June 2011: Plumbing my own depths

Indoor plumbing is one of those conveniences that frequently get taken for granted, like electricity, telephones, and pre-baked pies, until that moment when the convenience suddenly goes away, leading to the huge inconvenience of trying to determine exactly how one is supposed to finish his shower when the water has suddenly stopped spraying over his body.

When I say “his,” I mean me; and when I say “body,” I mean that giant-freak-of-nature-potato-shaped thing I live in that I occasionally have to stand on its head in the shower to make sure the undercarriage gets good and cleaned. Except in instances such as this when the cleaning apparatus has suddenly failed, and the bathroom shower automatic spray cleaner is empty, ruining plan B.

I’m not exactly a handyman, although I’m at least a step above the level of a former roommate who tried to change out a light switch without turning off the power circuit, because he just figured he’d “do it quick.” He’s a former roommate only because he no longer lives with me, not because of a fatal lack of quickness, although it turns out that powerful electric shocks actually are a remarkably good negative-reinforcement training method.

I’ve especially never had a knack for plumbing, although I have been told I have the crack for it. More importantly, however, I am fairly good at solving problems logically. In this instance, while the water to the shower had failed, the tub spigot still flowed, indicating a problem between it and the shower head. This led to a true Archimedes moment, as just like him, my eureka-inspiring discovery came while I was wet and soapy.

After splash-rinsing and toweling off, I consulted the foremost repository of household repairs knowledge that I know of: my father.

When I was a child, my dad always seemed to know exactly what he was doing around the house, and I’ve been waiting and anticipating that point in my life when the mystical gift of “Dad Knowledge” is bestowed upon me as well. But it’s never happened. Maybe because I’ve never had kids. Or maybe because the real secret is to just bluff your way through the situation and when it turns out okay, pretend you knew what you were doing all along. If it doesn’t turn out okay, blame your kids. I guess I’ll have to blame the dog. That’s easy, because he doesn’t have thumbs, and tends to drop tools anyway.

After listening to my description of the problem, my father told me that to fix this, I would need to rip it all apart, find what was wrong, replace it, and put everything back together again.

As usual, his zen-like wisdom was impossible to argue with, so I consulted the second-most repository of household repairs knowledge I know of: YouTube. After watching several videos involving men fixing every conceivable bathroom plumbing problem in under 30 seconds with nothing more than a butter knife and a nutcracker while having the forethought to wear a belt yet speaking as though they carried their tools in their mouths, I finally determined what I needed to do to fix the problem: I would need to rip it all apart, find what was wrong, replace it, and put everything back together again.

I read years ago that home improvement projects involve exactly three trips to a hardware store, usually to purchase tools that are a lot like algebra: you use them once, then never again in your entire life. My first trip to the hardware store was to buy a hexagon-shaped tube used to remove the retaining nuts from the valves that I needed to replace. I discovered this after an hour of frustration with a crescent wrench and a few more 30-second videos on YouTube, which I wish were subtitled.

(Throughout the course of this column, I will use words that may invoke giggles in those 13 years of age or younger. If you are reading this and you are 13 years of age or younger: first of all, thank you; second of all, please read the following out loud and get it all out of your system now. If you are over 13, you may also read this aloud and pretend you’re not amused: Pipe; Tube; Nuts; Tool; Caulk; Wankel Rotary Engine. Thank you. Please continue when you’ve recovered.)

Back at home with the correct tool, I turned off the water to the house, and slowly and methodically disassembled the three valves in the tub. This was actually somewhat enjoyable, hearkening back to childhood experiences of taking things apart to see how they worked. Except this time, I knew I would have to re-assemble the parts myself, instead of relying on the all-knowing Dad.

I arrived for the second time at the hardware store with a bag full of wet, corroded plumbing parts; my current, electrical-wiring avoiding roommate; and a total lack of clues as to what to do next. We managed to find our way to the plumbing section, and then stared blankly at the various components hanging around us. I figured our only course of action was to take old pieces individually and search the racks until we found their counterparts.

For the next 45 minutes we did just that, with the assistance of the helpful hardware clerk named Steve. Finally, as Steve located the last needed washer and I tried to gather up the remarkably large pile of new parts, my roommate quietly pointed to the lowest shelf and a box kit that included everything we needed, including instructions, and at a lower price than the individual parts combined.

I admonished him for not seeing this sooner, told him to go play in the electrical department, apologized to Steve (who took it graciously and even offered to put away the pile of parts we no longer needed,) blamed the dog (who wasn’t even there but I think I got away with it,) checked out, gathered my roommate (who had refused to go play with the light switches and sockets because apparently that electrical shock had been powerful enough that it was felt by all the roommates I’ll ever have,) and headed home.

I started reassembling the parts, and quickly realized that I now had more parts to go in than I had originally taken out. This led me to discover tiny little plumbing thingamabobs on the pipes that led me to make my third and final trip to the hardware store for yet another algebraic thingamabob-removing tool.

An hour after that, with the newly installed shower fittings reflecting the heavenly glow of my success, I sent my roommate to turn on the water main while I remained to watch for any sudden, massive fountains of water erupting from my handiwork. Which, surprisingly, did not happen. My roommate joined me in admiring the new fixtures, as well as expressing his appreciation that I was finally finished, because he needed to use the bathroom and had been holding it for hours. I told him he really shouldn’t have waited, because we could have just let the yellow mellow, so to speak. He said he couldn’t for two reasons: #1- That’s not what he needed to do; and #2- That’s what he needed to do.

I finished up with a few new beads of caulk around the tub. As I put away my tools, new and old, I reflected upon what I’d learned: Dad knows what’s he’s talking about even if it doesn’t always make sense; plumbing is easier than it looks especially if you get really lucky; and it seems like I really do have at least a little bit of “Dad Knowledge” already. I would like to rely on that as frequently as I need to rely on algebra around the house, however.

Oh, and one final thing I almost forgot- Wankel Rotary Engine.

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