Monday, October 7, 2013

Plumbing Emergencies for Dummies

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for pervasive crude humor and mild strong language.


This post is about how to handle a simple plumbing emergency if you’re a dummy.  Actually, you could be a really smart person who just doesn’t know anything about plumbing and this might still be helpful.  Or, you could be really smart and knowledgeable about plumbing and might just enjoy surveying the hapless coping techniques that a dummy has stumbled upon.  Or, you could just be anybody with a taste for schadenfreude who would enjoy a story containing the phrase “geyser of raw sewage.”

 Rule #1:  Figure out where the unwanted water is coming from

Shortly after buying our first home, my wife and I went on vacation.  We were touring Bay Area B&Bs, and on the way from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco decided to stop at the house.  (I know, it’s not really on the way, but we were giddy new homeowners.)  I was in the garage, perhaps for no other reason than to bask in its existence, when a crazy thing happened.  There is a open-ended pipe near the far wall, where the washing machine would have been had we gotten around to buying it, and the purpose of this pipe is to carry wastewater away from a washing machine.  For no apparent reason, raw sewage suddenly began gushing out of this pipe.

(Why is it always “raw” sewage?  Isn’t sewage always raw?  Who ever heard of boiling sewage?  “Don't worry, this sewage is potable.  It’s been boiled.”  I don’t know the answer to this question.  You’d have to ask somebody more knowledgeable about plumbing.)

So, back to the garage plumbing crisis.  My first impulse was to yell “NO!” and reach toward it, but of course all of this happened in super-slow-motion so my “NO” was several octaves lower than my real voice and really slow, to match my movements, so it was more of a “NOOOOOOOOOOOO......”

Now, that water could have been coming from anywhere, but the sewage factor led me to a lucky guess that the toilet was involved.  Fortunately (in this case and this case only) we have only one bathroom, so I ran up there.  Sure enough, there was a terrible hissing noise coming from that room.  I can’t remember if it was from the toilet itself or the related plumbing—it could have been coming from my wife or even myself, I mean this was a long time ago—but the toilet-related plumbing was the culprit.  At least I was in the right room.

Rule #2:  Don’t panic

I know, “don’t panic” is easy enough to say, but something about a plumbing emergency makes it really tempting to panic.  If you were to tell somebody, “The entire house was flooded and I—I panicked!” they probably wouldn’t hold it against you.  But still, you shouldn’t panic.  Take something as simple as a toilet on its way to overflowing the rim.  If this isn’t happening in a motel room where a previous guy’s digestive output could be in play, you’re a coward if you don’t keep your wits about you and take immediate action.  One action of course would be to grab a plunger if it’s handy, but the better action is to quickly remove the toilet tank lid and lift the floating thingy in there.  (I could call it a “floater,” but in the toilet context that term has already been taken.)  Sometimes this floating thingy is a big ball, sometimes it’s a hollow cylinder, but the point is, as the water level rises in the toilet tank, the thingy floats upward until it maxes out and shuts off the flow.  So if you grab that bad boy and lift it, the toilet will instantly stop overflowing.  Then you can yell your head off for somebody to run in with a plunger, towels, etc. before anything has hit the floor.

In the case of the garage sewage spew, I looked for the line that feeds water into the toilet.  These lines have little handles on them and if you crank down the handle (clockwise) it’ll shut off the water supply.  This is what I did to stop the gushing sewage in the garage (but not before several of my bicycles were covered in putrid water with flecks of half-dissolved toilet paper and lots of other gross stuff).

Rule #3:  Get help

Getting help isn’t the first step.  It’s something that should be done concurrently with getting the water flow to stop.  Unless your next door neighbor is a plumber who telecommutes, you want to first do what you yourself can do, as soon and as fast as you can.  When the immediate crisis is averted (i.e., no more water going where it doesn’t belong) that’s when you bring in the plumber and whoever else is needed to put your life back together.

My brother Max lives in Boulder, Colorado and during their recent nightmarish flood was in the process of baling water out of his flooded basement when the next-door neighbor came running over.  This guy presumably did a great job with Rule #1 (he astutely observed that the water was coming from FRICKING EVERYWHERE), but he completely fell down on #2.  He came running into Max’s house yelling his head off.  “Oh my god, you gotta help me!” he cried.  I mean, think about this.  The entire city is flooded, roads have been demolished, creeks overflowing, cars washed away, thousands of souls are in great danger and turmoil, and “you gotta help me”?  He went on, “I got thirty gallons a second comin’ into my house!”  I can’t help but wonder, did he just make up this statistic somehow, to use as a rallying cry, or did he actually make some crude measurement of water volume and do the math?  Is that the first order of business, calculating the flow rate?  So having announced his crisis to my nonplussed brother, he whipped out his cell phone and started calling plumbers.  As if every plumber in the state isn’t already addressing a crisis, perhaps his own.  As if the National Guard hasn’t already been deployed.  This neighbor is yelling into the phone, “I’m payin’ cash!

In this particular case, however, the guy happened to stumble on the right neighbor.  Max is a great big manly man, could easily kick my ass (in fact, he has, multiple times) and he knows his way around homes and plumbing and crises.  In fact, he has an honest-to-god construction worker’s hardhat, and not only that, he’s got this big badass spelunker’s light mounted to it.  All this and he’s a helpful enough guy, or at least morbidly curious enough, that he headed right over to the guy’s house, temporarily abandoning his own crisis.  As Max gleefully related to me afterward, this guy’s toilet was doing the weirdest thing.  Every few seconds it would projectile-vomit a massive gush of raw sewage.  Like, ten gallons at a shot, with this menacing regularity.  So Max ran out to the yard and found the clean-out. 

Now, I’m not entirely sure what a clean-out even is, beyond it being related to the sewage system.  I know that “clean-out” is a term that manly men throw around when they’re describing their weekend projects.  (Sure, I could look it up in Wikipedia, but that’s cheating.  You’re supposed to learn about these things first-hand, in the field.)  Max found this clean-out because it had a big metal lid or cap on it.  Maybe they always do.  Anyway, he used some giant tool that he happened to be carrying, a big old monkey wrench or crowbar or something, and pried that lid off.  He said there was instantly this unbelievably massive—wait for it—geyser of raw sewage, going way high up there into the air, almost like Old Faithful.  And it was endless, like it was feeding right off the entire sewer system of the city, an endless foul fountain.  Max booked it back into the neighbor’s house, confirmed that nothing was coming out of the toilet anymore, and then hustled on home to work some more on his basement.  So, this neighbor?  Yeah, he got real lucky! 

(This phrase “real lucky” is one my brothers and I throw around a lot.  It hearkens to something my dad once said to me, when I was parking my car and got too close to a broken concrete curb outcropping, and it stripped the trim right off the side of my ’84 Volvo.  This freak accident made a terrible noise, like the car was shrieking, and when my dad got out he was shocked—almost disappointed, it seemed—that my comeuppance involved so little damage.  I zipped the trim right back on to the car, and my dad said, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage.”  For him to use the adjective “real,” where the adverb “really” is called for, is tantamount to the harshest profanity, given his normally gentle, professorial syntax.)

 Rule #5:  get that water shut down!

I guess this rule is kind of implicit in what I’ve already said, but this is a guide for dummies.  So, assuming you’re not involved in a catastrophic flash flood, or even if you are, see if you can’t get that flow shut off.  Sometimes this can be tricky even when your plumbing disaster is localized.  For example, the other day I was in the kitchen when I heard this hissing noise coming from upstairs.  I ran up there and the floor was completely flooded.  There was a strong blast of water coming from below the bathroom sink.  Remember what I said earlier, about finding the line that carries the water, and looking for the little handle that turns it off?  Well, the little handle was lying on the floor.  Dead.  The cylinder that it attaches to, that ends in a rubber plug that closes off the water, was made of plastic, and had spontaneously failed.  It broke in half, so the handle part went shooting off and there was nothing to stop the water from spraying out like a high pressure hose.

Here’s where I made my first mistake.  I paused, staring at the cheap piece of treasonous plastic, and I took a moment to marvel at the pure, unalloyed venality that caused somebody to decide to make this thing out of plastic.  I mean, what if I’d been on vacation when this thing broke?  That could be thousands and thousands of dollars in damage to my home.  How much did that company save skimping on materials?  Maybe a cent?  So I took a moment to curse whoever chose plastic as the material.  My curse was this:  May you be waterboarded to death in a campground outhouse.  (I know, that’s pretty harsh, but I was in the middle of a crisis and trying not to panic.  I’ve since rescinded my curse, though perhaps too late, who knows.)

Okay, wasting time pausing to curse persons unknown wasn’t actually my first mistake.  My first mistake was not knowing in advance how to shut down the water supply to my entire house.  Everybody should know how to do this.  In modern homes there’s usually a very large pipe in the garage with a big handle on it, so it’s really easy.  (In the state of Washington, my brother Bryan tells me, there’s a giant knob in every garage, and it’s painted red and white so it’s especially easy to find.)  In my home, built in 1929, there is no obvious way to shut off the water.  I’ve long assumed it has something to do with the pipe under a plastic lid in my yard where the water meter is.  There are weird, crude steel thingies down in there, at ninety degrees to each other, and I reckon if you could line them up, the water would stop. 

So, my bathroom still actively flooding, I raced down there to the yard, pried that lid off, and tried to budge the machinery down in there.  I did this using a weird quasi-wrench, long and totally rusted and of the cheapest imaginable quality, that my wife had suddenly handed me.  She had found it near the guts of our drip irrigation system and figured it must be the thing.  Well, I did manage to get a purchase on the weird clunky metal doohickeys down in the ground near the water meter, but I couldn’t budge them.  The crude tool was flexing so much I thought it’d break in half.  The next obvious step was to panic.

But, I didn’t panic, since I always keep Rule #2 in mind.  I asked myself, “What would Captain Kirk do?”  So I thought hard for about two seconds and then it hit me:  “Spock ... the water coming out of that sink line ... it’s hot!”  Meaning:  it came from the hot water heater!  I raced into the garage, found the pipes coming off the hot water heater, and cranked them closed.  I ran to the bathroom:  no more gushing.  Whew!  (I know what you’re thinking:  what if it had been the other cheap plastic valve that had broken, the cold water side?  I know.  You could say that I’m real lucky.)

Rule #6:  After the crisis, see what you can fix yourself

I went back downstairs.  My wife was on the phone, trying to get help.  “Who are you talking to?” I asked.  (You can tell I was still a bit frazzled because I said “who” where “whom” is called for.)  She said she was on hold.  “Hang up,” I said.  (It’s possible I said “Hang up on that fool!” but this is probably the embroidery of memory.  I know I didn’t say “Hang up ... I got this,” because that would have been pure hubris.)  I showed her what broke and announced my intention to head over to the hardware store.  She immediately shot down this idea and starting researching plumbing supply outfits online.

I initially bristled at this—I mean, browsing in a hardware store is one of life’s great joys, especially (perhaps) for men.  When my dad used to go to McGuckin’s, the totally kickass hardware store in Boulder, he’d always ask if we kids wanted to go along.  We always did.  That place was amazing.  Absolutely giant, and there was nothing they didn’t have.  It was like a hardware cathedral.  A friend of my brothers ended up working there, and let us in on a little trade secret.  Whenever a particularly gorgeous woman was spotted by an employee, he’d immediately get on the PA system and announce her location using the code name “Larry.”  For example, if she were in the Bolts section, he’d get on and say, “Larry to Bolts, Larry to Bolts.”  All the male employees would immediately head over to the Bolts section to check her out.  This went on for ages until some manager suddenly realized, “Hey, we don’t have any employees here named Larry!”  He put an end to the practice, though I’m sure they developed a work-around.

Anyway, I looked over my wife’s shoulder and saw on her screen photos of the entire valve assembly, which I’ve come to learn is called an “angle supply stop.”  They were priced at like $40 or $50, which seemed pretty high when all I really needed was the little internal cylinder doohickey.  She got on the phone to some local place and explained the issue in such a way that I was completely lost, even though I knew exactly what she was trying to say.  (Not that I’m complaining, having recently used the term “doohickey” myself.)  Eventually she handed the phone to me and I explained it in my own words.  The guy said the thing I needed was called a “nipple” and could be had in various non-plastic materials.  I don’t know how my wife chose the place she did, but when I looked at it with Google Maps Street View I realized this wasn’t exactly a boutique.

I went down there and showed them the broken piece, mentioned that the guy on the phone said it was a nipple, of which he had many, and they looked at me like I was crazy.  I showed them the handle that attached to it, and then pulled up a photo of the whole assembly that I’d taken on my smartphone.  They said I’d have to replace the entire assembly.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the fact of my flashy smartphone had led to this diagnosis.  You know, kind of a luxury tax.  If I’d flashed a gold iPhone 5S, maybe they’d have said I needed a whole new sink!

So this guy got a new angle supply stop, and I could see right off that its internal cylinder was made of plastic.  I complained about this.  “That’s the only way they make them,” the guy said.  I was about to reply that I’d rather go without a bathroom sink than to pay good money for another plumbing time bomb when another guy said, “I think that’s the wrong size.”  He stared at my photo.  I realized I should have put a ruler in the frame before snapping the photo.  This second guy went and found the right size angle supply stop, which was fancier and had no plastic in it.  It’s chrome-plated brass, and lead-free (though the box says “lead-free*,” and the asterisk might mean “sort of”).

The good news is, the angle supply stops were only $7 (apparently these things are much cheaper at the Blair Witch Plumbing Emporium than online) and a cinch to install.  (Well, the hot water side was a cinch.  I bought two of them, needless to say, so I can preemptively replace the other side, just as soon as I can figure out how to shut off the water supply to the entire house.  Still working on that.)

Rule #7:  Figure out how to shut off your water BEFORE you have a plumbing emergency

See above.  Maybe this should actually be Rule #1....

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