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The man at the hardware store doesn’t think I can repair a duct. We’ll see about that


Standoff in aisle 6

Monique de St. Croix is an old hand with a drill, but will the man at the home-improvement store trust her to buy the right part?

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I have been working for years on a kitchen renovation, most of it DIY. I was oh so close to finishing the venting/duct work in the attic for the installation of a range-hood fan, the last major element to be up and running. Going into the attic is not my favourite part of renovating. Cramped, dusty, all that fluffy, itchy fibreglass – I start hacking just thinking about this dreaded task. However, I could no longer put off the job.

Unfortunately, my local hardware store did not stock an important piece: a six-inch butterfly damper. This part, installed in the duct run as close to exhaust as possible, flutters open when the fan is on to allow inside cooking air to escape and falls shut when the fan is off, thus preventing outside air from funnelling into the home. Not such a big deal in the summer, but in minus 40 , who wants cold air rushing in?

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It is early enough on Monday morning, when I realize I need to venture into the big city for my damper. Not my first choice on this springtime-in-Alberta morning. I brush the snow off my car and head into the city. After a 20-minute drive, I arrive at the big box home-improvement store. I have been here often enough, I could almost find the plumbing and heating section wearing a blindfold. Drywall, lumber, fencing, plywood, tool corral, flooring – "Oh, those are nice tiles!" I pause, inspect, then press on, my mission foremost in my mind.

I finally arrive at plumbing and heating, but somehow cannot locate my part. I know what I'm looking for, but I'm not 100 per cent sure I know what it actually looks like.

As if on cue, a floor staff employee shuffles around the corner in his requisite safety vest and name tag. I assume he is still working out the Monday-morning kinks rather than grumpy, as he responds immediately, though silently, to my query by reaching his calloused, weathered hand over my head to pull down the item I am seeking.

I duck as his hand brushes past my hat. Through a white mullet moustache that stretches down either side of his mouth nearly to his chin, he growls, "Is that whatch-yer lookin' for?"

Indeed it is. I test the flip-flap of the butterfly action.

Flip-flap, flip-flap, flippity-flap-flap-flap.

A strangely satisfying action in repetition, one where a mother would scold, "Would you please STOP that." I catch his squinty-blue eyes beneath bushy white eyebrows knitting together in disapproval. I stop flip-flapping.

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"D'ya need anything else, young lady?"

One more flip.

"Uhm, yes. I need one more length of duct."

Flap. Flip-flap. I can't resist. Flip. He frowns as he looks at the damper in my hands. I toss it into the cart, out of reach.

"Four foot or five foot?"

"I'll take the longer one, please."

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"Now," he stretches taller and takes on a "I-know-more-than-you" stance. He probably does.

"Are ya' screwin'?" He is looking at me sideways, his leathered skin catching shadows. This man has a history written in wrinkles on his face, and not all of them easy stories.


"Yer joints! Are ya screwing yer joints?" His tone is decidedly accusatory, as if I've done something wrong.

"Oh! My connections. Yup, two screws per joint."

A flicker of surprise.

"Ya wouldn't believe how many guys come in here and say, 'Why would I do that? Taping is enough.' Idiots." As he speaks, he imitates these "idiots," opening his eyes wider, changing his voice to a nasal semi-tone higher and bobbling his head left to right.

"Idiots" he mutters again darkly, shaking his head. I can tell he doesn't suffer fools lightly. He glances back toward me, and demands, "And are ya' taping your joints?"

His tone changed back to test-mode.

"Every single one. The silver tape." I point to the shelf up to my left where the metal sliver duct tape sits.

Next question.

As he puts the long length of duct in my cart, "What about insulation? Are ya' insulating the ducts?" He seems triumphant somehow with this question, certain he has caught me.

"Absolutely!" I respond. "I have actually double insulated where the pipe comes out of the attic."

He drops his head and raises his right hand at the same time. I think he is shooing me away.

"Yer doin' it right, girl! High five!"

We high five, my leather-gloved hand meeting callouses with a satisfying thump. Almost as satisfying as the flip-flap. Almost, but not quite.

"Ya' wouldn't believe how many guys come in here asking why they have to insulate. Idiots."

Before I can leave, I get a mini lesson on how warm moist air that meets cold air makes water, then I cheerfully thank him for his help. At this point, he finally cracks a smile and wishes me luck. There is even a twinkle in those wise blue eyes.

Knowing I had passed the old timer's test was quite motivating. I returned home, crawled into the dreaded attic to finish screwing, taping and insulating the joints. At each whir of the drill, as I spun metal screws into joints, I remembered the high five and his, "Yer doin' it right!"

I may be a little sore from working bending in the cramped attic, but I am extremely proud that I did, in fact, get it right.

Monique de St. Croix lives in Cochrane, Alta.

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