I spent last week in the frozen north (Boston) and returned to an equally icy surprise at my home in Pittsburgh. My thermostat read 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
We have an oil furnace — something I didn’t know was a thing until we bought the house. The oil furnace is fun. It makes you feel off-grid. The only problem with being off-grid is that when you have an issue, it’s your problem.
We had no oil and no one to bring us any.
The oil service said they would come in the morning — and we were thankful — but thankfulness wouldn’t keep our toes warm for the next 16 hours. It also wouldn’t keep our pipes from freezing. The temp was already well below 32 degrees. Winter was coming.
My wife asked our neighbor if they had any spare space heaters. Our neighbor knew what was up. He gave us a few empty 5-gallon tanks and sent us up the highway to find kerosene.
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh chit. - my neighbor
We tried a few places, but no gas station owner would admit to selling kerosene from a pump. We called some friends, and they told us that diesel was probably our best bet. I confirmed with ChatGPT that diesel, while not as clean as kerosene, was a reasonable substitute in an emergency.
We brought our buckets of diesel home and dumped them in the oil tank. Much to our disappointment, the furnace did not magically start back up.
I looked at my phone and noticed that my neighbor had sent me another message.
You might need this. [video] - my neighbor again
It was a video of someone priming a furnace line. This pointed me in the right direction, but there was one major problem. The furnace in the video was shiny fire-engine-red with clean controls and obvious labels. My furnace looked like it was from the Cold War (no pun intended).
Me: Can you tell what this is?
ChatGPT: This image shows an oil burner unit for a furnace, specifically a Beckett brand burner. It is a key component in oil-fired heating systems, igniting the oil to produce heat. Do you need assistance with troubleshooting or maintenance for this equipment?
Great start. We’re building trust.
Me: Yes I ran out of oil and just refilled the tank with 10 gallons
ChatGPT: Running out of oil can indeed cause your burner to stop functioning properly since it might have drawn air into the system, which can lead to a lockout condition. Here’s a general approach to restart your oil burner after running out of oil and refilling:
Reset the Burner: …
Bleed the Line: …
Restart Again: …
If you’re not familiar with this process or uncomfortable performing it, it’s best to call a professional. Would you like guidance on how to bleed the line, or do you prefer to contact a technician?
This was when it occurred to me that it was my duty as an AI writer to put ChatGPT to the test.
Me: Help me find the reset button for this model
ChatGPT: The reset button on a Beckett oil burner is typically located on the burner’s primary control box. This is the box that houses the controls for the burner’s operation. It’s often marked as a red button.
For the specific model shown in your image, you should look for a small, red button on the control box, which may be labeled as “Reset.” It’s usually quite prominent and designed to be easily accessible for situations just like yours.
The key part in that response was to look for something “quite prominent”, like, for instance, a flashing red light that was actually the reset button, begging to be pressed.
As ChatGPT recommended, we pressed the button. The furnace appeared to come to life. Hooray! Then the furnace stopped and the light started blinking again. We put the champagne away.
We ignored ChatGPT’s instructions and tried again, really not wanting to “bleed the line”, whatever that meant. Same result, but now the light was solid red.
Me: I found the button and it started for a bit and then turned off. There was a slight smell as it ran. Probably a normal smell
If you’re wondering why I added the last line, I was afraid ChatGPT was going to freak out and stop helping me. Sometimes you need to just…lead the model a little…you know?
ChatGPT: The behavior you’re describing is not uncommon after running out of oil and refilling the tank. The initial start-up may have burned off some residual oil and drawn in air, which can cause the system to lock out again, especially if there’s air in the lines. The smell could be from the unburned oil during the start-up attempt, which is usually normal in small amounts but should dissipate quickly.
This reassured me that I was not about to blow up my house, even if deep down I knew that I had cheated a tiny bit.
ChatGPT: Since the burner started but then shut off, you likely need to bleed the line to remove any trapped air. It’s important not to keep pressing the reset button, as this can flood the burner with oil and create a hazardous situation.
Keep pressing the reset button? What on earth makes you think I would do that? I guess humans are predictable.
Me: Let’s bleed the line. Does this look like the valve?
ChatGPT: Yes, the component you’re pointing to in the image appears to be the bleeder valve. It’s typically a small nipple-like part with a hexagonal shape that can be turned with a wrench.
I was actually surprised that ChatGPT was so confident on this one. It really didn’t look much like the valve from the video that my neighbor sent me. I was also somewhat hoping that this was not the valve, because I couldn’t get that hex nut to budge a smidge.
Me: I can’t get the valve to budge. Is there a different mechanism for an older model?
ChatGPT: If the bleeder valve is not budging, it’s possible that it may be seized due to infrequent use or corrosion. It’s important not to force it too much, as this could damage the valve or cause leaks.
I love how ChatGPT ignored my dumb question about there being a different mechanism for older models. It’s top suggestion was to use “penetrating oil”. I was not familiar with this term, but AI is adaptable enough to meet me at my level.
Me: Is wd40 penetrating oil?
ChatGPT: Yes, WD-40 can act as a penetrating oil and may help to loosen a stuck bleeder valve.
My wife was suspicious when I pulled out the can of WD-40, but I knew that stuff was magic. It worked! ChatGPT had recorded another win, and the valve was loose.
There was just one problem. The burner would no longer reset. You might be able to tell what I did wrong, but in the moment, I could not. We tried every combination of long presses and cutting power — all to no avail.
I was defeated. I had broken the furnace. AI had failed.
All my talk of AGI was a joke. LLMs are just “stochastic parrots” telling you what you want to hear. My professional focus on integrating AI into software development was a dead-end.
My wife and I left the furnace room dejected. Not only would we have to hire a technician, but they would almost certainly say that we needed to buy a new furnace. Thousands of dollars were about to fly out the window, and we had a long, cold night to think about it.
You know how being hungry makes you angry? Well, that’s nothing compared to being really cold.
Frustrated with the situation and venting at each other, we argued about whether we should go to a friend’s house or hole up in our bedroom with our one space heater. Should we go buy another space heater? How could we keep the pipes from freezing? I carried a TV up to the bedroom.
It was then, huddled under the covers, too cold and tired to grab the remote, that I saw it.
I looked at my phone, lying at the end of the bed. Then I heard a whisper. Not a real whisper. An imaginary whisper.
Ask meeeeeee - my phone
For some reason, we hadn’t asked ChatGPT about our inability to press the reset button. In one final act of faith, I grabbed the phone and flung open the ChatGPT app.
Me: So the WD40 worked but now the furnace does not ignite when I press the reset button. The reset button worked twice prior to getting the hex loose on the valve and now that we have it loose and heard air escape, the reset button isn’t working. The reset button was blinking before but now it is solid red light.
ChatGPT: If the reset button was pressed more than once and is now showing a solid red light, the burner may have entered a lockout mode to prevent further attempts that could potentially flood the burner with oil or cause other issues.
Of course! Smart humans had anticipated dumb humans like me mashing the reset button and had implemented a lockout mode.
ChatGPT reassured me that I need only wait 15 to 60 minutes and then try again. A good 45 minutes had elapsed, so I rushed downstairs to try immediately.
Power on. Valve open. Reset pressed. The furnace fired to life and oil flowed freely from the priming valve!
As it turned out, the oil was flowing a little too freely. The furnace shut off yet again. But I had tasted victory.
Understanding that the oil actually needed to go into the burner, I went through the steps again.
Opened the valve a little bit. Reset pressed. Oil flowing a little bit. Oil steady. Valve closed.
At last, the furnace hummed with that sweet sound of hot air flowing up into the house. No more surprises. ChatGPT had won.
There was just one last question left to ask.
Me: How do I wash heating oil off my pants?
Is ChatGPT going to put furnace technicians out of a job? Not exactly, but it did save me a $100+ call. Or worse — a new furnace. That $100 would have gone to a technician, but no technician was coming late on a Friday night. ChatGPT provided me with a service that no professional was willing to provide. It would have been too inconvenient.
I’m sure burst pipes would not have been cheap either. It’s safe to say that ChatGPT Plus has already paid for itself this year.
I don’t want to ignore the critical role of my neighbor, and the people we called. We did not trust ChatGPT blindly, and I’m not convinced anyone ever should.
Humans trust humans because they know what it’s like to be a human. Also, humans can’t be hacked, and they don’t hallucinate…usually.
The people in my life were the true heroes in this story, but ChatGPT played a very real role, and that role will continue to expand over time.
As Sam Altman likes to point out, ChatGPT is the dumbest today that it will ever be.
If you’re interested in tracking the progress of AI from chatbots to fully autonomous AI agents, check out my 100% free Substack publication, Agentic AI.
Most of my stuff ends up on Medium eventually, but my Substack subscribers get it first.
Shoot me a comment if there’s an aspect of AI you’d like me to explore.
Eventually, we’re all going to have to answer the question — what does it mean to be human in a world with highly efficient AI?