There's something in the microclimate of southwestern New Hampshire that seems to foster particularly violent summer thunderstorms. Maybe it's all the exposed granite ledge, rich in radioactive thorium - it's not inconceivable that there's just enough ionization of the overlying air to encourage lightning to seek ground. Or maybe it's all the acidic ground water, whose positively charged hydrogen radicals beckon with sultry, bedroom eyes for airborne electric discharges to come hither. Maybe it's the elevation, or maybe it's Just Because. Whatever the reason, past summers have seen lightning claim three of my water-pump controllers, but one steamy day in July it fried the pump as well.
Replacing the control box was a simple repair even I could manage, but the pump dangles at the end of a 300-ft hose down into my well, and it takes a special tool to get at it. The hardware alone cost over $500, and was installed by three guys working for two hours at union scale. Add in the cost of the controller and the subsequent water analysis, and the total bill came to just under $1K. The water was unusable for about a week after the replacement, during which time I took sponge baths with lake water while awaiting the verdict of the insurance underwriters. Ah, the joys of home ownership!
While waiting for the new pump to arrive, I had no water at all, and thought it would be a good opportunity to get off my butt and fix all the leaky faucets. Inexperienced with plumbing repair, I approached the downstairs bath with considerable trepidation; but except for some momentary confusion over left-hand vs. right-hand threads, the job couldn't have gone any smoother. Now brimming with confidence, I felt ready for the kitchen. I unscrewed the faucet handles and tried to lift them off, but they wouldn't budge. I wiggled and pried at them, but they still refused to cooperate. Determined not to get angry, I tried prying them off with screwdrivers. When that failed, I tried tapping them (gently, I had to remind myself) with my pipe wrench, then with a mallet, then not so gently, but to no avail. Now, we like to think that our civilized affectations are more than surface gloss, but the hard truth is, our brains are still running the v1.0 operating system developed for our Australopithecene ancestors on the savannah. So in retrospect, maybe it was a little stupid to try working the handles free with a wrecking bar, but I was out of ideas, and control just passed naturally down into the "ThreatDisplay" subroutine. (Although my teeth may have been bared, I don't believe I was hooting, at least not out loud.)
The crowbar gave me the leverage needed not only to pop off the recalcitrant handle, but to shear off the valve stem as well. So a job that should have taken fifteen minutes and cost no more than one or two dollars now demanded a trip to the hardware store (this was, of course, after 5:00 pm, when rural N.H. shuts down for the night) and probably ten or fifteen bucks for a couple of valve stems and faucet handles.
The next day the plumber and his entourage arrived and pulled out my pump. For twenty-two years, it had lain quietly in still, dark, icy water; then on this day it was yanked back up to the Outer World, stirring up debris and sediment for the first time since Richard Nixon’s unsuccessful struggle to hold his regime together. By the end of the day I had water, but it was brown, and stank, useful only for flushing. But that's a different story.
Saturday morning I brought the damaged valve stem to the hardware store, where I wandered about the plumbing supplies, trying to find a blister-packed item matching the one I had in my hand. A clerk asked if he could help me, so I held up the decapitated valve, like a Neolithic hunter showing off the carcass of a squirrel he's just dispatched with a well-aimed rock. He looked it over with a carefully-cultivated expression of concerned regret, and claimed he'd never seen one like it. As did the proprietor of the next hardware store I visited. And the one after that.
It wasn’t until the middle of the following week that I found a plumbing wholesaler who carried the damned thing. It was the sort of place where contractors hang out on a first-name basis with the proprietors, where you get first-rate service if you can talk the talk, but you're a second-class citizen otherwise. And, surrounded as I was by licensed plumbers purchasing ball valves by the case and PVC pipe in 100-ft lengths, I felt like the guy about to order a grilled cheese sandwich in a French restaurant. I showed the fellow behind the counter the valve stem and cleared my throat to deepen my voice. "I'd like two of these," I said with as much self-assurance as I could muster.
He gave it a quick glance, then returned his attention to the computer display. "Is that a standard or inverse double-bore?" he asked.
"What?" I said.
"The o-ring," he asked (rather sharply I thought). "Is it in the internal or external bushing?"
"Umm," I replied.
He snatched it from my hands as if relieving a miscreant 6-year old of a broken toy. Then, like a jeweler examining a precious stone, he held it up to the light and studied it. "Kohler," he murmured. "Standard bore. Internal o-ring. Left-handed thread by the looks of it." He nodded in assent of his own identification. "Not too many of these made. Valve stems tended to break when worked on by--" he stopped and looked at me. "Takes a light touch to change these," he continued carefully. "Not something the amateur should be fooling with." Somehow he managed to italicize the word "amateur."
Accepting his rebuke, I nodded, as if appreciative of this information. "Do you carry them?" I asked.
He did, and retreived a pair from The Back Room. I had a ten-dollar bill in my hand ready to pay. "They're $13.25," he said. "Apiece. That doesn't include the packing."
I gave him the ten and found two others in my wallet to hand over. "How about the handles?"
He tapped a few keys on the keyboard and stared pensively at the monitor. For all I knew, he could have been plotting spacecraft orbits for NASA, or downloading action videos of Bambi Foxxx from the Web. "None in stock," he said. "I can order them for you."
I agreed to this without bothering to ask what they'd cost. It's best not to know some things until you really need to.
Well, I got home (we're into Saturday evening, now), installed the valve stems, and turned the water back on from under the sink. With a pair of vice-grips standing in for the handle, I opened the cold, and cold, brown water coughed into the sink; but when I repeated the test with the hot, the water not only issued from the spout, but bubbled up merrily from the around the stem as well. Either I'd bought a defective item, I thought, or my clumsy, amateurish attempts to install it had lacked the light, delicate touch of the master plumber...
I crawled under the sink and closed the shutoffs, crawled back out and removed the leaking valve stem, which I set by the front door so I'd remember to bring it with me to work on Monday morning. I spent Sunday boiling lake water in a big kettle.
On Monday, I returned to the wholesaler during my lunch break. The same fellow from whom I'd bought the valves was working the counter. I handed him the defective valve. "It leaks from around this thing here," I told him.
He took it from me, gently rubbed his finger over the scars gouged into the hex nut when my wrench had slipped, and gave me the kind of look a doctor might give a mother who's just told him that her child's black eyes came from a playground mishap. "I'll get you another," he said, trying to sound as though he were trying not to sound disdainful. He disappeared into the back room, and returned shortly with another valve. I handed him my receipt, but he just shook his head and held up his hand. As glad to be rid of him as he was of me, I retreated and hurried back to the office with my booty.
I got home that night to find my kitchen floor covered with water. I uttered a short, all-purpose syllable of Anglo-Saxon descent, and repeated it several times to make sure that the gods had heard me, and were aware of my displeasure. I sopped up what I could with a couple of bath towels from the laundry hamper, and squatted to empty the space beneath the sink. Out came years' accumulation of weapons stockpiled against life's hazards: ancient, rusted cans of Raid; a filthy, pungent squeeze bottle of Woodsman's Fly Dope; two or three packages of ant traps, one trap missing from each. A broken coffee mug (good thing I was saving that); a bottle of Rusty Jones belonging to a car I’d sold several years earlier; a bottle of Coppertone that had cost 55 cents - how long had THAT been in there? Unopened cans of shoe polish I hadn't even known were there. Tung Oil, whatever the hell that is. I piled all this flotsam on the linoleum behind me, and shone a flashlight into the cupboard.
The cupboard floor was dark and shiny with water, the circular rust stains where metal spray cans had taken root blurring around their edges, but there was no obvious source. It might as well have been groundwater oozing up from the plywood. Even as I peered into the space, though, I heard a *poik* as a drop of water broke free from somewhere to join its brethren on the floor. I hadn't seen it, so I waited for the next one.
Perhaps 30 seconds later: *poik*. It seemed to have come from the right. I turned my attention there and began a vigil.
but my attention had drifted during the lull, and I had missed it again. Determined not to miss the next one, I forced myself into a Zen-like state of focus, and gazed into the circle of light.
There! I'd seen something. Hadn't I? Or had it just been one of those floaty things in my eye? Uncertain, now, I peered intently at the spot I thought I'd seen the drip.
Without question, something had dripped down from the space into which the cold water feed attached to the sink. I poked my head inside and twisted my neck around as far as I could. Sure enough, I watched a bead of water slowly welling up around the base of the compression fitting.
Fortunately, the gods had erred in enlisting this particular fitting to turn on me, because by some miracle, I had a wrench that fit it. Tucking the flashlight into my armpit, I lay on my back, squirming a bit as cold, filthy water soaked through my t-shirt, and reached up into the cobwebs surrounding the feed, hoping that their architects were no longer home. There was barely room to turn the wrench, but four or five incremental turns seemed to stop the dripping.
I installed the valve stem, and this one did not leak. In several days my water cleared up, and two weeks after the unhappy affair began, I made my first pot of coffee with tap water. Everything has now pretty much returned to normal.
Except I'm STILL using the vice-grips to open and close the kitchen taps.
SO-- the moral of the story is: if your water pump gets killed by lightning and you decide to take advantage of the down time to do a little plumbing repair, DON'T. If the packings really need to be replaced, you're much better off torching the house, and including it on your claim to the insurance company. That way, you'll at least get all-new plumbing, installed by properly trained professionals, not by bumbling, butchering amateurs.
That's about it, I guess. The only other problem yet to be resolved is that my shower head seems to be clogging with the debris kicked up during the pump replacement. I bought a new one yesterday; I think I'll go install it now. Shouldn't take more than a few minutes.