View from the forest floor

Death of a Fixture

When a middle-aged man purchases a house only one year younger than himself, he'd be wise to expect to see some of his own health problems appearing within the dwelling. Some things don't work as well as they once did, others are leaking, and what's that smell? Sometimes things will require treatment, others will need occasional clean up, and then there are the things that will need to be replaced outright.

A shower head turned on
It wasn't broken so much as it was working too well.

My son, after finishing a shower, reached down to shut off the water and something gave way in the valve, rendering it useless. My back does the same thing from time to time, so I can commiserate on the topic. As far as a home repair emergency goes this one was relatively tiny. After all, there was no mess. All of the water is going straight down into the tub, just like it was ten minutes ago when he got in the shower. The problem, in fact, is that the water was still going down into the tub a good forty minutes later while I searched in vain for the cutoff valve.

Your standard Phoenix area house has a simple setup when it comes to things like this. All of the breakers, all of the valves -- those are conveniently located on the outside of the home so you can easily shut anything off at anytime. It also makes it easy for anyone else to shut anything off at anytime, but we'll move past that and down into the crawlspace beneath my house in Kentucky. That's where I found myself with a dodgy flashlight and a spider named Yuri. I know this spider's name is Yuri because he was big enough to tell me so. He didn't know where the cutoff valve was either. He's only recently moved in himself. We exchanged some pleasantries, he showed me his new tattoo of Spider-Man and chuckled over its irony, and we bid each other a good day while I went topside to find another way to keep my water bill below three digits.

The inside of a rusted pipe masquerading as my crawlspace.
A dramatic reenactment of my crawlspace.

I realised my only option was to turn off the valve at the street, a valve that probably hasn't been turned in over a decade, if ever. I didn't have a meter key, so with the help of some vice grips and the liberal use of the f-word, I managed to finally kill the flow of water. Now all that remained was to find a good, reputable plumber in a town I've occupied for less than a month. I barely know the location of a good, reputable grocery store. A few web searches later, I made a phone call and scheduled a guy to come out that afternoon.

With the arrival of the afternoon, I received a text message that the plumber was on his way. Not only was this a nifty feature, but they also included a picture of the man. That way if some other dude knocks on your door and tells you he's there to fix your pipes? Well, I'm pretty sure that it's legal in the State of Kentucky to open fire on that imposter.

He arrived as scheduled, an incredibly friendly and handsome dude in work clothes with a Southern drawl, a tool bag, and an iPad. He explained that everything is handled on the iPad these days. The job assignments, the parts tracking and ordering, the invoicing, the collection of payment, it's all done right here on this device -- and would I mind if he charged the damn thing while he looked at the plumbing problem? Apparently it wasn't charged the day before.

He plugged in and began his inspection of the now silent shower. Now, I'm not an expert when it comes to plumbing, but I can do a fair bit so long as I can see the pipes. I've fixed all kinds of issues under sinks, in basements, and whatever. Are the pipes right there, out in the open, laid bare to the world? Then I can do things with those pipes.

Are those pipes behind a wall? Well, sorry. I've got something else to do that's to call someone who knows what the hell they're doing.

Now, because I know something about plumbing, I've got a pretty good idea of what this job will entail. The valve is absolutely shot. It's an old fixture that may have been installed when the house was built. The broad overview here is that someone who is not me needs to cut into the walls, remove the entire valve assembly, and install a new valve that was made after the Carter Administration. I awaited my plumber's diagnosis to see where we all landed.

"Well, sir," he said, turning to me after looking the valve over and removing its inner workings from its casing, "I've got some bad news."

"Oh?" I said, worry crawling over my face.

"Yeah, I'm really sorry, Daniel. But this valve is old. I'm not even sure who made it, and while I might be able to find parts for it, I've got no idea how long that's gonna take. What I think we should do is cut into the walls and remove that entire valve assembly and install a brand new valve."

Well damn, I thought to myself, that's the right answer. Though I did dock him half a point for not mentioning Jimmy Carter. I gave the go-ahead and he got a saw, entered the wall through my son's closet on the other side, and started pulling the valve. He called me back up to explain that he didn't have a valve like this with him. But what he could do is install a temporary valve and cut-off this entire shower,. That way we could turn the water back on, and he'd be back later to finish up.

By this point, it's almost five so I asked if he just wanted to handle it tomorrow. His face lit up because, apparently, he really would like to do that. It meant he'd get home at a reasonable hour tonight. I explained that we have another shower, we'd be good, and he should go home to his family. He hummed a bit while installing the temporary valve and, a few minutes later, we had the water back on and things weren't spraying in places they shouldn't be.

He called in to the shop and found they didn't have this valve at all, so he asked if he could come back on the weekend. It was Thursday, and I didn't mind because I had meetings and phone calls for work the next day.

"Sure, c'mon back on Saturday," I told him and he thanks me, shook my hand, and took off for home.

Saturday arrived and so did he. He brought the valve and installed it and, as he finished up we got to talking about the house, living in Kentucky, living in old houses, and our families. About half an hour later, we're wandering around the property drinking beer together and he's pointing out a couple of things to watch out for. He took care of a small issue with the water heaters and complained about how one of them was turned up way too high. After that, we wound up underneath the house again while he checked the cutoff valve that was, indeed, over beneath the front door. While we were down there, he discovered a working light fixture, something I'd totally missed since the beam of my flashlight extended about three feet in front of me before the photons just gave up and faded out from quantum exhaustion. We said hi to Yuri before heading back up to the surface.

For those who might not know, it's common in parts of the south to heat your house with propane. Some houses, including mine, have a propane tank so big, it's the same size you'd find at a convenience store from which a disinterested clerk fills the five gallon tank from your grill. He showed me how to gauge the fullness of the tank, and when would be the best time to top it off. A good hour and a half elapsed between the time he finished the shower and the time he thanked me for the beer and said goodbye.

Needless to say, we'll have him back if ever there's a plumbing issue.

There's a different flow to life here in Kentucky, one that I'm not used to. Few people are in a hurry, and most of them like to talk. After we signed the final papers to buy the house, my wife and I sat around for another half an hour just chatting with our agent and the lady who handled all the title paperwork. You could tell that this was a normal state of affairs. All of this legal, home buyin' stuff is finished, now tell me about your kids. You said your daughter is interested in art?

We've had a couple of folks out to the Hill to quote on some fencing, to do a little work, and to fix a broken shower. All of them arrive more or less on time, do the thing they're there for, and then hey, tell me about yourself. What brought you here to the Green? It's something I'll have to get used to, though I don't think it'll take too long. After all, most everyone will give you the time you need to adapt. And if you happen to have a bottle of brew, well, that makes it even smoother.