Monday, July 06, 2015

The Beast With Eight Shoes (And Counting)

Holy crap, what a mess.

You know the old saying about waiting for the other shoe to drop? Right now, I'm wondering just how many shoes this beast has. But let me start at basically the beginning.

Several years ago, when my ex and I separated, I bought this little old house. I thought at the time it had this retro charm to it. Seven years later, its quirks are no longer lovable, and I seriously want to raze it to the ground and build a brand-new house in its place.

One of those quirks was the bathroom plumbing. In the bathroom was an antique cast-iron clawfoot tub, which was cool. But when it was installed, it had only a tub filler faucet, no shower. Some time later, the previous owners decided to rig a shower using flexible tubing and a separate faucet fixture that looks like something you'd hook a garden hose to..

Another flexible tube hung from a chain attached to the ceiling, with a piece of pink string tied around the base of the shower head to keep it from weaving around like a Water Wiggle (from Wham-O).

I didn't especially love the setup, but new tub/shower fixtures were expensive, so I made do. But over the years, the faucet developed first a little drip, and lately, a full trickle that could not be shut off no matter how tightly you turned off the faucets. And because that trickle included hot water, the bathroom was permanently steamy.

Now, this is normally a pretty easy home repair, a simple matter of replacing the washers in the faucet handles. But I decided, since I'm now working full-time and had some available cash, to go ahead and change out that old jerry-rigged system for some new fixtures.

Shoe the First: local stores do not carry clawfoot tub fixtures in inventory. So I had to special order on-line and have it delivered, which caused a brief delay. By this time, I could feel the heightened humidity every time I headed back toward the bathroom, and any paper goods in adjoining rooms felt decidedly damp.

But although Home Depot's website said something on the order of 10 days for delivery, I think I got in closer to seven. Still not ideal, but at least now I could get on to the repair.

Drop Shoe the Second: torrential rains. When I went out to the water meter can to shut off the water, the hole was flooded. Feeling around in muddy, murky water, I could not feel anything like a shut-off valve.

So I went to the internet to research. I found that most houses should have a separate shut-off valve in the house somewhere, either in the house proper, or in the crawlspace, or on the pipes outside where the water comes into the house. Well, there was not a master shut-off in the house, and the crawl-space, besides being muddy and frightening (imagine the support pillars for the house having the same jerry-rigged look as the plumbing above), was very confusing. Nothing clearly stood out as a master shut-off, and the main cluster of pipes looked mostly inaccessible. I did find a pipe going into the house with a proper shut-off valve. Turning that off shut off my gas.

One relit water heater pilot later, I still had no idea where my shut-off valve was. I decided to wait until the water had receded in the water meter can so I could find that shut-off valve.

Which is probably the reason why it rained every day for something like two solid weeks.

Eventually, after a few dry days, the water surrounding the meter finally soaked back into the ground and I could clearly see...

Shoe the Third: no shut-off valve. Seriously, nothing there. Look.

At this point, I seriously considered calling a plumber to do the installation, but I had spent most of my available cash on the fixtures themselves, which were just sitting in pieces around the house. So I decided to call the utility company and ask them. The customer service rep insisted the shut-off valve was with the meter, but suggested that she could turn in an emergency shut-off request to the city. I hesitated, but declined, since I would then have to have someone come back out to turn it back on, and if there was a leak somewhere, I would have to call them back out to shut it off again.

So I decided to take some time to look for other options. But apparently, the customer service rep I talked to misunderstood what I said, because a couple of hours later, my water was off. I ran out to look at the water meter to see if I could tell what had been done to shut it off, but there was no sign.

But not wanting to waste the opportunity, I went ahead and did the installation of the new fixture. It took a few hours longer than it should have, because...

Shoe the Fourth: the old faucet had been in place for decades. The nuts securing it to the tub had been painted over at least once, space was tight, and one of the corners on one of the old nuts had been worn away pretty thoroughly, so getting the nuts free was a bitch. Once I finally had the nuts free, I found out the faucet itself was secured with putty, so I had to spend another twenty minutes to a half-hour trying to work it free. The heat and humidity built up over previous weeks meant I could only work in there for about twenty minutes at a time before I had to step out and cool off. I also replaced the float-and-flapper system in the toilet, which otherwise runs constantly in the winter unless you reach your hand in the tank and hold down the flapper, which as you might imagine is a pretty cold proposition.

Finally, though, I got the job done.

Or so I thought. By the time I finished, it was almost 9 p.m. and I had to leave for work. Because of my odd sleep-and-work schedule, I was not able to call the city for a couple of days to get the water turned on. Which is when I heard the crashing sounds of...

Shoe the Fifth: getting the water back on. Remember, I still had not found the shut-off switch outside, so I still had no way to turn the water back on. I called the city to come out, but by the next day, he had not shown up. Still no water.

So I called, only to be told he had turned the water on, found it to be running, shut it off immediately, and left. Because of bad phone reception in my house and poor communication skills on the part of the rep, I could not process what she was telling me, so I asked for the guy to come back.

Another day later, and when I called back, they informed me that once again, he had come, turned it on, shut it off, and left. This person was able to explain the issue more clearly: if the water meter shows water flowing when they turn it back on, they have no way of knowing whether that is something normal (like the toilets refilling after being flushed during three days without water) or a leak. So they immediately turn the water off and leave.

I think it stretched to five calls with the city and me planting a folding chair out by the street to wait for the guy to show up. Finally the truck pulls up so I can watch the guy shut off the water. And there's the shut-off.

Remember the picture I showed you above? The shut-off valve is visible in that picture. Here:

Hidden there in the grass and dirt is a barely-visible oblong almost the same color as the surrounding dirt that looks like just another piece of debris. Once I cleared away the dirt and grass roots, it looked more like the kind of shut-off valve I was looking for.

And it was a good thing he showed me where it was, because there actually was a pretty bad leak. I had tried to reuse some old washers from the old fixtures, which didn't work well. I had to leave the water shut off and run to a couple of hardware stores to find new washers that would work, and then turn the water back on myself.

And finally, it was done. And none too soon, because all the extra humidity from the hot water had huge patches of black mold growing on my walls which I spent a few hours scrubbing away, not just in the bathroom, but in the adjoining room. All was good with the world again.

Until there came the thundering sound of Shoe the Sixth, a week or so later: apparently, all the hot water that had been running had kept the hot water heater running more than usual, driving my gas bill up to twice what it normally is in the summer. This made the meter reader suspect a gas leak, and he shut off my gas.

Not a problem. Unlike my long sojourn in the wilds of underemployment, my bills were now current and in good standing, so I just called to have it turned back on.

Oh, wait, is that the gentle trip-trapping of a SEVENTH SHOE? Why yes, I think it is. Remember all the way up at the top of this post, when I talked about my old house's no-longer-lovable quirks. Another one of those quirks was a slap-dash venting pipe coming out the top of my old water heater. It was apparently venting carbon monoxide into the house. Now, the house is not actually sealed up well enough for deadly gases to build up, but rules is rules, so the water heater is shut down with an official tag on it until I get the vent replaced. But it shouldn't be a problem, the guy said. It should be, like, maybe an hour's work for a plumber.

Shoe the Eighth: I called out a plumbing service to take a look and quote me a price. And as it happens, they need to not only replace the vent pipe leading to the hole in the wall inside, they need to add some kind of gimcrack outside. But I have allowed the foliage to grow out of control on that side of the house. There's only a couple of feet of clearance between the house and the fence on that side, which means it is completely impassable.

So the quote for the "easy one-hour job," including a little extra for working in an inaccessible location: north of $700 bucks, otherwise known as the "there's no way in hell I want to actually do this job, so I'm quoting you a price so high that there's no way you'll agree to pay it."

So that's where I am right now: living in what is turning into the third week without hot water while I try to track down the parts to do the job myself (honestly, other than the outside bit, it doesn't look that hard). But, like clawfoot tub fixtures, there is a part that I'm having trouble finding. Home Depot carries everything I need except for the part that actually attaches to the water heater, which looks like it is sold with the water heater itself.

I was going to go today to regular hardware stores to look for it, but I overslept. Yes, I know. My own procrastination and odd sleep schedules are turning every problem much bigger than it needs to be. But it's a little late to get me to change now.

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