Wednesday, August 24, 2005


I hate plumbing. Can I say that? I hate plumbing. This necessary evil in most homes drives me nuts. Electrical I can handle, but plumbing drives me around the bend. It's not that I can't do it, I can, and I have done lots of it, but that doesn't endear me to it.

Electrical work is so clean. Nothing gets wet. Nothing leaks slowly. You don't have to join wires together every ten feet and around every corner. There's no such thing as elbows and tee-joints, unless you are running wires in a conduit, in which case you are back to plumbing. If something goes wrong, it just blows a breaker or refuses to work. It doesn't soak the insulation and warp the plywood. It doesn't result in large puddles of electricity on the floor. If something goes REALLY wrong, the resulting fire usually burns pretty clean.

Plumbing projects always last a lot longer than originally estimated. I usually have lots of spare parts on hand from prior projects, but none of them ever fit. The pipe glue for plastic pipe has always dried out by the time I need it. The fancy creation I have made out of pipe to get around an obstruction points the wrong way. All this results in extra trips to the hardware store for more supplies. If I have to dig a trench to lay a pipe outside, there will invariably be large stones just under the grass which stop the shovel with a bone-jarring clank. Just below the stone will be a main sprinkler line that I laid a few years ago that I have forgotten about. This main line is no match for the shovel and I end up shattering a section of the pipe. The sudden flow of water instantly soaks the ground and my clothing and I leave a wet trail through the house as I rush in to shut the well off.

The latest project was an outside water faucet that leaked. Badly. It should have been replaced several years ago, but, as you know by now, I hate plumbing. This year the handle started to strip. When you turned the handle, you were not usually opening the faucet, unless you pushed down at the same time.

Yesterday, it was time to fix it. I needed to spray some weeds and it was difficult to turn the water on to fill the sprayer.

I tried tightening the screw holding the handle on. It broke. Now the faucet has no handle. I dug through my spare parts. I actually found a new faucet that fit. Now the chore was getting the old faucet off.

A couple years ago, after another plumbing project which required me to borrow a pipe wrench, Deb bought me my own pipe wrench. A nice big one. Two feet long. It could double as a boat anchor. Armed with that wrench, I attempted to unscrew the entire faucet from the wall. It turned, but the entire pipe turned with it, making the old caulking around the pipe chip away in large chunks. I wormed my way into the crawl space to clamp the pipe down from the inside.

Back outside to give the faucet another go. This time I could feel the resistance of the clamped pipe. The faucet began to turn. Slowly at first, then all of a sudden easily. Looking at it closely, I could see the pipe was still turning with it.

Back into the crawl space to check on the status of the clamp. It hadn't moved. That could only mean one thing. The section of copper pipe hidden inside the wall had buckled and twisted from the force. Not a good situation. Now a half-hour project was turning into an entire day project. Rebuilding the pipe in those tight quarters was not going to be fun. And any more attempts to turn the faucet would most likely break the pipe.

It's here that my "whatever works" engineering philosophy kicked in. I didn't need a new faucet. I just needed a way to stop the water from flowing. I drove to Lowe's and bought a small shut-off valve with hose fittings, and screwed that onto the end of the faucet. The faucet may not close all the way and have no handle, but it doesn't matter anymore. The three bucks I spent on the in-line shut-off valve saved me an entire evening of work, and probably an equivalent amount in new fittings and pipe sections.

I may have delayed the inevitable, probably having to actually fix it if I ever sell the house, but I saved the time for now (an hour saved is an hour earned!). I actually got the weeds sprayed before it got dark.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Fun Side of Plumbing ... Again

If you have been reading these posts for more than a year, you may recall one that I wrote last summer. Entitled "The Fun Side of Plumbing", it described one of my attempts to teach my boys life skills. The life skill at that time was plumbing. The laboratory was a slow-draining bathtub, and my two students got to see just how fun plumbing can be.

Since that time, we have had a couple other "plumbing labs", one of them being the same bathtub drain pipe which I finally replaced because of its continuing reluctance to make the bathtub water disappear. This time, the lesson was how the force of habit can interact with home repairs. I disassembled the drain plumbing and then drove to the hardware store for parts. In the mean time, Deb told Josh to take a shower as she always does about this time of day. Halfway through the shower, Deb needed to get something from the basement and discovered it was raining in the basement. Deb ran up and yelled through the door at Josh, who quickly stoppered the drain. This reduced the downpour in the basement to a mere drizzle. When I got home, they were moving all the boys' Lego pieces from the big wet spot in the carpet and had a large bucket catching most of the water. In this case, I didn't think of leaving some sort of reminder in the bathtub because I don't usually use it at that time. Josh wasn't helping me with the drain pipe so he didn't realize it was missing. Once things were dried out we had a good laugh.

We teach these things to our boys because we want them to be able to manage a household of their own someday. Including the plumbing. These life skills include the knowledge of what they can do themselves and when they need to pay for a professional. I sometimes wonder how much of these "life experience" lessons actually stick.

This past Saturday, I found out that these lessons actually do stick. Maybe not all of them, but this one stuck enough to avert a small disaster.

Deb and I went out to run some errands on a Saturday morning, leaving the boys at home. When we arrived home about an hour and a half later, David was waiting anxiously in the driveway.

"What took you so long?" he inquired. We thought it was a little strange that he would wait like this; he usually reads in his room when all his tasks are done.

We vaguely mentioned birthday shopping as his birthday is coming up in a couple weeks. But he seemed to be preoccupied with something else so we finally asked him what was up.

"Water," he said impatiently, "we almost had a flood".

When we came in, the boys were talking through each other in an effort to explain.

They heard a hissing noise in the kitchen, and after checking that the burners on the stove were indeed off, they located the source of the hissing under the sink. By this time the water was starting to run out over the kitchen floor, although most of it was pouring into the basement. A pipe had ruptured and was soaking everything under the sink. Josh tried to stem the tide by wrapping it with duct tape (I think he has seen me fix too many things with duct tape), but discovered that even duct tape has its limitations. It will not hold up to water pressure. Seeing that our sink does not have shut-off valves, Josh had the presence of mind to run downstairs and shut off the main water valve to the house. With Old Faithful now settled back down, they mopped up all the water and cleaned up the kitchen.

By the time we arrived home they had things pretty much back to normal.

I guess you could call this a sort-of "life skills pop quiz", and I am pleased to report that my boys passed this one. This kind of test may have been unexpected but it is far more real-world than a scheduled test in a classroom. Hopefully, when my boys are on their own, they will be better equipped to handle those fun little emergencies than I was. I'm pretty handy, but it was a rude awakening when, three days into the ownership of my first house, the toilet overflowed, and, with lots of gurgling noises, continued to run and run and run...

Me and plumbing, we go WAY back.