Thursday, February 05, 2009

"I don't get paid just for pushing the button..."

"...I get paid for knowing which button to push."

So goes the punch line to one of my favorite techie jokes. Up until recently I've been perfectly happy to leave plumbing jobs to expert button-pushers, but a combination of chutzpah and stinginess caused me to take on a plumbing repair this week.

The weather has been more frigid than usual this winter, and we've had a few pipe freezes, primarily in the kitchen and laundry room, where the pipes have to run through our completely uninsulated crawl space. I thought we'd gotten lucky, with no pipe bursts, until last weekend, when I noticed the carpet in front of the clothes washer was a little damp. Yes, there is carpeting in the laundry area, which is completely impractical, but that room, the kitchen, and the dining room are really one big room, and we're holding off until we can replace the floor in all three places. I didn't think much of the wet, since the Munchkin likes to help move wet things from the washer to the dryer, and it's pretty common for them to land on the floor in between.

The next day, I was putting dirty laundry into the washer in my sock feet, and noticed the carpet was still wet. Even wetter actually.


Turns out the freezes had caused a slow leak in the cold water pipe to the washer. Worse, that leak was before the cut-off to the machine, so as long as the main water supply for the house was on, there would be water in that pipe and it would continue to leak. There was good news, though: the leak was not actually in the crawl space (where it would have gone unnoticed until the pipe burst completely), and, as plumbing sites go, the space behind our pulled-out washer is relatively spacious.

I could tell roughly where the leak was, in an L-joint, and since it was small and seemed to be at the connection, I thought I could get away with patching it. Trip #1 to the hardware store (G.R. Smith Hardware in Mount Vernon - one of my favorite places) netted me a package of plumber's seal. I took it home, mooshed the two-part epoxy together, and commenced to patching. It only took a few minutes, plus an hour to cure, but when I turned the water main back on, it became clear that the leak wasn't in the connection but in the pipe itself. Bugger.

Before: This is with my attempted (and failed) patch job. Note the soggy drywall and wood. The carpet was pretty squishy.

By this time it was time to fetch the Munchkin from school. Still, I didn't want to just let this thing leak indefinitely, and we couldn't be without water for terribly long. So, the Munchkin got to accompany me on trip #2 to Lowe's (not as awesome as Smith's, but open later) where an incredibly nice guy in the plumbing area helped me find new 1/2" pipe, a new joint, the nasty cement stuff to connect it all, and even cut down the pipe into a few smaller pieces. All the while he kept reassuring me "you can definitely do this." I have no memory of the man's name, but I need to go back and thank himfor making an intimidating task seem completely manageable.

Flash forward to the next day, when I begin my plumbing attempt anew. Why wait? Ever try to get a plumbing job done with a toddler trying to help? Me either, and I don't plan to start now. Anyhow, off goes the water, drain the pipe as best I can, put a cookie sheet down to catch drippage, find hack saw, commence to cutting out the bad section of pipe. This was actually the trickiest part, since the pipe was right up against the wall and trim molding, and in pretty close proximity to another pipe and to the electrical line. I did some damage to the drywall, which was had gotten a little punky from the leak, but that's about it. Next up, check the length of the pipe and cut to fit. This was pretty much entirely by eye. Assemble the whole works dry and see if it fits. Marvel at how much it reminds one of Tinkertoys. Marvel that the fit is just about perfect. Disassemble everything so we can do it again for real.

Attempt to open cement. Fail. Attempt again. Fail again. Whack at the lid. Use one of those rubber jar-opener things. Use rubber bands around the lid. Whack again. Locate pliers. Hand cramp! Curse loudly and be glad the toddler is not home. Take a break and have a beer. Curse frequently at the irony of taking on plumbing only to be thwarted by a stuck jar lid. Make one more attempt with the pliers. Success!

At this point I was able to reassemble everything using the noxious-smelling cement product, which is just as nose-hair-curling as you'd imagine. After a few hours wait, so that the cement could cure properly, I turned the water back on. The pipe stayed bone dry.

I don't think I have ever been quite so proud of myself. OK, maybe childbirth. Seriously, if any of y'all have a smallish home repair that you've been putting off dealing with, because you don't think you know how, DO IT. Break out the hacksaw and plumber's flux and plan to get a little damp, but give it a try. If it all goes horribly pear-shaped and you need to call a plumber to do it over, you're really only out your own time and the relatively minimal supply cost (remember - you were going to call the plumber anyhow). And if it works? You save a mint and get a massive confidence boost. It only takes one small victory to make all the larger projects on the to-do list seem manageable.

Next up: installing a dishwasher.

After: The white section of pipe is the new stuff. I did a little damage to the drywall. The carpet was still pretty soggy at this point, but a few days later it's dry as a bone.

4 people have weighed in:

Anonymous held forth

There's something particularly satisfying about plumbing repairs over other home improvement repairs as well.

Alison held forth

Definitely, although I also have a real soft spot for anything electrical. Something about the "and there was light" outcome. Sadly, my electrician's mojo seems to be a little off lately.

Jeanne held forth

I'd rather babysit your kid--so when my stuff breaks, can I call you?

Padmanaban held forth

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