Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A cold scolding

Our water heater died the death last night. Just as I was about to head up to bed I heard a loud sucking sound coming from the basement and headed down to check it out. Although the sound was obviously coming from the water heater, it was equally obvious that the heater was just fine if I tilted my head back enough so that I couldn’t see the water streaming from underneath it toward the drain in the floor. It was after 10:00, so there wasn’t much to do but alert the family and plan to make a phone call in the morning.

Why do dads take a perverse pleasure in giving their kids, especially their sons, bad news? I don’t know, but I have that gene too. “Well, Son, looks like ice-cold water for showers tomorrow morning.” He looks at me in horror and groans. “Yup, that’ll wake you up in a hurry!” As though I shower under a snowmelt waterfall every day and he’s finally going to share in the magic. We dads always think our kids are too soft from all the coddlin’ and pamperin’, and they probably are, but so am I. It’s not like I grew up bathing in a washtub in the kitchen, after drawing the water from a well and heating it on a wood-burning stove. Like him, I have always had hot running water at my disposal. Nonetheless, a small part of me undeniably thinks this discomfiture will be good for him. Daughter was already asleep, but the news wouldn’t have affected her much since she doesn’t take morning showers.

So this morning a plumber from a company I trust arrives, as promptly as I could have hoped. We initiate the ritual conversation in which the present contractor maligns the work of the previous one. What amuses me about this familiar step is that I get deftly maneuvered into defending the previous guy’s work even though (1) I am entirely unqualified to evaluate its quality, and (2) I have no reason to be loyal to him just because I once paid him to do a job. This time, though, it takes a more dire turn.

“Who installed this heater? Not a plumber, that I am sure of.”

“Well, he was a plumber, but I couldn’t say whether he--”

“Look at this gas line. He used flex-pipe. Illegal. This man was not a plumber.”

“Well, I'm not sure if he--”

“And also look at the copper pipe he used. He used type M, you cannot use that in this town, must use type L, he must not have been used to working here.”

“You’re right, he was from Chicago because we knew him from when we lived--”

“If he was in Chicago we are in same union, but no plumber from my union would do this. This is why houses explode.”

“Well I’m glad you’re here then. We’d like to skip the explosion.”

He spends a little more time trying to figure out what he’s dealing with. Then:

“Wait a minute, what is this extra pipe in here with all the sludge? This should not be here, and there shouldn’t be this mess inside of it . . . . Oh my god. Oh my god. This bad plumber switched the hot and cold sides so that he wouldn’t have to cut pipe. He put a copper pipe down into the heater. Must be plastic, and on the right side. No wonder it broke. I have never seen this. How long has this heater been here?”

“It’s been about nine years but I remember wondering--”

“You’re lucky it even worked for one year! Now I have to call and cancel next job and go get the pipe. Normally this is quick job, just switch the new heater in with three connections, but I have to replace the flex-pipe from the gas and lengthen the hot and water pipes, this is big job now. Expensive.”

Last night, once it was obvious that the heater was dead, I had opened the drain at the bottom to drain all the water. Only a trickle came out, so I assumed all the water had leaked out down the floor drain. This was stupid, which I would have realized if I had thought about it for two seconds. The thing was of course still full of water, and the plumber quickly realized the drain was blocked, so he wrenched it off. Good idea except for the 30 or so gallons of lime-ridden water that came shooting out onto the washing machine, dryer, laundry, wall, etc. The plumber was unconcerned but I started thinking spirally about my rapidly approaching Tuesday deadline and how much time I don’t have to spend down there with a mop and bucket. He interrupted my reverie:

“. . . more sediment than I have ever seen in a water heater, that’s because this bad plumber switched the sides and the magnesium tube couldn’t work, you never had sediment coming out of your faucets?”

“No, not that we’ve noticed, but lately--”

“It’s OK, I’ll bleed the pipes slowly so nothing gets in the new one.”

He did so, and after a painful check-writing session our new heater is officiously heating up its first tank of water. And don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the guy was giving me a line at all. As he showed me everything it was obvious that the old plumber had cut every corner he could. Nonetheless I was thoroughly chastened, and impressed by his expert disdain. Then I thought, Hey, I’m a contractor of sorts too. Why can’t I use the same approach with my next client?

“Who wrote this? You had another medical writer in here to work on this before me, didn’t you? How am I going to clean this up? Look at this: the argument is completely confused, the objectives aren’t even stated, plus the data are presented in the wrong order, so that your primary end point is buried in the middle of the supporting analyses! Oh, this is huge. It’s got to be rewritten from scratch. You’d better call your boss and get a bigger budget approved, because I have to clear my whole schedule for this. No telling how long it will take.”

I’ve got to try that.


Blogger Melissa said...

Water heaters are the instrument of the devil. Two rooms in our house were flooded by one of them.

3/17/2005 12:42 AM  
Blogger Moreena said...

Oh, I hope my husband doesn't click through to this post. He looks at our water heater suspiciously every time he is in the basement. Surely a big tank of water just sitting there is a disaster waiting to happen. He is big into the idea of preventive replacement, while I am still angling to work a videocamera into the household budget while we still have youngun's doing stuff we can use to extort them into doing our bidding at some later date.

3/18/2005 9:58 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

I love your last paragraph. For better or worse, I've done exactly that, which does not always endear me to the person who has done the writing or who is defending it.

3/24/2005 10:45 AM  

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