Adventures in Plumbing — What Happens When a Maintenance Man Retires

This is just a sample of what “feet of clay” means. These were new boots the day before. They are lots worse now and so are two other pairs of shoes I sacrificed.

A month ago I had just written to the only person in my family to whom I still speak on occasion and I was saying how nice it is to live in a place where the plumbing was put in at a depth where the ground doesn’t freeze. I don’t have frozen pipes to mess with eight times during the winter because my Dad thought that if he only buried them six or less inches deep they wouldn’t freeze shut in -20 degree weather or of course much warmer, because he was a retired Army officer and a D-Day vet and he said they wouldn’t. Cripes, I even offered to dig them all up and bury them below frost line but he wouldn’t allow it, if an Army Officer says something is right you can’t mess with it.

At least it was wet! In the summer the ground here is hard as concrete.

I did mess with some things anyway, but replacing the entire water supply system from well to house two hundred yards away was more than I could do out of the simple goodness of my heart. I just learned to ignore it and ignore the complaints and hopefully in a few days it would thaw out. Either that or I would get out and dig up pipes while my father stood inside the basement with a propane torch, heating up what pipes he could find until they were red hot. Well, fine, but that’s not where the pipes were frozen, Dad, they froze where you didn’t bury them more than six inches deep. Ah the good times we had! And he was always happy when the water ran again and he didn’t have to spend any more money on going to town for more propane torches and clearly he had solved the problem himself : ). Many years in between make this a lot more humorous than standing in a below zero wind chipping out pipes with a pick and shovel and pouring gallons of boiling water on them.

Made me think of the old days in the trenches beyond the Ardennes.

Karma comes around again, and just after I remembered all that, I was washing dishes here and the water stopped. NOOOOO! because I just knew it, I knew what was wrong. Wasn’t a frozen pipe, it was a broken one.

I had suspected a leak between the house and the well, but couldn’t be sure. Three years ago I guess it was, I felt so strongly there was a leak there that I started digging, dug down to pipes at the basement wall and at the well, fixed some problems I found, and I even thought about digging up the rest. But I still had water and there might have been other explanations and the pipes were buried three feet deep in yellow Indiana clay hard enough to chip ceramic pots out of. I decided to let things go for awhile.

Then the snow melted and the rains came.

Then three years later just before another round of subzero temps here, the water stopped, right in the middle of the dishwashing project. I checked the basement for leaks, there was water along the well side of the basement wall and no broken pipes. I turned off the pump, shut off the water, and turned off the hot water heater. No sense in letting that run and there might be a backflow issue that could ruin it. Dammit.

This began my great plumbing adventure of 2018. Well, I guess it included a little of 2017 also. I was very optimistic, thought I knew where the leak was, would just have to dig it out and patch a pipe. As the weeks proceeded and I got farther along with the digging, sometimes chipping through eight inches of frozen ground to get to the clay, I kept finding more problems. Sometimes it was too cold to work and sometimes it was too wet to work. For a few days I was sick and didn’t feel like working. Some days the ditch was so full of water all I could do was bail, the rain and the occasionally melting snow kept going in behind me. Then the clay turned to mud and the walls of the ditch would crumble and I’d have to dig again. I uncovered that pipe so many times I lost count.

Then it snowed again, goddamit. Me and the birdies sat and watched the snow.

I set aside one set of clothes that were already muddy, to wear when I was able to work in the mud, and I suppose I looked pretty funny or maybe impressive when I went to check the mail in my mud suit. I was at least patchy mud all the way to my hat. I learned again that mud is never very warm, even if it is on your clothes. This maybe stirred up memories of previous lives in trenches because I did begin to think about explosives.

Even when I had all the pipe uncovered from house to well, it was not easy to replace. My brother-in-law from Texas, now deceased, used to laugh at me for “cursing the man that made it” because when I find things that were obviously done wrong and I have to fix them again, I get angry. I tried this time to vent a little frustration and treat it with good humor, but I’m still thinking that if a professional plumber did this original job he was already planning to do it again. Then he did it again and planned to do it a third time. I stepped in on the third time. The first layer was copper pipe, that’s something from ages past. The second layer was black flexible pipe laid over sharp rubble and weighed down by several tons of clay. Um, I learned this in the Ozarks, you don’t put black pipe over anything sharp. Cripes whoever did this used hose clamps for a permanent fitting, and not two per fitting, just one. Possibly do that where you can reach the fitting, but not when you bury it under three feet of clay. So with all respect to my brother-in-law, I still did a fair amount of cursing. Everything fought me, pipes were laid down there in layers, like Russian dolls. It took me a long time to even find out which ones were used the last time.

Bees have it good, they don’t need plumbing.

I might have it fixed now. After more than a month, I have all the plumbing together again, all the shoddy pipes replaced with PVC that I’m sure someday someone else will dig up and complain about. Damn it, they will say! Who the hell did this with f-ing PVC!

With apologies to the future plumbers, it’s the best answer I have. I should probably put a note of apology in a ziplock baggie and tape it to the pipe. Attention plumbers of the future, I did the best I could. Beware, because karma will turn around and bite you.

Last day, maybe. New PVC from the basement is barely visible at top. Had to keep that dry and clean to glue up the rest to it. Used some of my fancy rigging skills to haul the electrical pipe up out of the way. I will shut up about the electrical pipe sealed with black tape and two feet short of the well. Hasn’t killed anyone yet so maybe it won’t. I’m tired.

Last night I dreamed I was taking a shower. Then I dreamed I shampooed my hair. Then I dreamed I was talking to someone and they said I stink. Tomorrow I get to test the plumbing, will take 24 hours for the glue to cure in this cold weather. Then I start the long process to recovery, flushing the pipes and sanitizing the well and fixing whatever else broke while the system was down. Maybe day after tomorrow I can actually take a shower, if the water heater still works.

I have read that prospectors in Alaska would go all winter without bathing or even changing their long underwear. Having gone a month, I think that maybe it’s possible if you don’t get too warm. If you have to go to town, though, it’s a bad thing. I don’t smell like flowers.

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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