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For problems you can’t fix you must call he or she who is initiated in the mysteries of appeasing the household Naiades: the plumber. People complain about how much plumbers cost but only after the problem is fixed. Considering how infrequently you need one, and how fast and efficient they are compared to you, plumbers are a good deal. If you do some simple prevention you can minimize the cost, the extent of the damage and how often you need to invoke them.
Woodshed Kings: Devotions to the household nymphs and valves 090617 AE 1 For the Capital City Weekly For problems you can’t fix you must call he or she who is initiated in the mysteries of appeasing the household Naiades: the plumber. People complain about how much plumbers cost but only after the problem is fixed. Considering how infrequently you need one, and how fast and efficient they are compared to you, plumbers are a good deal. If you do some simple prevention you can minimize the cost, the extent of the damage and how often you need to invoke them.

Water heater drain pipe, house water shut off valve, and pressure reducing valve (PRV). Photo by Dick Callahan.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Story last updated at 9/5/2017 - 5:09 pm

Woodshed Kings: Devotions to the household nymphs and valves

In the palmy days of Greece, when major gods and goddesses were busy at supernatural heroics, the ancients had a back-up squad of lesser deities to oversee daily life. Hestia was goddess of the hearth, Priapus with his signature erection managed garden fertility, Hecate protected doorways and crossroads, and so on. Nymphs, which classic Greek culture incorporated from pre-history, inhabited trees, mountains, clouds and water. Beautiful, eternally young fresh water Nymphs — the Naiades — were each identified with their singular type of fresh water: springs, fountains, rivers, streams, marshes, or wetlands. Humans back then blessed the Naiades with prayers, ceremonies and shrines. Not enough of us still perform the rituals.

We’ve slipped on the devotions because almost nothing in our modern day works so well as plumbing. What’s more, thanks to the benevolent properties of water, plumbing is one of the last things left that an average person can still work on successfully. Soldering a new pipe fitting is totally doable and gives a satisfying sense of surprise when it doesn’t leak. If it does leak you swear briefly, melt the solder and redo it. Anyone can replace a faucet or toilet in an easy afternoon. The fixture then works happily for years, maybe decades, with no further help or expense. Compare that with a car. A 25-year-old car is ‘a classic.’ A 25-year-old toilet is a toilet.

For problems you can’t fix you must call he or she who is initiated in the mysteries of appeasing the household Naiades: the plumber. People complain about how much plumbers cost but only after the problem is fixed. Considering how infrequently you need one, and how fast and efficient they are compared to you, plumbers are a good deal. If you do some simple prevention you can minimize the cost, the extent of the damage and how often you need to invoke them.

Water shut off valve

A plumbing crisis usually involves shutting off the water coming into the house. It always surprises me to find people who don’t know where their primary shut-off is.* This includes renters, house sitters and children. Anyone who lives where they might be the only one there should know how to shut off the water. Several times since I moved to town neighbors have asked me to help them find this item. They weren’t asking just-in-case. They were in “Jesus H. and Oh My God!” mode (invoking deity as the ancients did) because a pipe had blown out and water was shooting everywhere under a steady pressure of 50 to 70 pounds per square inch (psi). Here are some true stories.

1) One night a compression fitting failed at a nearby four-plex. No one in any of the units knew where the shut off was. A renter I knew came over and asked me to help look. He was quite upset as water shot out of the carport ceiling like Niagara Falls. Sheet rock was history. We found the shut off in the last (naturally) unit’s crawl space.

2) A friend had a pipe freeze, split, and start leaking when it thawed. The thaw happened on a weekend when you don’t want to call a plumber unless you absolutely have to. Her husband was out of town. This was a big, early 1900’s house with a ton of stuff in the basement. Rather than look for the shut off I slapped a thick rubber patch over the split pipe and secured it with hose clamps. Got soaked doing it that way but the thing held until they could fix it.

3) A neighbor came over to ask for help finding her shut off after a city water main’s pressure relief valve (PRV) created a high pressure water hammer that blew out house water tank relief valves all the way down both sides of our street (including our place). Hot water tank pressure relief valves, by the way, are typically the frailest link in a home water system because they’re designed to vent the tank if pressure gets too high, just as a pressure cooker valve does. The water then runs out of the tank, down a copper pipe and all over the floor. Often cold water coming into the tank keeps on flowing out the relief valve until the owner shuts it down. It’s a mess but much better than the tank exploding.

Home Pressure Reduction Valve and why you should have one

About a year after that first water hammer we had another. Happily my son was home. He shut off the water and called me at work. I came home, looked things over and went to talk with two of my neighbors who were outside. “You too?” they asked. “Yeah.” A plumbing truck went by. We asked the driver if he knew what had happened. He told us a private contractor, I’ll call him Duane, had closed/opened a main valve improperly a few hundred yards around the corner. One of my neighbors growled, “Let’s go see Duane.”

The three of us, all fairly big guys, found unfortunate Duane talking on his cell phone. He saw us coming and said to his phone, “I’ll call you back. It looks like I’m about to get lynched.”

I don’t know enough about hydraulics to say who was to blame — him for the way he operated the valve or someone in the permitting hierarchy for not telling him that particular section is subject to water hammer but he was a good guy and he told us that we could get a home PRV installed for a few hundred dollars. If there should ever be another water hammer, we wouldn’t get flooded again. That’s just what we all did. We haven’t had a problem since.

The PRV, installed inboard of the water intake shut off valve, has an adjustable spring that lets you set a maximum high water pressure that can come into your system. Water pressure in Juneau is usually within the 50-70 psi range. When water pressure is below 50 psi it’s about well water velocity. When it’s much over 70 psi it can cause leaks and other problems with faucets and toilets, and shorten the lives of dishwashers, water heaters and washing machines, including causing the rubber intake hose on the washing machine to grow a polyp and blow out. Home water pressure is easy to check with a gauge that screws onto your outside faucet. They cost less than $20.

 

Water shrines

Worldwide water statistics are among the most alarming, dismal, and undeniable figures of modern times yet here in Juneau, Alaska we can pull a lever and out comes drinking water so clean and pure that most of humanity in any age could hardly imagine how fine it is. Sophisticated as we think we are, this might be a good time for us to shift our thinking. Instead of perceiving our pipes, gauges, sinks and faucets as cumbersome, occasionally problematic objects, we can revere them as the household shrine dispenses a miraculous liquid that makes up 60 percent of our bodies by volume.

*Talking about the inside shutoff here, not to be confused with a home’s outside valve near the street. That one has a metal cap about six inches across with ‘water’ stamped on it. Below the cap is a pipe going straight down about five feet that needs a key that long to open and close it. Typically it’s the city water crews who open and close it. The cap can get corroded shut over time or frost can force stones up inside the pipe which would mean someone can’t get at the valve. It’s worth checking once a year to make sure it’s functional. Again, it’s usually the city that uses that shut off but, if you’re a worst case scenario person, some hardware stores sell those long keys.