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My house and I have an understanding: It does its thing and I do mine.

The key turns in the door and it unlatches. I walk in to my warm, dry home, switch on the radio. Fire up the kettle. Aim my remote at the fireplace, watch it explode into life and warmth. It's all so easy, until it's not. Until something breaks, a wire comes loose, a sink clogs, a crack in the ceiling swells and spreads or hot water fails to flow.

Cue the panic.

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I had good intentions of getting acquainted with the inner workings of my home. It's the biggest investment I'll ever make, so I thought I would find the time to learn about the labyrinth of pipes and wires that live mystically and majestically in the mechanical room. In the face of disaster, I would be able to swoop down, fiddle with a setting or fuse, and voilà!, things would return to normal.

My intentions were pure.

But my first home was a 50-year-old split level, and the mechanical room was located in what can only be described as a dungeon. The furnace and some other contraptions were perched on exposed rock. Four-legged creatures also made their homes among the dirt floor and granite; cobwebs made up the vast selection of art in the corners, imbuing the room with a grey Jackson Pollock effect.

My enthusiasm waned.

After all, when I turned up the thermostat, the furnace kicked in. Water flowed from the taps. Energy pulsed from the outlets, illuminating lamps and enabling the coffee grinder and computer to work. The mice staked their territory in the dungeon, and upstairs, I staked mine.

Then we decided to build a house, and I assumed this would be my chance to learn. The mystery of what each pipe and wire held would naturally unveil itself as I laboured alongside the many tradespeople who came and went, insofar as labour equalled choosing paint colours and deciding on the kitchen layout. But the only thing that unveiled itself was my impatience with the project, and how interminable it was.

In my haste to have it finished, I missed it being built, and with that my chance to decipher the Morse code underneath my feet.

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So in the following years, when things occasionally went wrong and I needed to direct a handyman, plumber or anyone else to the mechanical room, I would wave them in the general vicinity, because truth be told I couldn't tell the air exchanger from the WiFi portal.

When our hot water started disappearing three days ago, I ignored it. Three-minute showers turned into 30 seconds. My daughters complained, and I explained that cold water is better for their complexions. Finally, I had to take action. Freezing showers can be ignored for only so long. A boy (is it just me or do they seem younger and younger these days?) from the local heating and plumbing shop donned his booties and asked me to show him the water heater.

I froze. I should have located the water heater before he came, or better yet, Googled an image. I babbled about how we had just moved in, all the while sidling toward the mechanical room where, surely, the water heater must reside. Or was that the central vacuum?

As soon as I switched on the light he confidently strode toward a box in the corner, and I exhaled. I seized this opportunity for learning; no tradesman gets to go quietly about his work undisturbed in my house at $100 an hour.

So, how does this thing work, I asked casually.

To his credit, he actually tried to tell me. But as soon as he started talking, my mind left the mechanical room and wandered into the kitchen, and I wondered what I should make for dinner. I instantly regretted my feeble attempt at enlightenment. He rambled on and on. I stared past his full head of hair at the maze of pipes, but then noticed he was quizzically looking past me. He stepped around me to a switch that was beside my shoulder. A piece of masking tape above it read "boiler."

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He flicked the switch. There you go, he said, problem solved. While he wrote out his bill, which arguably took longer than locating the switch, I launched into my (now familiar) spiel, about how I can't believe I didn't check that switch. Not that I knew that switch was there, mind you.

No problem, he lied, happens all the time. All this to say that ignorance, while blissful, can also be expensive. Keep your tools close, and your how-to manuals closer.

Deanna Regan lives in Vancouver.

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