Wednesday, January 3, 2007

WTF - Plumber's Crack

That's short for "When Turkeys Fart." When turkeys fart, the world spins a little faster. This creates increased centrifugal force, which in turn, causes all manner of things mechanical to go awry. Here's my story.

After enjoying a nice Thanksgiving dinner with relatives that haven't been in one place since last Thanksgiving, I visited with friends in eastern Jersey that I haven't seen for quite some time. After a late night and a long drive back, I snacked on tasty leftover ham and other rarely eaten delicacies. The following day, I dutifully performed my morning maintenance. Before I had a chance to don my socks, the sound of rain and a light fog enter my view from the recently vacated upstairs bathroom.

It's not a sound one often hears - rain that seems to be falling indoors. The first impression is that no, that can't be it, it must be a street cleaning vehicle. Only, my town doesn't have street cleaning vehicles. Fortunately, the brain can put two and two together much faster than the mind can develop scenarios for the unexpected. Pipe! screamed my brain. Pipe! "Holy shiite!" I stumbled for any kind of available footwear and scrambled for the bathroom. Once in the hall, I could immediately see the carpet darkening - WATER! Turn off the water! "Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap." I sailed down one flight of stairs and down the narrow staircase to the finished basement. It was rainin on all three levels. I sprinted to the boiler room and turned off the water supply from the boiler. Fortunately, my brain had put one and three together and concluded for me that the steam meant hot water. I scrambled back to the upstairs bathroom. The floor was covered with water, but the sound had stopped. I tore two flimsy towels from the shower door and dropped them to form a dam. Didn't matter - damage done as evidenced by the lovely waterfalls on the lower floors.

Not being as young as I used to be, I crouched to control my panic and slow down my heart. Dread filled me as I got up to scan the damage. I was most immediately concerned about fire from water-shorted fixtures in the living room ceiling below the second floor.

There was water damage everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Mind you, the total time between when I noticed the artificial rain storm sound and turning off the water was not more than two minutes. The ceiling in the living room sprouted brownish stains as big as throw rugs in four areas, most worryingly near the wood stove. Water dripped from the ceiling fan. The drop ceiling in the entryway was soggy and sagging. The landing at the base of the stairs was soaking. The woodwork at the crest of the stairs was swollen and spreading from sudden moisture after 150 years of relative aridness.

In the basement, the carpet was soaked in line with the stairs. Enough water had trickled down to wet the drywall and where it was wet, it was swelling. This brought to mind three problems.

One - I had a broken pipe: how could this be and where was it and more troubling, why did the pipe break. Two - did this mean I would have to tear down the ceiling and if I didn't, would I have fungus problem and would it fall don on its own. Three - would it be wise to turn off the electricity for now. I abjectly squished around the living room poking the soggy ceiling as I pondered these matters. I resolved to find the source of the leak first since the rest was damage control meaningless unless the root problem was fixed.

Now, let me provide a little background on my plumbing skill. For ten years, I owned a manufacturing facility that made compression molded items. Let's leave out what those items were for this instant. Although I had mechanics and a plumber on staff, it would never fail that something would pop at three AM during a busy work cycle. We had perhaps 30,000 linear feet of plumbing for water, high pressure steam, condensate and return water, not to mention compressed air and hydraulic fluids. I am not a stranger to plumbing, But, in a factory, plumbing isn't hidden in ceilings and behind walls - it's all there out in the open ready to be wrenched. So, finding a leak in a dwelling can be spooky since opening a wall is very likely, creating all kinds of collateral damage. Now, that doesn't mean that one can't be an optimist. On the other hand, when one has the kind of experience I do, the conclusions are instantly of the non-rosy variety.

I trudged back up the stairs to see what I could see. I peered under the sink and, voila! - it looked totally dry. Not good. Sometimes, flared or compression fittings as used to connect water lines to things like sinks just give way. Nope - bone dry. The section of floor nearest the shower showed no pooling of water and inserting a piece oof paper towel under the molding to the right of the shower bulkhead showed no moisture. Looks like the gods of plumbing weren't going to make this an easy one. I wen back under the sink and removed all of the unused acoutrment that inevitibly builds up, forgotten, like leave-in conditioner, hair spray from 1994, lavender body lotion that smelled like air freshener and had since been sent into exile under the sink. Toward the back of the cabinet could be seen a waste line with an exceptionally circumlocutis shape, and to the left and right, copper refrigeration tubing that emerged from crudely cut holes in the bottom of the cabinet. I pulled up on the hot water line and felt resistance, so I got a crescent wrench and unscrewed the flange that attached the copper pipe to the hot water side of the sink. With one end free, I pulled up again. Again, I felt resistance. the joint felt tight and there was now water present that I could see BUT I could smell it. I know it sounds strange, but even in an open plumbing situation, not every leak, especially pinholes, can be see outright, and hot water leaks can be sniffed out, literally.

I gave the suspect pipe a sharp yank, just to make sure. It was like fishin' for nipples (a term for smaller sections of pipe) and a conglomeration of a very weird coupling, a small piece of galvanized pipe, a reducer of brass and a female compression fittng came out of the jagged hole in the floor of the cabinet. I look in wonderment at this plumbing construct that was clearly the work of an ill-advised amateur, as so mony things were in this very old house.

Feeling through the hole, I could just reach an unthreaded nipple that was coming through the floor. Uh-oh. I took another look at the suspect fitting. It had butyl rubber compression washers at both ends. The washers were rotted. Hot water will do that to you. Even if I could find this extremely odd fitting (and I've seen them all) at a plumbing supply, replacing what I found with something similar might be easier than the alternative, but would set the stage for the next flood. I climbed into the cabinet and peered down the hole. Being near-sighted and still needing reading glasses, I believed I saw what was a copper nipple.

Those lazy bastards installed this sink and never bother to think ahead. I climbed downstairs to see what I could see. Either I would have to removed the 200 pound oak sink, including all the exisiting plumbing, thereby opening a huge can of worms, or I could try to get in from underneath. I started downstairs by pulling down the soaked drop ceiling in the entryway. Looking up, I could see some of the plumbing. I paced out what was where and went up to pace those distances out. I came to the conclusion that the hot water riser I was looking for was the last pipe I could see from below which, unfortunately, was in the living room ceiling.

This has been a long story so far. I will not bore the reader with further technical exploits, but in the end, I prevailed as I usually do with things mechanical. This is a not claim to be made lightly, especially by a Jewish boy. As the stereotype goes, Jews are notoriously bad at things mechnical, not knowing a screwdriver from a stray cat.

Yes, I "won" but it took three days to work out the plumbing, plaster, paint, cleaning and replacement of damaged materials, plus the laundering of a dozen towels an one highly irritated cat.

The crux of my complaint is that the former owner was clever at jury-rigging things around this house where hiring a professional for a couple of hundred bucks would have saved me about ten grand at this point. Simple things like using a proper roof vent instead of an empty cream cheese basin. Like replacing a roof shingle for ten buck after removing their sattelite dish. Like not using string (!!!) in the garage door pulley system. Like not painting over 150 year old decorative woodwork - and I know it was them because it was just one coat of paint, poorly applied.

My next task is to inspect every inch of plumbing in the place to make sure that there isn't more in the way of ticking time bombs. The heating system plumbing looks good and that's what fooled me, I think. Oh well, it's not called a money pit for nothing. Oh, and I'm not finished plastering and primering. And I should probably pull out the carpet. God. And here it is, Monday, 1 AM. I'm pooped. Plus, that's not the only thing that happened this weekend that was none too good.

It's not a bad mood, it's an honest assesment.