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Water, Water Everywhere

I had a shower this morning.

Normally I wouldn’t bother mentioning that. After all, I imagine that I’m in good company. Lots of people must have had a shower this morning; so why should I make a song and dance about mine? But unlike all those other people, I haven’t had access to a properly working shower for two weeks now, so this morning’s ablutions had an unusual importance for me.

It all began one Saturday morning when I awoke to the sound of running water. This puzzled me. The previous night I had gone to bed soothed by the sound of complete silence. So where was this morning’s noise coming from? I struggled sleepily into some clothes and went looking. There were no taps turned on anywhere in the house and there were no large puddles on the floor. So I checked what was going on outside the house and that was when I discovered that I had a problem.

A pipe runs from the council Toby to a shutoff valve at the side of the house. This feeds water through a pressure reduction valve which in turn feeds water into the household plumbing. The pressure reduction valve had ruptured some time during the night and now high pressure water was streaming out of it and shooting up into the sky. The side of my house looked like it was playing host to the famous fountain on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, or perhaps to the slightly more famous one on Oriental Bay in Wellington. The long, graceful arc of water caught the sunrise, refracting it hither and yon. If I squinted just right I could see rainbows hitting the side of the house at the top of the fountain and then slithering down the wall to form an enormous puddle.

I closed the shutoff valve and the spray of water died away. Unfortunately that meant that there was no water available to me anywhere in the house, so I opened the shutoff valve again. In retrospect, this might have been a mistake, though I suspect that the damage had already been done, so maybe it didn’t make all that much difference…

The spraying fountain resumed and water flowed into the household pipes again. I called my plumber, but he doesn’t work on weekends, so I left a voicemail message for him and went googling for emergency plumbers. I learned that if I was willing to part with an eye-watering amount of money, an emergency plumber would be happy to visit the house so that he could scratch his head, suck air through his teeth and say, "Oh, you’ve got a bit of a problem there squire. I can’t get the parts I need to fix it until Monday when the warehouse opens again. So I suggest you call your own plumber when the weekend is over."

This did not strike me as being much of a bargain. Clearly there was nothing to be done until Monday. I closed the shutoff valve again. For the next two days, whenever I needed water in the house I dashed outside to open the shutoff valve. Once I had finished with the immediate water-requiring task I popped back outside and turned it off again. This was good exercise but nevertheless it was clear that I was going to have a very long and very frustrating weekend in front of me.

Monday arrived and with it my plumber. He scratched his head, sucked air through his teeth and said, "Oh, you’ve got a bit of a problem there squire. But I called in at the warehouse before I came here so I’ve got the parts I need to fix it." He strapped pads to his knees to protect them from the cold, hard ground, turned the water off at the council Toby and set to work on the shutoff valve and the pressure reducing valve. About two hours later he said, with an air of triumph, "There you are. All fixed." He turned the council Toby back on and he opened the shutoff valve. There was no Geneva Fountain of water this time, which was a big improvement on the weekend situation. But then the plumber frowned worriedly and said, "Oh, oh!"

I didn’t like the sound of that at all. "What’s the matter?" I asked.

"There’s still water running somewhere," he said. "Listen."

I listened. I could hear the clear sound of water rushing through a pipe. Together we checked all the taps in the house. They were all turned off. Nevertheless water continued to run. Where on earth could it be running from and where was it running to? The plumber squatted down and applied his ear the the pipes that came into the house. After a few minutes of careful listening he pointed to a pipe that angled out of a large and complicated cluster of pipes and valves. Once free of the cluster it dived down into the concrete slab on which the house is built. "It’s that one," he said triumphantly. "Water’s going into that one and coming out somewhere in the slab. You’ve got a really nasty leak somewhere in that pipe, squire."

"What can we do about it?" I asked.

The plumber looked thoughtful. "Well," he said, "the obvious thing to do is to pull up the carpet and the lino, smash the floor tiles and then take a pneumatic drill to the slab. We’ll have to dig up the pipe right across the house from beginning to end so as to see exactly where it goes, what it supplies water to, and where it’s leaking from. After all there’s no guarantee that you only have one leak. There could be several of them all the way along it. That’s why we have to follow the pipe right the way to the end."

"I don’t think much of that solution," I said. "It sounds messy, not to say expensive."

The plumber nodded thoughtfully. "It’s definitely both of those," he said.

"So what comes next?" I asked.

"Let’s start by finding out what this pipe actually does," he said. He shut the water off again and began dismantling the leaky pipe. He attached a valve with a rather fetching blue knob on the end of it to the pipe. He turned the blue knob to close the valve and then he went outside and turned the water on again. There was absolutely no sound whatsoever to be heard apart from the singing of birds in the trees. "There," he said triumphantly. "I’ve isolated the leaky pipe and there’s no water going down it. Now let’s see which bits of plumbing work and which don’t. Any bits that don’t work are clearly the bits that this pipe feeds water to."

We moved around the house together, turning on taps and flushing toilets as we went. Water flowed happily through all of them. I tried the washing machine and the dishwasher. Both behaved exactly as washing machines and dishwashers are supposed to behave. "That’s odd," I said to the plumber. "Everything seems to be working. Perhaps the pipe wasn’t connected to anything at all."

"It must be connected to something," said the plumber. "Let’s double check."

We tried again and this time we spotted it. Neither of our two showers had any cold water coming out of them. They were each happy to provide water that was far too hot to stand under, but they point blank refused to cool that water down.

"There," said the plumber. "Mystery solved. That pipe feeds cold water to both your showers."

"So now what do we do?" I asked.

"Simple," he said. "Whenever you want to have a shower you just crawl into the tiny space where the new valve is and turn the blue knob to open the valve up. Water will flow and you can have a shower. When you’ve finished the shower you crawl back into that tiny space and close the blue knob again to stop water flowing down the pipe. Problem solved!"

"No it isn’t," I said. "While I am showering water will be flowing through the leaky pipe into the concrete slab as well as into the shower. I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. Who knows what damage it will do over time. Also, I really don’t fancy crawling into that tiny space to turn a blue knob every time I want a shower. The knob is a very pretty shade of blue, but nevertheless it’s in a very inconvenient place."

"Well," said the plumber, "the shower in the main bathroom is just across the corridor from the pipe with the blue-knobbed valve on it. That’s no distance at all. I suppose I could quite easily run a new pipe from there up into the roof and then down to the shower. "

"That will do it," I said. "Could you extend the new pipe to the other shower as well?"

"Not really," he said. "That shower is right away at the other end of the house." He started a long, technical explanation as to why he couldn’t do it. Clearly he didn’t want to run a new pipe over such a long distance. Instead he was going to blind me with science and make me say OK, let’s not bother.

"OK," I said, "let’s not bother. That bathroom is being renovated in a couple of months anyway. I’ll get the renovators to fix it."

"It should be easy to get a new cold water feed to the shower once the renovators get the gib off the walls and expose the plumbing," he said. "They’ll be able to take a feed across from the existing cold water pipe that supplies the toilet and the vanity basin tap. In the meantime you can carry on using that shower as long as you twiddle the blue knob to turn the cold water on temporarily. I’ll come back next week and start work on running a new pipe to the main bathroom."

For the next couple of days I twiddled my blue knob on whenever I wanted a shower and twisted it off again when I’d finished. Then it was Saturday again. I played with my knob and prepared for a shower, but the water came out icy cold. I tried all the hot taps in the house but there wasn’t a drop of hot water coming out of any of them. So I phoned the lines company and they sent an electrician round. He checked fuses, and measured power levels and made an announcement. "The heating element in the hot water cylinder is dead. You’ll have to call a plumber on Monday to get a new one fitted." Then, his job being done, he left.

I rang the plumber and left a message because, of course, the plumber doesn’t work on the weekend. I spent Saturday and Sunday watching television and not showering. On Monday morning the plumber turned up with a heating element for the hot water cylinder and a clothes peg for his nose to protect himself from my fragrance. He drained the hot water cylinder and removed the old element which was indeed a twisted, corroded mass of very sick looking copper. How it had ever managed to heat anything at all was beyond me. I glared fiercely at it, and lumps fell off it under the pressure of my gaze.

Then the plumber fitted the new element and refilled the cylinder. "Now you’ll have to call an electrician to connect the element up," he said. "I’m allowed to take the wires off the terminals in order to remove the old element, but I’m not allowed to re-connect those same wires to the new element. Only a registered electrician is allowed to do that, and I’m not one."

I rang an electrician and made the appropriate arrangements. In the fullness of time he turned up and spent 30 seconds connecting the wires to the new heating element terminals. Then he presented me with a certificate of electrical compliance for the new element together with an invoice for $168.75. Not bad money for 30 seconds of work. He went off to his next job and I resumed watching television. Six hours later I had a cylinder full of hot water. I twisted my blue knob and had a shower.

The next day the plumber returned to start work on feeding a new cold water pipe into the shower in the main bathroom. He removed the mixer in the shower cabinet, exposing the pipes behind it, and he disconnected the old cold pipe. Then he climbed up into the roof to find out just where he needed to feed the new pipe through. After a few minutes I heard him call me. "Alan," he said, "where am I?"

"You’re in the roof," I told him.

"Accurate," he said, "but not helpful. Can you see the wire I’ve stuck through the ceiling in the bathroom?"

I went into the bathroom and checked. Just above the shower a wire poked up through the ceiling and into the roof space. "I see it," I said.

"Wiggle it about a bit," instructed the plumber. "When I spot the movement I’ll be able to zero in on it and find the proper spot for the new pipe." I wiggled the wire enthusiastically. "Got it!" said the plumber triumphantly. I stopped wiggling and went back to what I’d been doing while the plumber drilled holes and pushed pipes through them.

Time passed.

"Take a look at this," said the plumber proudly. I went into the main bathroom. The new pipe was poking shyly out of a large hole where the shower mixer tap had once been. "That’s all the difficult bits done," said the plumber. "I’ll come back on Friday and connect it all up." He packed up his tools and left. I resigned myself to another couple of days of blue knob twiddling.

On Friday the plumber returned and finished connecting the new pipe to the shower in the main bathroom. That took a couple of hours. Then he replaced the mixer and sealed the backplate. "Let the sealant on the backplate dry overnight," he said, "and then you are all good to go."

He packed up all his tools and left. I made a sign that said NO TWIDDLING in large, friendly letters and hung it on the blue knob. The next day I got up and had my first proper shower for a fortnight. Then I took Jake the Dog for his morning walk. "It’s Saturday," I said to him. "Nothing can possibly go wrong."

"My leg hurts," said Jake, limping along behind me.

Vets, like plumbers, don’t work on weekends.

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