But all this is really just back-story. The saga really started the first time I stopped along the highway for dinner, back on November 15th, 2010. I pulled into a rest stop area somewhere in western New York, anticipating my first meal on the road. Having been cooking on a camp stove daily since May, I was used to that; it would not be a novelty of any sort. Nor would the gathering of each and every item needed for the meal preparation beforehand. Cooking out of a cooler/camp stove, outside, IS different that in the convenience of a modern kitchen, as anyone who has gone camping is aware, but again, I had been living that way in the cabin. I was used to it. The new twist would be that I had to remove the various food/gear bins from the storage areas within the van. Cooler, spices, water, vegetables, pasta, etc.; each stored in a different location, some easily accessed, and some needing more effort, especially in the beginning, when I couldn't remember where I had put many of the items.

After patiently, and with some annoyance with my bad organization, I gathered everything needed to make my favorite meal – bean burritos in a pot. I hooked up the stove, turned on the valve, clicked the Pietzo lighter and....nothing. Trying again – a few times – I realized there wasn't the familiar hissing of flowing gas.

“Oh crap,” I thought. “The stupid cylinder.”

Disconnecting everything, I set it back up and....couldn't get gas flow. I found a thin stick to manually purge the back-up of gas that had accumulated at the valve, as the guy from Mr. Heater had explained in his tutorial on getting the damned thing to work. Technology....

Still nothing.

I must have taken down/set back up/turned valves for the assembly in every possible combination. Three times. FINALLY the set up must have decided to stop resisting, and worked. Fifteen rather frustrating minutes had passed; it seemed like longer, and though it wasn't really that cold outside, I imagined how untenable this would be when it WAS cold. Or windy. Or I was tired. Or running behind whatever sort of a schedule I was one. Or just expecting an item I had paid good money for to work properly.....

And so the saga began.

Each – and every – time I went to cook so much as a cup of tea; if I had disconnected the hose, I found myself in an epic reprisal. And some of those times it WAS cold. Or windy. Or cold and windy, and I was tired.... Never found myself tethered with any real sort of a schedule but that's beside the point. It was REALLY annoying.

I called the cylinder manufacturer and spoke to a very nice man who couldn't help me. The best he came up with – because he has the exact same problem with HIS cylinder, which he uses on his home grill – is to hook it up and let the thing sit five minutes before attempting to use the thing.

“Oh, for crying out loud” I thought. But this was the best advice I was going to get, FROM a representative of a company who has very likely had a fair number of similar calls since the new “vacuum purge” regulations went into effect, and so I resigned myself to do it.

It didn't work.

And so, for the next several days, I fidgeted and fussed with the stove connections, eventually hitting on some quirk of combinations that would get it to light. And then the hissing started....

It was a cold, rainy night, and I was squatting in front of the stove while camped at the Pit, hoping to heat up a serving of soup, both to warm myself and have dinner. At first I thought it was the regular gas flow, but I hadn't yet turned the knob. As I wasn't ready to light the stove yet, I went to turn off the stove valve, assuming it had bumped something during the day, leaving it open. Both knobs were turned to the off position.

And still, the hissing continued.

It was definitely gas; I could smell it, and it was coming from a tiny hole(part of the design) on the regulator. Leaking gas, eight inches from the stove burners....I wouldn't be cooking tonight.

The next morning I tried again, thinking the previous nights issue was just one of those stupid “rough day” events. Nope. The hiss was still there.

How annoying.

I went into Joshua Tree and had coffee at the Park Rock Cafe, part of the park's Visitor Center. Then I was off, checking every sporting/camping store in the area, in hopes of finding a replacement hose, though in my heart I knew it was fruitless.

It was.

Finally I decided I'd need to buy a damned replacement stove. The problem was that they all come fit for one pound disposable cylinders, and no stores carry the extension hose adapter to fit on a twenty pounder. As well, I knew the chances of finding the brand of stove I had(since I already also had the adapter hose to connect to the larger cylinder) was unlikely. And so I tried to see if any of the stoves could be hooked up to my adapter hose. They couldn't.

I then called the manufacture of the stove, wondering if I could have them send me a replacement hose for the section that was leaking. After all, the stove itself was fine. Calling the Customer Service number, a person answered who obviously had no technical knowledge of their products. When I explained my predicament, and asked if there was anyone who could help me, she said “This is Customer Service; we can't help you.”


I thought perhaps I just wasn't stating the case clearly, and tried again. To the lady's credit, she, too, tried to help. But the best she could suggest was that I return the stove to the store I had purchased it from. They apparently don't have the ability to pull a hose from the warehouse inventory and send it to a customer.

Now I was angry. I know that our world has become a culture of planned obsolescence. We don't fix things anymore; we replace them. Even when it's just one small part of the system that is broken.

Maybe some people would say my stove had worked for a decent time frame – I'd used it daily from September 1st, 2009 through November of that year, and then again daily from May 1st, 2010 until that fateful day in mid December when it sprang it's leak. I probably would have thought so myself, less than a year ago. After all, it wasn't really an expensive item, as far as products go... At $70, it was the standard cost for a two-burner propane camp stove, but people spend $70 now days on a ticket to a show and call it a bargain. Spending $70 on dinner and a movie for two would put you in the cheapskate category in a lot of people's minds.

But living in the cabin this year, and losing more than half my income in the past year, I had a different perspective. It wasn't that I didn't have enough money to live on that made me think the stove should not have died so quickly; it's that I realized PLENTY of people DO live on the money I was living on, and it's just NOT acceptable to say “too bad” when products they pay a good portion of their money for don't work for any length of time. I know people who still have camp stoves from the 1960's that still work just fine and frankly, it pisses me off that we no longer make products that last.

And so I called Campmor, where I bought the stove, seeking help.

All I wanted was the hose replaced, but when I described my predicament to the service rep, he asked for the information in order to look up the purchase. Finding it, his response was “Well....the stove is slightly past the warranty period(it was a year and three months old).” Then he paused and continued in a sort of nudge,nudge/wink,wink tone, “But this sounds like a defect.” He emphasized that word “defect” like a politician trying to rally it's citizens to a just cause. “If you want to send that stove back to us, we'll gladly have it replaced, or refund your money if you don't want to chance a similar thing happening again.”

Now – is that customer service, or what?

Truthfully, I hadn't expected that. What I thought would happen would be that he would tell me, in an understanding “ain't it a shame” tone , that there was nothing he, on behalf of Campmor, could do. I just wanted to be able to say I did my very best, before going out and laying down $70 of the quickly dwindling cache of cash I had in hand.

And so, of I went to locate a box suitable for packaging, and shipped it back to to Campmor. After checking with the post office, and then a mailing service for UPS rates, I chose the least expensive option, Parcel Post, which cost $18, and would take ten business days in transit.

With the turnaround time to get the replacement, I felt a conservative estimate of my time without the stove would be at least twenty days, and three weeks with no stove was obviously not a workable scenario. So, back I went to pick up a stove to use in the interim. This was a bit of an odd situation to find myself in, because...well – wouldn't MOST people, knowing they would be buying a replacement anyway, NOT have gone through the efforts of replacing the original as well? Wouldn't the just have taken the hit, felt indignant about the shoddy workmanship and customer support that our country has become famous for, and brought the story up at campfires every time the word “stove” was mentioned, for years to come? Wouldn't they have used that justified outrage as salve to the dress the wound?

Say what you will; maybe that wouldn't be YOU.... but I have heard enough similar war stories in the last few years to know that in fact, yes, that is what most people would do.

I am not most people. Never followed the flock; why would I? Sheep in the flock are constantly getting either eaten by a wolf or mercilessly slaughtered after having done nothing but trusting and naively following their supposed master's wishes their entire existence.

But still, I faced a conundrum. In my aforementioned search for replacement parts, I went to several camping, outdoor sports stores, and even sunk – much as it irritated me, to the depths know where...

Yes, I went to the WalMart for the first time on this trip other than to sleep in their parking lot and use their bathroom. I had made a pact, when I took off on this trip, that I would NOT spend one penny in a WalMart. Nor any of the other Big Box behemoths which are – no have – ripped the seems out of the fabric of our communities across the country.

I would have bought the replacement stove from a smaller location. But.... First I went to Yellow Mart, a local sporting goods store. The clerk there had greeted me and taken me directly to the camping section of the store, right to where the hoses were stocked. They had a nice selection, and at first it looked promising. Unfortunately, the hoses were all for the Mr. Heater products they also carried, and when I noticed this out loud, the young woman seemed disappointed as she noted “Oh, those probably won't work. I'm sorry.”

I WANTED to buy from them - and I did buy one of those camp stove toasters, which I later saw at WalMart for an entire dollar less – same item – and felt outraged, but not at the mom and pop op struggling to survive, but at WalMart, and their collusive supplier, for taking advantage of the system. But that's another story, and one that may have you scratching your head over, wondering what the hell is wrong with me. I assure you – there are several things wrong with me, but my anger at what corporatism has done to this country is not one of them.

But Yellow Mart had only stoves which could not hook to a twenty pound cylinder, and not of the type with wind shields, which – flimsy and nearly useless as they are – do provide some screen from the elements, and thus are an important feature for someone cooking outside regularly. They also had larger, mess-style, stoves which for a moment I coveted... before quickly stopping myself from purchasing something that wouldn't even fit into my van.

Next I went to Big Something, a regional chain. This, I knew, was dancing on the precipitous ridge of corporate consumerism. Regional chains, as you can guess, are the spawn – well, the mother, in reality, of Big Box Supersize, consuming the plankton that is the base of societies ocean. Not seen as quite as bad as Big Box – they really are, from the moment the sell out of private ownership and the word “stock” does not bring to mind images of shelves laden with quality goods, but the other kind of stock. You know – the one that probably first came to mind for you when you read the word.

They had several styles of stoves. And several employees, many of whom walked past me as I tried to remove boxes from top shelves, and said nothing. Nor did they say anything as I began carefully opening the boxes, to see if the connectors would fit for my twenty pound cylinder's hose. But they certainly WATCHED me as I tried to self-serve. I knew they wouldn't know the answer anyway, but it did annoy me that nobody came to see if I needed assistance.

Finally I realized that none of these would work, except the Coleman style, prices at something like $75. Except it wouldn't work with the hose I had, since my stove is not Coleman. And they didn't stock – there's that word again! - extension hoses. Not their fault, really(or is it) – Nobody stocks items that don't meet whatever number has been crunched to show a proven Return On Investment at a set percentage any more. Who CARES if someone does, occasionally, need such an item, and it wouldn't be THAT much a burden to keep one on the shelves, patiently waiting for a buyer. THIS, my friends, THIS is one small link in the chain which locks us within the cage that is corporate consumption.

Still, I would have bought that stove, if they would have matched the price should I have seen it cheaper elsewhere. I felt it likely that WalMart had that stove, and also felt that if this regional chain wanted to play at the game, they should play by the same rules that make the game of competition what it is. I asked the next clerk who suspiciously eyed me the question: If I see this stove elsewhere, will you match the price?

Off she went to ask the manager – because she had no idea as to the store policy where she worked. Fibe minutes later, she came back with an answer. “No, we won't, and nobody else carries that exact stove.”

Score one for the competition! You don't have to worry about matching prices when you have enough purchasing power to have manufacturers tweek your popular items in just one little way which differentiates them from the same item elsewhere. Oh – and it WAS different, from the similar item at WalMart(which cost $5 less). The knobs were a different shape and color.

Upon seeing that – I was angry, but you knew I would write that. Still, I needed a damned stove! My plan had been to replace the stove, and sell it when I received the return from Campmor, considering the difference in price what I simply had to bear, but the thought now, of buying something from WalMart because they seemed to have won the Battle of Competition, seemed as irritating as the proverbial burr under the bronc's saddle.

“There has to be another option” I thought, “but what could it be?”

Then I saw what I thought was at least a compromising answer, though looking back I could see the the Evil WalMart Market Researching Scientists had already run this comparison brand test thoroughly, and had seen the test rabbits(that would be people, like you and I) come to this particular dead-end in the maze. What did they do? Why they offered a version – similar enough to be recognizable as an alternative, yet different enough to not humiliate the consumer with the victory cry of “Gotcha!” being blasted over the announcement system, and SO much less expensive that the bunny temporarily forgot the dilemma they had originally faced.

Somehow, as if in survival mode, I heard a little voice inside... “Terrie, you've GOT to eat!” And, forsaking my pledge, I submitted. The rabbit had been snared, with a $34.88 price point – almost half the price of the recognized brand - Coleman.

But, you see, Coleman had been tainted; caught in the WalMart snare, they too had capitulated, when they took their shiny, new, obviously updated in style item, and changed out the knobs. This had been done so they had an out with their customers, when customers came in and said “WalMart has it for less.” and asked for a price match. You see – because the smaller chain does not have the same ability to make deals with WalMart for price reductions based on massive quantities(and if you think this ISN'T happening, I can assure you from my previous front row seat as a handbag designer working with ALL the Marts, that it most certainly is happening), they really ARE taking a loss if they have to match prices.

Now back in the day, the price match seemed a smart defensive maneuver to play. Local customers WANTED to buy from the more local business, and the price match worked for a while. Until people realized that they had to go through the effort of asking for price match; dealing with having management called and any other number of delays, each and every time the issue arose. Some gave up immediately, and became WalMart customers; others more slowly. But eventually enough people stopped making the effort that the smaller stores understood what was happening. They couldn't go to Uncle WalMart and complain... but they COULD make the sales reps at their suppliers uncomfortable. After all – hadn't they been customers for years and years? And one day, some person somewhere within the bowels of some company realized they could placate customers by offering an out. The item COULN'T be price -matched, because it wasn't the same item. Viola! Problem solved.

Peeved as I was, I figured I'd use the stove for the tow to three weeks my original was out of commission, and placated myself with thoughts of returning the stove once my good one was back. “I'm not satisfied” would be my reason, and stated with a steadfast Make-My-Day attitude. After all – how COULD I be satisfied, after all this?

At heart I knew a few days would pass; I'd get over it, at least enough to accept returning the stove after using it was beneath my code of ethics. I'd most likely post if for sale at half price, or give it to the first interesting person who said they would like to buy the thing, but couldn't really afford to.

But that's not the way things went down.

The stove truly lived up to the “get what you pay for credo.” Or at least according to what the market feels one should be paying, for a camping stove. In my opinion, a $35 camp stove ought to work – in the operative sense – as well as any more expensive model. The BTU level was lower on the cheaper version, and so I did understand that cooking would go a bit slower, but other than that. The thing appeared to be rather similar to the Coleman version, albeit quite pared down.

The first meal did take longer to cook than usual, as expected. Boiling water for coffee in the morning also took about twice as long. It irked me to be using a one-pound cylinder when I had the more economical bulk gas waiting in the van, but at least it wasn't taking 15 minutes of reconfiguring the hose attachments and lighting process to go! Oh yes – the cheapie did not have a pietzo lighter. Not that striking a kitchen match requires any more effort that pressing the electronic ignition, but I will admit I had become habituated to system, and found it an annoying reminder of my discontent to have to go to the van and get out the box of matches when I went to use the stove and realized I had forgotten the need to light the gas.

I was just about through with processing my anger over the whole stove saga, when I went to make coffee on the third day and the stove wouldn't light. The gas was not coming through at the burner. Why – I couldn't say. The stove construction seemed extraordinarily simple, and as I examined the links in the chain, there seemed no reason for the problem. The cylinder had gas, the regulator was correctly attached and pressurized, yet when I opened the valves to light up – no gas was coming through.

Going over the owner's manual, it was clear I had used the proper sequence in setting up the thing, not that there really was any way to do otherwise. The only possible explanation I could find was a warning note, saying that the propane cylinder must be placed in a manner that the connecting nozzle was upright. Under no circumstance, it warned, should you set up the stove with the cylinder inverted, and to do so would “void the warranty!”

Well! If you ask me – if fast food coffee cups contain a warning explaining that the contents is hot, and if plastic bags caution against letting children put them over their heads -it seemed reasonable to me that if the inverted cylinder set up was that much of a problem, they MIGHT have placed the disclaimer somewhere a bit more prevalently – like IN the Stove Set Up Directions section of the papers, instead of under the warranty information.

Not only that, I was incredulous that this should even be an issue. No other stove rolls over and dies if the cylinder is attached with the nozzle downward. In fact I would say that the majority of camp stoves I have seen on picnic tables over the years have the cylinder attached that way, never the worse for wear.

“What a piece of garbage.” was what came to mind upon reading that disclaimer. I HAD pointed the cylinder downward when I screwed on the regulator, but in use it was in the “required” position. The cylinder was upside down for an entire two rotations as I screwed on the fitting, as I used the weight of the cylinder to aid in seating the attachment. If THAT killed the stove, then that stove was such a shoddy piece of craftsmanship, the company that would intentionally produce it didn't deserve to stay afloat, I thought. And Walmart should be ashamed as well, for putting out products that are truly crap and not worth a dollar, much less almost thirty-five of them.

I hauled that stove back to Walmart and asked for a refund without the slightest qualm.

The woman at the Customer Service counter gave me my money back without even asking what was wrong. No wonder people fall into their tangled web...

In the time between the cheap stove purchase and getting it returned to the store, I was without means to cook. This sucked, obviously. I dined the first night on a meal of cheese and crackers and felt it was fine, but I knew that, come morning, I would be jonesing for java. I had attempted the stove, even though I knew it was a lost cause, and with plenty of sighs, irritated hisses and no doubt swearing, I realized my camping neighbors didn't give a damn. They ignored me in the way one does an ant circling near their picnic – let them be but keep an eye out in case you have to save the food. I knew that if such people weren't about to offer any assistance, or even ask what the problem was, that the next morning would be no better. Should this ant come crawling to their kitchen asking if I might heat some water on their stove, the answer would be no.

I went to bed worried....

The next morning, the neighbors silently prepared their own breakfast. Hell – they didn't even speak with each other; I could almost feel the animosity. They KNEW I had no stove, and their eyes never – not once – came across the imaginary picket fence between us. Thank the universe there was a neighbor on the other side!

He was a European man, camping alone, and had begun taking down his tent while he boiled a cup of water on a small butane-powered single burner. I waited, figuring that when his water was ready, I would humbly ask for assistance.

It took a long time. A really long time. I wondered if that water wasn't boiling down to nothing in the time I waited.

Eventually he poured some powdered coffee into the mug and took a sip. I made my move, ambling over and saying “Morning!” as I crossed that imaginary picket fence into his yard.

A friendly guy. He smiled and raised his cup. I knew I would not be denied.

Explaining mys situation, he said “Sure you can use it. Would you like to have it?” He explained that he was departing today, on his way to the airport, and due to baggage weight, would not be taking the stove with him. He had bought it for the trip only.

Well, what a lucky day for me! I thankfully accepted his offer and couldn't believe it when he added a second canister which he'd not needed. Then he said “I also have this tent. Can you use a tent?”

Well, I didn't need that tent, but I did tell him I would either find a home for it or take it to the thrift store. For his kindness, I gave him my ClimbAddict Designs business card and told him to pick out any item from the shop. Upon hearing my designs are climbing related, he told me his daughter was a climber, and he would pass the card to her, but as of yet, I haven't heard from either of them.

I sat and talked with him for a while, and when I happily went back to camp, I set up the stove, filled a pot with water, lit the thing and patiently waited.

And waited. And waited. And, with impatience brewing stronger than any coffee I ever drank, waited longer. It was Walmart backpacker stove, by Coleman. A word of warning to anyone who actually needs a stove to survive on a backpacking trek – this model will not do the job. You will use two to three times the amount of fuel as normal, and still have lukewarm food.

Alas, it was all I had, and for the next several days I limped along, taking half an hour to brew coffee in the morning and a lot longer if I wanted a hot meal at night.

Soon enough, the canister of fuel was used. It would be at least another week before my replacement from Campmor arrived and I was faced with the dilemma of continuing on or buying a better stove. I decided to look at Nomads for a real backpacker stove, figuring it would be a sound investment which could be used in lieu of the bigger stove at times. But after scanning the price tags – not a one under $90, I declined. I would just have to make do.

And I did make do, but it did not feel good. Meals were a struggle, and cheese and crackers were more palatable than even heating soup, just because of the time factor involved.

Oh well...

Eventually it became time for my stove to arrive. I was anxiously awaiting word from my friend receiving it here in Joshua Tree when I got an email from Lauren in New Paltz. The had sent the stove to her place! How, one might wonder, would that happen? It was because her address had been the one I used for shipping on an earlier order; it was in their computer system. I had included a letter with the stove I'd sent back, clearly stating that I was traveling, and provided the Joshua Tree address. They didn't take note, for some reason.

Oh no.....

I needed that stove and asked her to send it as quickly as possible at a reasonable shipping charge and suggested it would cost at least $20. When she got back to me with a $38 fee and 3-5 days travel, I felt I had no option but to do it. I told her to go for it and waited.

And waited.... as she couldn't get back to the post office for a few days.

Eventually the stove did come. Halleluja!

I was still peeved though. I had gone nearly a month with no decent stove, and it had ended up costing me as much to get this replacement as I had spent on the stove in the first place. If this were a game of strategy, I had played poorly.

Deciding to call Campmor and let them know what had happened, I never expected them to make good on the shipping. Yet that is exactly what they did. The man listened to my story, looked up the record in the computer and said “How much did you say you spent in the shipping?” When I gave him the cost, he replied “And what address should I send the check to?” No questions asked, no documentation. Let's see Walmart match THAT kind of customer service!

I was quite pleasantly surprised, expecting only an ear to cry into for a minute or two and an apology. But, I didn't want to bother my friend with another bit of mail coming to him, and so I asked if they could credit the account and I'd use it at another time. “It's done” he told me.

So. Perhaps I played the Saga of the Stove poorly, but it does seem I came away with consolation prizes. Not only has Campmor provided great customer service even after a mix-up on their part, but I did not succumb to the Big Box Bullshit. It was a struggle, mind you, but in the end, it is with a feeling of satisfaction that I stayed true.

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