On Being a Plumber

After my uncle emigrated from [Ukraine](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukraine) to the US after World War II, he made his living as a plumber. I think I’ve inherited one or two of his genes.

We [live](http://www.savagexi.com/our_place.html) in small bungalow, not far from downtown [Denver](http://www.denver.org/). The house was built in 1928, and was completely remodeled about five years ago by a previous owner. For the most part we haven’t had to do too much maintenance outside of repainting the house and putting up new gutters. Except for the pipes.

At this point, I think every appliance or pipe attached to the house has broken.

My plumbing career started with the sprinkler system after [Yue](http://www.savagexi.com/blog) got fed up after paying one to many repair men to fix. Her ultimatum was either I start fixing it or it was never going to be turned on again. Well, I’ve always liked digging around in the dirt so I was more than happy to give it a go. Perhaps that was a bad idea.

The first trial was fixing a valve that wouldn’t close – thus two stations (a station is a group of sprinkler heads) were on at the same time. We don’t exactly have great water pressure, so that wasn’t working very well. After doing plenty of reading on the Internet (it’s in my nature as an [INTP](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meyers_Briggs#Function_table)) I found that it’s best to rebuild a valve, as opposed to replacing it. The problem with replacing it is that you have to cut the valve out, put a new one in, and then reconnect it on both sides. Of course, our sprinkler system is ancient, so it took most of a day driving around to small hardware stores to find the right replacement kit. Having found it, I got back home, and immediately took the valve apart. Which of course meant that I had no idea how to put it back together again (yes, I’ve learned this lesson so many times in my life I don’t care to remember, I clearly suffer from an over inflated view of my ability to put things back together). Well, I tried a couple times and failed. I finally had to take apart another valve before I figured it out.

Feeling proud of myself, I tested my handiwork. Station 1 good, station 2 good, station 3 good, station 4 good, station 5 – wait, two stations were on at the same time. Except two different ones. Grrrr. Feeling like an old hand, I traced back the line and figured out which valve wasn’t working and took it apart. And found that someone had stuffed part of a blue towel into our sprinkler system at one point – it was full of cloth. Cleaned it out. Checked another valve, same thing. And another. Finally got all the valves working.

A couple weeks later, when the system automatically turned on water started bubbling up from our backyard. Not good. Time to take out the shovel and see what was up. Turned out there was a spiral fracture along the pipe. Off to Home depot to buy a hack saw, a bit of PVC, some glue, and try my hand at splicing a pipe. Luckily my brother Michael was around that day so it we made it into a fun home repair project.

About six months after that, one Saturday morning, I went downstairs and saw water running out of the ceiling. The only short-term solution I could figure out was to shut off the water supply to the house. And then call a plumber for emergency service – nothing like paying for Saturday repair costs.

That was soon followed one night by the dishwasher not draining. After taking it apart, I quickly saw the problem. The black plastic pipe used as a drain was bent at 90 degrees (pretty much the same as if you took a hose and bent it 90 degrees). Amazing it ever worked at all. Another trip to Home Depot, another few hours lying on my back in a wet damp place getting filthy.

And no, the litany doesn’t stop there. Next up was the upstairs toilet. One day the valve stopped working, so it was always draining. A bit annoying really. Another trip to Home Depot, another few hours chalked up in my new hobby. Then it was the downstairs toiler, same drill.

Not wanting to miss out on the fun, the washing machine decided to pipe up next (pun very much intended). I hadn’t noticed, but amazingly the plastic drain pipe from the washing machine was simply stuffed into another pipe. No clamp, no coupling, no nothing. Well of course one day when the washer was draining it popped out. And sprayed water over everything around it in the basement. For better or worse, we weren’t around so could only survey the damage when we got home. Thankfully there is a drain under the washing machine, so at least all the water was gone by the time we got back.

Then a few blessed months of happiness for our plumbing system – I think it went into hibernation for the winter. Nothing like a false sense of security.

Come spring time, the valve to turn on the sprinkler system broke. Now this valve is about six feet deep under the front yard – you access it by a long valve key. Against our better judgment we decided to fix it. Bad move.

We had to hire a sprinkler repair person that was a certified plumber to fix it since the valve attaches to the water main that runs from the Denver water pipe under the sidewalk to the front of the house. After an all day affair, two guys dug a hole and fixed it. Or so we thought.

Then came Saturday (yes, it’s always Saturday). In the morning I went outside and noticed a wet spot on the lawn about six feet above the sprinkler valve. Uh-oh. This is something I didn’t want to think about. By afternoon the wet spot had turned into a small trickle and by evening a little river. Ok, this did not look good – I had horrible dreams of the pipe bursting, the front yard being blasted away by the water pressure and the basement flooding. Time to figure out how to turn off the water main to our house. Nothing like playing with Denver water main valves. Luckily I managed to find a plumber who talked me through closing it over the phone without charging the obligatory several hundred dollars for coming out on a weekend. It turned out to be quite simple, if you ever need to know drop me a line. So Saturday evening, no water, no hope for water till Monday. Time to go out…all weekend.

Come Monday a plumber tells me that our water main is cast iron, is probably from 1928, and should have broken a long time ago. Probably messing with the sprinkler valve was the last straw. Time to get the back hoe, dig up the front yard, and replace the whole thing. Its really quite fun digging up your front yard, you get lots of attention from the neighbors. Until of course you get the bill – I don’t even want to talk about how much it cost. And none of it covered by insurance (a hard lesson to learn, most home insurance doesn’t cover water pipe/sewers in older homes). And while we were at it, the sprinkler valve was moved to above ground, next to the side of the house so no one ever has to worry about that again.

And that brings us to today. Can’t wait to find out what’s next.

  1. cetodea@hotmail.com
    May 3, 2006

    Ohmigod – we just moved into our first older house in Salt Lake and are having many of the same problems. EXCEPT – my husband has no home repair skills – least of all plumbing. I wish you were my husband. It’s one nightmare after another. Have you ever had a toilet in the basement explode when the City flushes out the sewer lines? That’s no fun! Now we can’t figure out how to turn on the sprinklers with that big metal key thing. Where do we find the valve? More importantly, what new nightmare will befall us when we do turn on the sprinklers?

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  2. Charlie Savage –
    May 3, 2006

    Tell me about the sewer. When I was a kid the sewer in our house backed up, it was horrible. I’ll never forget it.

    So when I heard strange sounds coming from the sink the other day I was not happy. I went downstairs and the house smelled a bit like the sewer. Now I was really worried. But I couldn’t find anything backing up. So I went out to the alley behind our house, where our sewer connection is, and was sure happy to see Denver maintenance cleaning out the sewer. Luckily, the sewer is remarkably deep – like 20 feet below the bottom of our basement so we didn’t have exploding toilets! I was just hearing their work through the pipe. Phew!

    As far as the sprinkler – you’re looking for a small hole in your lawn about 4 inches in diameter. It will be a pvc pipe, put the key in there, at the bottom will be the valve. Its really tough to find – took me a full day when we bought this house. I finally called the previous owner. One place to look is along the water main that comes into your house, it might be above it somewhere.

    And I’m sure you’re husband will do fine! The trick to fixing things is take a deep breath, relax, and study what you want to fix for a good 5 to 10 minutes. Most people instead rush right in, get overwhelmed and quickly give up. If you don’t panic and take your time, you’ll almost always be able to figure out the problem and fix it.

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