Quick quiz: When is plumbing most likely to fail?
Oh, that's easy. It would be either the day of or the day before any major holiday.
I was reading an old novel by Hemingway trying to figure out why I think his way of writing is so much more reader-accessible than many modern novelists when I heard a shout from the back of the house. B. was calling for me to help her...... and there was the sound of rushing water. I glanced at my watch which is something I do at the start of every homeowner drama. It was 11:00 pm, the plumbing witching hour.
I loped down the long hallway, through the master bedroom and into the master bath. B. was standing in her robe trying her best to turn off the hot water in the shower. She moved aside and I gave it my best shot. Turning the knob on the hot water side had no effect on the flow; the steaming, scalding water was gushing out of the shower head at maximum intensity. The bathroom was filling up with steam.
I trudged out to the curb on the far side of the front lawn, carrying a flashlight the batteries for which I had replaced just the day before (dumb luck? Abject paranoia?) and pulled the cover off the ancient shut-off valve for the entire house, turned it off and then jogged back into the house to make sure my fix worked on the immediate problem. Yes, the flow was quickly subsiding and finally stopped altogether. It was helped along by opening the exterior, lowest lying valve for the outside garden hoses.
I called my favorite plumbing company and left a panicky message with their answering service. They promised a call back at seven in the morning.
Even through we're not entertaining in our home on Thanksgiving day we are preparing side dishes like mashed potatoes and stuffing, pies, etc. to bring along to a family gathering. With the water shut off we wouldn't be able to shower, wash dishes, or even flush the toilets. The horror!
We tried to get some sleep. B. is better than I at dropping off to sleep quickly. I have one of those horrible brains that dives into the worst case scenarios and my defensive approach is to start thinking about all the plan "Bs" I can think of while putting off getting any rest at all.
I was working on the idea of learning everything there is to know about home plumbing by first light and then going out and buying the needed tools and replacement parts when a thought hit me.
There is a certain logic to plumbing and I wondered if the hot and cold water were on separate lines and, if so, was there a way to shut off the hot water while leaving the cold water running. I crawled out of bed as quietly as I could and headed for the dining room table to fire up my laptop and see if there might be a solution. Hunched over the laptop in the one pool of light in the house I tried to couch my query in the most straightforward way for the search engines...
It turns out that most showers have a turn off valve somewhere nearby. Not in our 50 year old house. A bit more Googling informed me that the hot water heater is the actual nexus of all things hot water in a home. A bit more research let me know that turning off the cold water intake valve and turning the water heater to "pilot light" would disable all the hot water ---- including the terroristic shower ---- while preserving full function for the cold water. We could flush! We could rinse stuff! We could fill pots of water and boil it on the stove for ..... sponge baths. We could maintain a tentative grasp on civilization.
Many of you already know this kind of stuff. I've tried hard not to learn it because owning tools and being handy is a nasty, nasty rabbit hole to fall into. I won't recount the story of the tree saw I once bought but I will note that it cost me about $1600 in medical bills after five to seven minutes of use. And it was not a gas powered or electrical type of tree saw. Just an old mechanical one. I want to be good at what I want to do most --- which is photography. I don't own plumbing tools for the same reason I have never owned a lawn mower or a weed whacker. There are people who can do these things for me and also reduce my risks of either screwing up everything ( try repairing your own lens or camera some time) which ends up costing me much more money, or injuring myself, or someone else. This leaves me more time to do the things I like.
The phone rang at 7:00 a.m. on the dot. It was the dispatcher. The plumbing company asked about the specifics of the problem and I told them as much as I could even though I don't have a clue about the names of the parts involved. They promised to have a plumber at the house between 8:30 and 9:00 this morning.
B. insisted I go to swim practice. I'd been looking forward to one more session in the pool before the two days off; inflicted by the holidays.
The plumber from Clarke Kent plumbing got to the house at 8:30 and was out getting parts when I got home. The shower was fixed and the hot water heater re-ignited by 10 a.m. and we were back in the business of domestic tranquility. I did ask him to take a look at our old turn off valve. The one up near the street. The pre-historic one. That's our next project and I think we'll get on that before the first big freeze. We've decided to become more proactive homeowners.
The swim was good. The post swim coffee outstanding. And our total bill for parts, labor and knowledge was a modest $300. I could have spent a day of time, more $$$ than his invoice on tools and parts and still not had the gusher staunched by end of day. Hire experts. It's more fun to type than to skin my knuckles doing something I have no clue about and less talent to work with.
Our plumber saved the holiday. Now to investigate why these home repair emergencies only happen at night and right before, or on, the holidays. Right?
At least the raccoons have not moved back into the chimney.....