Sunday, April 14, 2019

More Plumbing for Dummies


This post recounts my third foray into amateur plumbing. Are we talking “heart of darkness” territory? No, more like brain of darkness. But don’t expect a thriller involving a geyser of raw sewage like last time; my 15-year-old daughter seemed bored by today’s tale. But if you think you’re more patient than she is (hint: if you’ve made it this far, you probably are), read on.

The rules

Amateur plumbing is not for the fainthearted. Fortunately I am the beneficiary of my father’s wisdom here, as he taught me some rules I should always keep in mind before diving in. Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Of course that’s not true. That’s a nice Norman Rockwell sentiment: good ol’ pop teaching his kid the ropes. The truth is, my dad never had time to sit me down and explain anything.

This isn’t to say he was ignorant about plumbing; he could be quite clever. For example, he built a contraption that would detect when his hot water heater had failed, and would automatically drain it somehow without flooding his house. (This makes almost as much sense as periodically replacing your hot water heater.) But that was many years before I was born so I didn’t get to work alongside him, handing up wrenches and drinking in his tutelage. By the time I came along, my dad’s strategy had shifted to dodging plumbing issues for as long as possible. Eventually, his home’s master bathroom actually lacked a toilet. To be precise, he had bought a new toilet, but for years and years never got around to installing it, and the unfinished project ultimately outlived him.

I do have a set of rules around such undertakings, which come from my own observation and some lessons imparted by a bike shop boss decades ago. They aren’t specific to plumbing, but cover any kind of tricky repair. Here they are:
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Professionals (such as plumbers) charge a lot for a reason.
  • Don’t start a project when you’re tired and stressed out.
  • Leave yourself plenty of time so you don’t end up with a half-finished project.
  • Make sure you’re always working with plenty of light.
  • Don’t start a tricky job on an empty stomach.
  • Make sure you have resources lined up in case you get stuck.
I’m sure this list isn’t complete … feel free to add your own guidelines in the comments section below.

My plumbing predicament

From the standpoint of running water, my home is a minefield. The water pressure from the municipal utility district is plenty high—in fact, it’s too high, so my drip irrigation system is prone to sudden hose failures—but virtually all the pipes within the house are original, from 1929. They’re galvanized steel rather than copper, and they’re rusting inside. This means that little bits are forever flaking off and getting carried along with the water until they reach a faucet or shower head, which traps them. This causes clogs that severely hamper the flow. To solve the problem—i.e., replace all the rotting pipes—would be a major undertaking requiring many thousands of dollars. So I put up with it.

As a result, I’m on my third bathroom sink. I’ve tried to take apart the faucets and get rid of the crap clogging them up, but to no avail. Two different plumbers have insisted that there’s nothing to be done. “There’s a cartridge in there, and once it’s clogged, the whole fixture is shot,” they claim. Excuse me, but doesn’t “cartridge” imply something that can be easily replaced? Apparently not. So recently, my fairly new kitchen faucet, which I happen to really like, started to bog down. The flow has been weakening, gradually but steadily, for months. This has driven me crazy. I cannot continue to hemorrhage money on new faucets, but neither can I bear to plunk down many thousands of dollars to replace plumbing that more or less works. Meanwhile, I refuse to get another plumber in here to tell me there’s nothing to be done but replace a bunch more hardware and pay him a bunch more money.

So, with all the aforementioned rules in mind, I finally tackled the problem myself the other night. Here’s how that went, organized by my amateur plumbing rules.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

To recap, professional plumbers have told me you can’t fix a clogged faucet. On that basis alone, my home repair attempt was arguably foolish from the get-go. The kitchen faucet is more complicated than the bathroom ones that the plumbers threw up their hands over. It’s got the hose you can pull out, and the button that switches between fill and spray. Moreover, the lines feeding it (which are built into it and non-removable) are remarkably inflexible and scrawny. There’s all kinds of room for problems here. I was well aware of all this when contemplating my repair and deciding whether to move forward.

Don’t start a project when you’re tired or stressed out

I’m tired and stressed out most of the time these days. I have two teenage daughters, a difficult job, and too many responsibilities. Moreover, when contemplating this repair I had just finished doing my taxes (which was particularly stressful due to the major changes in the tax code and their fiscally painful repercussions). What pretty much put me over the edge was that the flow from this faucet had gotten so low it was no longer possible to wash my hands. It was like the urine output from an old man with a significantly enlarged prostate. So I was beyond tired and stress out—I was livid.

Leave yourself plenty of time

It was late evening. I was supposed to be cooking dinner for my kids, as my wife was at her night class. I was also supposed to be packing for a multi-day family road trip. We’d be leaving early in the morning the next day. In no way would I have enough time to recover from difficulties associated with this repair. I almost cannot imagine a worse time to begin.

Make sure you have plenty of light

It’s actually almost impossible for me to have good light anymore, because as I age, my vision is failing. I’m so nearsighted, an object just a few feet away is too hard to see clearly without glasses, but with my glasses anything less than two feet away is blurry. I really need bifocals, but I’m just not psychologically ready to handle that, nor am I ready to start sliding my glasses down my nose and peering over them.

I do have a great work lamp I could plug in, but I get nervous using it around water sources, for two reasons: first, the electrical outlet under my sink doesn’t have GFI, and second, the lamp might heat up my work area to where I’d start sweating too much to grip my tools. At least, these are the reasons I came up with. The reality is, I was just too impatient and lazy to set up the light.

Don’t work on an empty stomach

I hadn’t had dinner, remember? I was too impatient to have a snack before getting started, so I was good and hangry. My blood sugar was surely very low, but of course my brain doesn’t work very well in this state so I was ignoring the inner voice that warned me I was being foolish.

Have appropriate resources lined up

I had no resources lined up. The hardware store would be closing soon, and I couldn’t reach my brother Bryan, the guy I usually turn to for advice. (Click here for the transcript of my last plumbing-related chat with him.) Perhaps the most important resource would have been my wife, as she would have certainly talked me out of this ill-conceived effort from the get-go. Ironically, this was one of the main reasons I did decide to go ahead with the repair: because I knew if I waited, she’d be around to talk sense into me. And I didn’t want to be sensible. I was incensed.

So how did all this pan out?

Well, first I disconnected the faucet from the main water supply to see how the flow was without it. Wow, it was great! So great it caused a minor flood in the cabinet under the sink! That was a hassle, but I was relieved I didn’t have a bigger problem. (The rusting pipes explanation was just a theory, after all.) So then I disconnected the part of the hose that goes through the faucet from the two narrow, stiff, plastic lines feeding it. I took the faucet/hose assembly out into the garage to see if forcing compressed air through it, via my soda bottle air compressor, would help.

My younger daughter helped with this part, manning the bike pump. This gave me both my hands free to try to hold the surgical tubing against the rest of the whole mess. A lot of air leaked out, but still a fair bit of water shot out everywhere, and though I was entirely dubious that any of this would make any difference, at least it felt good to be doing something. An added bonus was that the two-liter soda bottle didn’t explode, so neither my daughter nor I came away horribly disfigured or deafened. Later, with the benefit of hindsight, I would realize how crazy this entire approach had been, but of course I wasn’t thinking straight at this point in the process.

I hooked everything back up again and if anything, the flow was even worse. I was beginning to despair, because believe me, the fact of my ignoring all six of my amateur plumbing rules was not lost on me. Moreover, I was acutely aware that I really had no idea what the hell I was doing.

So I turned my attention to the head of the faucet. There was a little plastic cylinder between the hose and the head that was intriguing. It had no little flats to accept a wrench; no little arrows indicating how to twist anything; no little screws to unscrew. But there was a tiny plastic button (visible when I took off my glasses) that seemed to do nothing, but obviously existed for a reason. I pushed it in and twisted every which way at the cylinder it was embedded in, and eventually something broke free (at first I thought, horrified, that it had actually broken, based on the sound it made). Now, I was able to take the innards of the faucet head apart.

There was a ton of crap in there, tiny bits of rust like fine gravel, little jackstones and shards and whatnot, and I scraped them out with the pointy end of a chopstick. I put it all back together, struggled a bit due to the crudely made (but it must be said, thoughtfully designed) ring assembly, turned the faucet on, and—EUREKA!—the water came gushing out like a damn hydrant! Like Niagara Falls! I let out a whoop of pure joy. After the abject, willful stupidity I’d indulged in pursuing my benighted campaign against forces far greater than I, I’d somehow managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat!

I immediately poured a Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA and had my younger daughter help me create this celebratory Beck’st:

(Alas, I don’t have a “before” picture showing the faucet’s pathetic trickle of water from only half its jets. It never occurred to me to photograph it.)

I struggle to convey to you just how totally stoked I was to have won out against the rust clogging my faucet. To ignore so many warning signs and yet prevail … it was like something that only happens on TV, like in the final seven minutes of a “Star Trek” episode. Never mind that the repair itself, upon reflection, wasn’t actually ingenious or anything; the point was, I’d confronted a soul-crushing problem that had been increasingly weighing on me for months, and had kicked its ass!

For a couple minutes, with my mystified (and bored and hungry) kids looking on, I just turned that faucet on and off over and over, watching the water blast out like magic. I felt like Eeyore putting his (popped) birthday balloon into his (empty) honey pot and taking it back out again delightedly, declaring, “It goes in and out like anything.’”

The next morning, my wife was predictably astonished that I’d taken on such a foolhardy project at such an inopportune time. Examining my motivation after the fact, I was able to explain: while it’s true that I’d had half a dozen good reasons to put off my repair, I’m sure my dad had, too, with that toilet he never got around to installing. Waiting for some magic opportunity to bang out a home repair can be a slippery slope. Throughout my childhood, problems continually went unsolved or un-tackled and there was nothing I could do about it. As I make my own way through adult life, I find I’d rather crash and burn than risk continuing my dad’s legacy of procrastination.

Further reading

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