This morning we were visited by a man from the water department. The man knocked on the door at the crack of 10 a.m., stirring the dogs up and nearly making me spill my coffee on my PJs. In fact, the wife and I were both still in our jammies, since she had the day off. My PJs being the more street-worthy, I went to the door to see who it was and what he wanted. After introductions, the man explained that he had come to read our water meter but couldn’t find it under the remains of the foot of snow that fell last week. However, he continued, while he’d been walking along the driveway on his way to our front door to ask us about the location of said meter, he’d noticed that the water service line to our home was bleeding out into our side yard from, apparently, two separate locations. He asked if we were aware of this? We were not. Or, at least, I wasn’t at first. Then I flashed back to something I’d noticed a couple of days before.
I remembered that two days prior, while walking along the driveway myself, I had wondered why there were two huge bare patches in the thick layer of snow covering our sloped side yard. They were bare patches that ran clear down to the property line, exposing a great tract of wet grass in the otherwise snow-packed yard. It seemed to me to be caused by melt runoff from the snow on the driveway, as I could see water trickling in a sheet from near the top of the slope. Seemed to be melting quite a bit, in fact, which was also odd given that it was 22 degrees outside. But what did I know? It made enough sense to me in the 3 seconds I devoted to thinking about it, so I just kept walking.
I had no sooner finished with that flashback, when I was hit by another one: a memory of yesterday morning, when I went to make coffee only to find that the water pressure in the kitchen sink wasn’t quite what it normally is. Ah, well. These things sometimes take a while to warm up, my pre-coffee brain had informed me. Shrug shrug shrug.
All of these are what you might call red flags. Great, big, university-drill-field-flag-pole-sized red flags, draped down the side yard and bunched up in a wad in the sink.
“What’s going on?” the wife asked, as I returned inside and began racing to find some clothes.
“We’ve got burst pipes in the yard,” I growled.
“That’s what the guy from the water department says.”
As I pulled on pants and boots, I told her about the bare patches. She was not amused.
We both headed outside. Sure enough, the bare spots I’d seen near the driveway were still there and water was coming up from the ground like a bubblin’ crude. (Water, that is. H2O. The base of tea.) The man from the water department explained that he’d been sent to investigate a leak after their sensors had flagged our particular hill as the source of a massive outpouring of water.
“What do we need to do?” I asked, quite panicked at the idea of the enormous bill we’d be receiving already and wanting to immediately stop it from climbing higher.
“Wellllllll,” the man said, taking far longer to say the word than necessary. In fact everything he said after that was spoken at an infuriatingly glacial pace. “When you get your water bill, see, what you’ll need to do is to call down to Peggy at the water department. (Enormous pause) You call Peggy and you let her know that you’d like to file a leakage claim for your water. You won’t have to pay full price for it, cause it’s a leakage claim, but you’ll still have to pay some. And, like I said, you’ll have to file a leakage claim…”
“No,” I said, interrupting, barely keeping my temper. “What do WE NEED TO DO about the water pouring out of our yard right now?!”
“Ohhhhh,” he said. “You probably need to cut the water off.”
If he’d been standing any closer, and if I was the kind of guy who went around punching people in the throat, he might very well have been punched in his.
“Yes,” I said, fingernails slipping one by one from my hold on the cliff’s edge of fury. “But. What. Do. We. Need. To. Do. About. Getting. It. Repaired?” This was a first for us, having never experienced a pipe burst before, and I didn’t know if he needed call someone at the water department to send a team out to fix this, or if we were responsible for assembling our own team. In retrospect, the answer really should have been obvious, but I’ve already provided evidence I don’t always notice the obvious.
“Wellllllll,” he said, “you’ll need to call a plumber.” The man from the water department recommended Dave Davison (not his real name) who was “a real good plumber” and was actually a neighbor of ours, though not one we readily knew. He also gave us the name of another plumber whom he said we should avoid at all costs. In fact, he said that his department had received so many complaints about the man that it was now standard policy to just warn people not to use him. As to cutting the water off in the interim, however, what we’d need to do was find the water meter. Did we know, he asked, where it was?
“Yes. It’s down on the corner of the yard,” I said pointing to the lower end of our acre, where it meets the driveway. The meter was at the bottom of a 15 inch diameter pipe that was covered by a round mini-manhole of the same size, which was, at the moment, covered by at least half a foot of snow.
From his truck, the man from the water department fetched a shovel and a long white bar on a string, which turned out to be a metal detector. I pointed him again to a six foot patch of snow, beneath which I knew the manhole to be located. He walked over it, but his metal detector detected no metal except that of his shovel.
“Not finding anything,” he said.
“I think it’s further up here,” the wife said, pointing to a section of snow a few feet higher up the slope.
“No. It’s in this area,” I said, circling my arm to indicate the original spot. I couldn’t provide a specific location within my chosen section of ground, but knew it was within that part of the yard. The man tried there again but still couldn’t find it. So he began walking down the hill, further away from where the meter was located. And, of course, he still wasn’t getting any hits. Now I was well and truly pissed, but I knew I did not need to vent any anger at either of the two humans near me, no matter how annoyed I was that neither of them seemed to accept my estimation of where the meter was located. Instead, I decided to vent my anger at the snow itself.
I stomped up the driveway in my crampon-wrapped boots and fetched my snow shovel, which I stomped back with, determined to find the meter myself. I walked to the center of the area where I knew the meter was located and began chucking shovelfuls of snow with ferocity. After a minute I’d uncovered nine or so small patches of yard. My hope was to shotgun blast the area to catch the edge of the mini-manhole lid, rather than attempting a full on excavation. My efforts, however, were not fruitful.
“I still remember it being up here,” the wife said.
“It’s not up there,” I said. “I know. I’m the one who has to mow over it.”
The man from the water department had continued on down the driveway, waving his metal detector bar over the narrowing patch of snow-covered grass along it, still finding nothing. I was annoyed because his actions continued to call into question my knowledge of where my damn meter was located, but I decided to just let him go sick `cause A) I didn’t really want to deal with him anyway; and, B) because I wanted to be the one to uncover it, exactly where I’d been telling him it was, so I could quietly and passive-aggressively gloat about it.
“Do you want me to shovel?” the wife asked.
“No,” I said. Shovel. Shovel. Shovel. “I’m way too pissed off.” Shovel. Shovel. Shovel. “I need to do this.”
“How about dig some up here, then,” the wife said, pointing to her chosen area. I knew for a fact that it wasn’t up there, but I’d demolished most of the manhole-sized chunks of snow from my area and still hadn’t found anything. Hers had lots more snow, so I started shoveling further up the hill. The man from the water department, meanwhile, had passed the midway point of the driveway and I could stand to keep quiet no more.
“Sir, I promise you, it is not down there,” I said. “It is up here.”
The man agreed that it didn’t seem to be where he was looking, but he was operating on information from a guy who used to have the meter-reading route in our area and that guy had said it was on the driver’s side of the driveway if you were headed up it.
Yeah, it is, but it’s at the top of the driveway where our actual property begins, I angrily thought. Shovel. Shovel. Shovel.
“How about let me dig,” the wife offered again. Exhausted, I agreed.
The man returned with his metal detector and walked around with it in the area where the wife was digging. It still wasn’t detecting anything.
“Hope it ain’t one of them aluminum lids,” he said. “Was it silver?”
“No,” the wife said. “It was kind of an iron color.”
He kept on detecting and she kept digging and the county’s water supply kept pouring out of the ground.
“I’m telling you it is not up there,” I said as calmly as I could manage. “I know this. I have to mow here.” I then gestured, indicating the route I take along the edge of our yard, which runs me into the blackberry vines in the brush every time, but which is well above the meter that I don’t want to have to raise the blades of the mower to get over. “This,” I said, still wildly gesturing to my route, “is above the meter.”
Perhaps sensing my slipping hold on sanity the wife moved to dig back in my chosen area, picking at the few patches of snow left there. While she did, the man from the water department used his cell phone to reach the guy who used to have the meter route to ask him where the meter was again. From the sound of it, the guy was telling him exactly where I’d already told him.
“Here it is, here it is!” the wife said. The tip of the shovel had revealed the outer edge of a dark circle of metal, right at the edge of the brushline, just within the outer edge of the area I’d indicated. I was too exhausted to grin in triumph.
The man from the water department read the meter, did some math, and announced that it had already poured over 109,000 gallons of water down the yard. This made my knees weak. He then showed us how to shut it off at the meter. The wife and I decided that instead of immediately cutting off the water, we needed to return to the house and fill up our supply of water containers. For all we knew, this would be a multi-day process to repair and we needed to have our ducks in a row.
“Wellllllll,” the man began again, slowly chewing over whatever else it was he wanted to say to us. I turned and walked away, leaving the wife to listen. I just couldn’t handle any more from him. (And please note that I fully realize that my anger with him was essentially me being nutty, because he was a perfectly nice man and didn’t get snotty with us no matter how much reason he might have had to do so. However, he was a perfectly nice man who was driving me nutty because he wouldn’t hurry up and get to the point of any of his sentences, increasing the amount of time our house had to bleed out.)
After the derecho storms of 2012, when our area was without power for a week, we learned that it’s always wise to have options when it comes to emergency survival gear. We already owned a big blue 10 gallon water cube, left over from summers spent with an unreliable well, back in Princeton, so I grabbed that from the basement, along with a number of other water-dispensing containers in our apocalypse prep/camping supplies. I started filling these, and then turned the process over to the wife, who had by then returned. Soon every stew pot, soup kettle, canning boiler, tea pitcher and bathtub in the place was full of water.
I grabbed the yellow pages and began playing voicemail phone tag with our neighbor plumber first. I eventually got through only to learn that he had over a month’s worth of jobs ahead of ours and would have to decline. So I started at the top of the list of plumbers. The first one listed also had a month of jobs ahead of us. The second was the plumber we’d been warned against, so I skipped him. The third, however, was that of a large regional plumbing company whose name I recognized and, for some reason, sent up warning signals in my head.
“Is there some reason I should have warning signals going off my head when I see the name Pud Pipes Plumbing?” (Again, not the real name, though it rhymes much the same.)
“I don’t know,” the wife said.
“I think we used them in Princeton and I think I remember not liking them,” I said. I couldn’t quite recall the event in question, but they are one of the bigger plumbing outfits in the region, so I gave them a call. Pud Pipes’ receptionist heard my plea and said she could have someone call me by 4p. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was a callback.
Having filled every possible container that could hold water, I went out and used a wrench to shut off the valve at the meter.
Pud Pipes called back before noon to get directions to the house and said they’d be there in 10 minutes. It was around then that the wife then remembered something we’d been told by the previous owner of our house, which concerned the water service line. Not long after we contracted on the house, there had been a similar pipe burst in the yard. Our real estate agent, Jill, had told us that the homeowners, the Shaffers, were having it repaired, but not to be alarmed if we saw freshly dug dirt in the yard during our upcoming visit with the home inspector. Weeks later, during the closing process on the house, Mr. Shaffer had told us that if we ever had any similar pipe problems we should be aware that he had constructed the house with a sheath pipe running underground from the basement to the edge of the driveway. The service line was run within this pipe, so that if the line itself ever had to be replaced, the driveway and garage would not have to be dug up to do so. The trouble was, it’s been two years since he told us this, so we’d forgotten the exact details. We certainly HOPED the sheath pipe ran all the way to the yard, but maybe it only ran to the edge of the concrete garage floor? We couldn’t recall. So I phoned Mr. Shaffer to ask, but only got as far as the question when the Pud Pipes van pulled up, stirring the dogs into a slavering frenzy at the kitchen window. I went outside to greet the plumbers while the wife tried to find a quiet place where she could talk to Mr. Shaffer.
The Pud Pipes plumbers were a guy in his 50s and a guy in his late 20s, though the guy in his 20s seemed to be the senior member of the team. I led them over to the yard to show them the bare patches that were no longer pouring water. The wife soon joined us. The younger guy looked at the bare patches and began shaking his head.
“You do realize this entire line is gonna have to be replaced, right? You do realize that?” he said. “This ain’t something we’re going to be able to just repair,” he added ominously.
“No, we didn’t realize that,” the wife said. “But we have to have water.”
The younger man walked along the driveway, still shaking his head. To see him, you would think that the yard not only had a busted pipe but also a venereal disease. The older guy stood by us, trying to make small talk by saying our house was really nice. The younger man then wanted to know where our utilities connected to the house. We pointed. Did we have underground electric? We nodded. There followed more grave head-shaking and the wringing of hands. The Pud Pipes guys walked down near the meter to confer with one another. The wife and I similarly conferred at the top of the drive.
I asked her what Mr. Shaffer had said about the pipe. She said that she hadn’t been able to hear him very well, because of the dogs, but it sounded as if the sheath pipe only extended to the edge of the garage and not beneath the pavement to the edge of the yard. She based this on possibly having heard him say say that they built it that way so the garage floor wouldn’t have to be torn up.
“Are you sure?” I asked, still hoping for an under pavement pipe miracle.
“No. I’m not sure. The dogs wouldn’t shut up.”
The guys from Pud Pipes finished their quiet meeting and then asked to see where the water connected to the house, so we took them to the basement and showed them the service line poking out of the larger sheath pipe. The younger guy shook his head some more in a way that suggested our service line not only had a venereal disease and that it was communicable. The younger guy returned to the van, muttering something about having to dig through the driveway. I wanted to tell him that wouldn’t be necessary, but I didn’t know for sure. So I called Mr. Shaffer back to confirm our confirmation. Turns out, I was right. The sheath pipe did extend beneath the driveway. We were saved! Or, at least, our driveway was saved!
The younger man had retreated to the van to make a phone call, so I told the older man about the sheath pipe running the full length beneath the garage and driveway.
“Oh, that’s good, that’s good,” the older man said. He immediately went to the van and knocked on the driver’s side window. The younger guy, annoyed at the interruption, paused his phone call and rolled down the window to, but didn’t seem especially happy when told the good news.
Now, what I didn’t realize, until shortly after this, was that the younger plumber was something of a plumbing clairvoyant. Yessir, this kid had apparently been birthed with the God-given ability to psychically foreknow the installation history of any pipe with which he came into proximity. And I know this because when he finally emerged from the Pud Pipes’ van, some minutes later, he announced that the break in our service line was not beneath the obvious leak points in the yard, but was instead located somewhere within the sheath pipe itself. Furthermore, whoever had done the installation of said service line through said sheath pipe–either during the previous repair job or, hell, when the original pipe had been fed through the foundation itself–had probably jammed it in there good and cracked it in the process. Yessir. It was definitely broken off in that sheath pipe, which meant it was doubtful that they could use the sheath pipe to replace the line at all.
“But, the leaks are under the yard,” I said, pointing to the two giant bare patches a few feet away.
“Yeah, it’s all broken up down there,” the kid said, waiving an arm, indicating the entire length of the line from the meter to the house.
“But… the sheath line is already there,” I said. “The previous owner installed it for just this possibility. I don’t see what the problem is.”
The two of them hemmed and hawed over this, the older man backing up the younger man’s assertions at every turn. Yes, evidently it’s just devilishly hard to get a length of one inch diameter PVC pipe to fit through a length of four inch diameter PVC pipe. They saw this sort of thing all the time, the older man added. Why they’d had this one job this one time, in Princeton, that took a day of trying and they still couldn’t get it through. Yep. Bottom line, we were looking at around $3,800 to replace the whole line.
I stared at him for a long moment. This was one of those situations where I really really wanted to be able to call horseshit on them, but only had a gut feeling to go on and enough sense to know that the consignment of smelly organic matter I was being handed looked and smelled a lot like the rectum of a horse. However, I was talking to two ostensible plumbing experts, so what did I really know?
I asked them to excuse me, and went into the house to inform the wife. She also thought it smelled rather ripe. Being an intelligent lass, she also pointed out that if the service line truly was broken off within the sheath pipe, we’d have a basement full of water, because the only thing plugging up the interior end of the sheath pipe was a little bit of insulation and water always seeks the easiest path. I agreed. More egregious to me, however, was that these guys had speculated up a $3,800 bill based on a glance at the yard. And why were they so deadset against using the sheath pipe–the one part of this whole thing that seemed a guarantee to make their job easier?
“If you don’t want them to do it, don’t let them do it. There are other plumbers,” she said. “We haven’t called them all.”
I didn’t want to have to call them all. I wanted the plumbers I’d already called to be worth a damn, or at least not try to scam me to my face. Alas, it appeared not.
At the wife’s suggestion, I went outside to inform the Pud Pipes guys that we were going to seek a couple more estimates before making any decision. I’m pretty sure they knew we were going to tell them to move along, because they were both in the van with the engine running. They seemed neither surprised nor disappointed.
(After they drove away, I remembered my previous negative experience with their company. Back when we lived in Princeton, our hall toilet developed a leaky gasket beneath one of the bolts that held the tank to the bowl. Trouble was, because the bolt was on the tub side of the toilet, it was incredibly difficult to get both a wrench-grip on the nut at the top of the bowl and another wrench-grip on the bolt head within the tank itself. And if you got both, you couldn’t get an angle that gave you any kind of torque without slipping off one or the other. Eventually I figured out that the bolt and nut were pretty much fused by corrosion, but it took two days of me trying to wedge in there and force them to turn to learn that. “Call a plumber,” the wife said, after we’d had an unsuccessful crack at it together. We reasoned that a plumber would likely have a special tool that would allow them to do separate stuck bolts, so I looked in the phone book and called the plumber with the biggest ad, Pud Pipes. Turns out they did have a special tool for freeing stuck bolts. It’s called a Saws-All, a tool I already owned. They slid theirs in between the tank and the bowl and sawed the bolt in twain. They then replaced the bolt and charged me $200. TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS!!!!!!! For that kind of cash I could have bought a second Saws-All to go with the ONE I ALREADY OWNED, which I could have used to do the job myself. It’s completely my fault that I didn’t think of doing so, but perhaps I would have had more incentive to come up with such a solution if I’d realized Pud Pipes was going to charge a king’s ransom to do the job.)
Back inside, I scanned back down the list of plumbers in the phone book. It was a short list of seven, two of which had already turned us down, another being Pud Pipes, and a fourth being the plumber we’d been warned against by the water department itself. I really didn’t want to call any of the others, either, because after Pud Pipes I was just not in a mood to trust anyone. I needed a solid, reputable plumber. And that’s when it occurred to me who I needed to call.
“Jill!” I said. “I’ll call Jill!”
Jill is Jill Allman, our realtor. In addition to being a joy to work with on buying the house, she’d been very helpful in the two years since whenever we needed advice on home-improvement specialists. Ironically, the previous day, Jill had emailed to ask if I’d be willing to write a review of her real-estate services on Zillow.com. And I’d readily written a glowing one, which had mentioned her willingness to offer advice on non-asshat service-professionals. Here I was returning to the well of good advice, already.
I phoned Jill and told her our problem and how Pud Pipes was no longer an option. She immediately warned us not to choose the guy the water department had already warned us against. A number of people had warned her, too. (I don’t want to say the actual name of the plumbing service, but, if you need another rhyme, it will only take a Mennett.) Jill’s suggestion was Baker Home Services, run by a guy named Robert Baker and his brother Steve. They weren’t listed in the phone book, but she had the number.
Steve Baker answered when I called. I told him Jill had recommended them gave him the short short version of our problem, concentrating on the leaks and the sheath pipe, leaving out Pud Pipes. Knowing it might take a while for them to find time to come out, I added that we had plenty of water stored up inside, so we could survive. Steve asked the kind of questions you’d hope to hear from a reputable plumber who was out to diagnose what was actually wrong with your pipes. He also noted that because ours was an emergency situation, he and his brother could come out in about an hour. He sounded friendly and concerned—two qualities I look for in a plumber.
“I like that guy!” I told the wife, after hanging up. “I feel good about this already.”
True to their word, Robert and Steve drove up in their van in about an hour. In person, Steve was as friendly and warm as he’d sounded on the phone. Robert even moreso. They both shook my hand and came across as very chill fellows meeting a friend of a friend for the first time, ready to help.
I showed them to our leaks, now just muddy grass patches. The Baker brothers didn’t shake their heads in despair at the sight. I then showed them to the basement and pointed to the service line in its sheath pipe, as well as its in-house shut-off valve. They made no proclamations about sheath lines being plumbing death. In fact, Robert noted that our one inch PVC service line was typically some of the strongest stuff on the market and unlikely to rupture unless it was somehow sheared off, or crushed, or broken at a joint. And at the depth it was usually buried, freezing shouldn’t really be an issue unless there were extenuating circumstances.
Now here’s the cool bit: rather than speculate wildly about our particular breaks, and rather than reaching into the depths of their colon to come up with an exorbitant dollar figure on how much the work on the as-yet-unofficially-diagnosed problem was going to cost, the Bakers instead said they would go out and dig up the line at the obvious leak sites and have a gander. It was possible, they said, that the line could be repaired without a complete line replacement, but they wouldn’t know until they got a look at it. Glory be!
For the next 45 minutes or so, the Fabulous Baker Brothers set about with shovels to dig the earth. They started with the leak spot closest to the meter. When they’d uncovered it, they came and asked me to close off the valve in our basement so that they could turn on the one at the meter to see what happened. I did this and left them to it. Within a few minutes, they began digging at the second leak spot. A while later, they left to go buy some parts, came back, then left to buy a different part, because the one they had just bought wasn’t it. No worries.
When they were finished, the Baker brothers asked me to come have a look. The line, they said, had only been broken in one place, and had been caused by a cracked joint between sections of the PVC line. They said that it looked as though the ground might have settled there, causing it to crack, but it was hard to say for sure. They had replaced that section with a shorter length of flexible pipe that would be able to bend a bit if more settling occurred. They wrapped it and the other exposed section in some flexible insulation. They said that the previous repair to the pipe had also been insulated, but it was done using strips of a foam core insulation board, which water from the leak had run beneath until springing up at the lower spot in the yard, creating the appearance of a second leak. This was proven by the fact that the water had been turned back on at the meter and there were no leaks from either section of pipe. They’d also double-checked for unseen leaks by watching the meter for a while and seeing that it remained stable. Nice.
Robert pointed out that having a line replacement at some point in the future probably wouldn’t hurt. The repair they’d made would certainly last us a while, but we might eventually consider doing the whole line just to be sure. While I was standing there, Steve measured the distance between the meter and the back wall of the garage just to see how much pipe would be required. The job, Robert said, would probably run between $1,500 and $1,800.
“As opposed to the $3,800 Pud Pipes was going to charge me this morning?” I said. I’d said nothing of their competitors until that moment. They both laughed, but were not surprised. They had a few Pud Pipes stories of their own–nothing criminal, just prohibitively expensive. Then I told them the Saws-All story.
“Two hundred?!” Robert said. “You could have bought a brand new toilet and and had it installed by us for less than $200.”
They didn’t go so far as to say the Pud Pipes company did bad work, or anything; just that Pud Pipes tended to violently cornhole the wallets of customers who called them for home repair jobs, as opposed to the lower prices they had to bid in order to stay competitive for the new construction work they preferred. I told them I wanted to take a picture of their handiwork and email it to Pud Pipes with the caption: “Here’s your complete service line replacement, assholes!”
I was imagining the bill for the work the Bakers had done would come to somewhere between $300 and $500. These were plumbers, after all, and they had been working for around three hours. Our bill came to $239 and change. I nearly danced in the slushy driveway. I told the Fabulous Baker brothers I would sing their praises on Facebook.
“Maybe we should get a Facebook page?” Steve asked his brother. They then grinned at each other, as if knowing this wasn’t going to happen. They said that they only rarely advertise, are not listed in any phone book, and have more work than they can handle from word of mouth alone.
We bear a great deal of guilt about the tremendous waste our leaky pipe and our lack of vigilance has caused. This in a state which so recently had a major water supply tainted by a chemical spill, leaving 300,000 people out of water for weeks, with ongoing issues to the day of this writing. Our guilt is such that we can’t bring ourselves to waste any of the water we stored in all our spare containers—containers which now take up most of our counter space in the kitchen. Hopefully we can burn most of them off for cooking, laundry, toilet-flushing or dog watering.
As for the ultimate cost, the wife later gave me the short version of what the man from the water department had said after I’d fled for my sanity. It seems that our water is usually charged at around $6 per thousand gallons. We’d bled out over 109,000 gallons, making our potential bill somewhere in the $650 range. The man from the water department told her, however, that if we filed for leakage, they’d knock it down to $1 per thousand gallons. We normally pay $35 for our total bill.
Gonna be a big one next month either way.
Copyright © 2014 Eric Fritzius