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Monday, November 12, 2012

Right down the tubes

WARNING: Several kindhearted men in my life have helped me with home repair from time to time.  Those men --and you know who you are-- should not read this post.

SPECIAL WARNING TO IMMEDIATE FAMILY AND IN-LAWS:   Don’t you dare mention this to Papa Yank. He can hardly turn on  the laptop much less find a blog, so if he hears about this I’ll know who squawked.

And now, back to Day 12 at NaBloPoMo...

My house escaped Hurricane Sandy unscathed, but a few days later the plumbing showed some signs of post-traumatic stress. The faucet choked and spluttered a couple times before exhaling a steady stream of water that took longer than usual to drain. 

The toilet wasn't itself, either.  Instead of performing its remove-and-replenish cycle smoothly, it took in a great gulp of air and then sent a little burst of water skyward, reminding me more of a surfacing whale than a working commode.  

I fell prey to the temptation that makes people try something again even when they're pretty sure they already know the outcome.  Another mini-geyser.  

The toilet seemed exhausted afterwards this time, because it didn’t even bother to fill up the bowl all the way.  Less than halfway through its job it gurgled ominously and then lapsed into silence. 

A few weeks before this I’d solved a complex heating problem with two simple tools: Google and AAA batteries.  I searched the former and found a manual for my thermostat. The troubleshooting section suggested replacing the batteries. Aha! I hadn't even known the thing took batteries. The fix itself was simple (unlike the process of prying the thermostat off the wall), and this little victory convinced me to make a permanent space in my toolbox for  Google.    

When the plumbing started acting weird, I reached straight for the Google.  A search on the toilet's symptoms turned up dozens of posts, all pointing in the same direction: blocked exterior vent.  This theory had some intuitive appeal.  The hurricane had strewn assorted debris all over the yard so it wasn’t much of a stretch to envision the wind plopping a stray squirrel or two into the roof vent.  I considered going up there to check it out myself but was dissuaded by the DIY community’s unanimous advice to stay grounded.  

I didn't admit defeat right away, though. I tried a couple little things first. 

I jiggled the handle, as required by the Yank Code.  It’s my father’s primary, no, only, solution for plumbing maladies.  No dice. 

Then, I took the lid off and messed around with the arm-and-chain flushing mechanism. (Bonus points to me for not saying “thingy.”) That wasn’t the culprit, either. I gave up and called a plumber.

A two-man brigade arrived.  I described the symptoms and led the men to the second story bath. As I prepared to give them a demo I worried that the toilet, after days of misbehaving, would suddenly act like a model loo. 

My fears were unfounded.  The commode did exactly what I said it would. I almost felt proud of it for not making me look like some ditzy chick who didn’t know what she was talking about. 
That's a feat I am perfectly capable of doing myself, and I didn’t need some crummy piece of porcelain trying to steal my thunder.  

With confidence I gave the plumbers my Google-based diagnosis. The larger guy looked dubious and said, “Ma’am, a blocked vent would be surprising unless everything else is backing up.”  I nodded knowingly. Google had told me the same thing, so I pointed out that the sink had been draining very slowly.

The smaller plumber took the lid off the back of the toilet, flushed it, and watched its innards at work. Then he reached in, did something I couldn’t see, and said, “You’re all set.” 

What? He hadn’t even needed the ladder, or even so much as a dab of elbow grease as far as I could tell.  I requested a tutorial and he happily obliged.  It was the bowl refill tube, he explained.

In all my Googling I had somehow failed to look closely at how this tube—the conduit that directs water back into the bowl post-flush—was connected and aimed. Or connected and misaimed in this case. All it needed was a little redirection.

I made a lame attempt to save face.  “But what about the sink?”

The plumbers indulged me again and pulled up the drain piece, bringing with it a large glob of black sludge.  No tutorial was required to explain why the water took its time exiting the basin.

For my airhead finale, I performed the Disappearing Checkbook routine.  I had only $25 in cash and the plumbers didn't take credit cards.  Online banking came to my rescue and enabled me to make the $100 payment for Commodes 101 electronically. 

I started beating myself up for not figuring out something so obvious.  The whole episode made me feel like a damsel in distress instead of a smart, independent woman.  Which gave me an idea. 

“You know,” I said to the plumbers as I walked them to the door, “you guys oughtta do a Plumbing Basics for women. You’d make a fortune.”

The first guy nodded but the second didn't look like he was on board.  “You can probably do it online already, ma’am," he said. "Just try Googling.” 

Thanks, pal. Why didn’t I think of that?  


  1. I'm too embarrassed to tell you what I just paid a plumber $150 to do in my bathroom.

    1. Your secret is safe with me! Shall I sign you up for the class, too?

  2. Your experience was nothing compared to a situation that I encountered on Thursday morning, when while jogging to the Metro station to recover my car. I happened to run across a woman changing her tire, and stopped to help. She had lifted the car using the jack and was taking off the lug nuts of the flat tire. However, I noticed that there was a wheel-less tire leaning against the car, and that the jack was lifting the wrong part of the car. And there was a broken axle shaft on the hood. As tactfully as possible, in case she was a master mechanic who could mount a tire to a wheel by the side of the road, I asked her where the wheel was. Her reaction was, "Oh, hey, I hadn't noticed that! Thanks! That could have been really embarrassing if I had tried to put it on." Just as carefully, I pointed out that she had her jack in the wrong place and might put a big dent on the underside of her car if she tried to use it that way. She then called a tow truck, saying that she had a monthly towing plan, so this tow would not cost her extra. Perhaps a tire changing class could be as useful and profitable as a plumbing class? (I never did get her to tell me what the axle shaft was doing on the hood.)

    1. Great idea! I'll draft up the incorporation papers right now. BTW, many years ago a good friend of mine was horrified to learn that I didn't know how to change a tire. He invited me to his house for brunch and a demo. I only remember the brunch. That's what bacon will do to a person. I joke, but this is why a hands-on class is needed instead of google or YouTube. You don't know how to do it til you do it. Sigh.

    2. This was awesome.
      I had a mini-panic attack today when I realized how helpless I would be without the Goog (reason #187 you should always know at least two people who understand how to hook up a router....). Also, I am very pleased to know that thermostats take batteries... :)

    3. Haha! It's so true. No matter how advanced technology might get, you still gotta have "a guy" (said in Joe Pesci voice).

  3. I make my kids help/watch me do repairs around the house so hopefully one day they'll know what needs to be done. A lot of it isn't real complicated, but if no one has ever shown you how it can be challenging.

    1. HI, and thanks for stopping by! You're so right--tough to do if you haven't seen it done and tried to do it yourself. I can jiggle the handle with the best of 'em but that's about it. Then again, I'm honored to be able to carry on such a distinguished family legacy.

  4. Oh, sweetie. I am so with you. When my landlord came to replace some filters, I had to confess that I thought I'd broken the garbage disposal. Turns out, it just needed a reset. Me - What? There's a reset button? WHERE??? I'd have paid the plumbers too. But smacked the one that said to google it. grrrrr

    1. Grrrr, indeed! Judging from the comments on this one I think the class would be at capacity!

  5. Maybe you can take a page out of my book and start dating your plumber. I'll never forget that $500 gas lamp repair I got for free!