On Friday, the plumber came finally to do a long-delayed project: replacing my shower mixers with the new thermostatic mixers I’d purchased a few years ago, intending to have them installed as part of the office-remodeling project.
We knew that it couldn’t be as simple as a one-day job. No, indeed, it was not. Naturally, something went wrong—one of the valves I’d ordered wasn’t quite right, so he had to come back on Monday with more parts to finish the job.
But wait, there’s more!
I also, it turns out, had a dying water heater. He was supposed to replace that yesterday, too, but the shower-mixer job from Friday took all of yesterday to resolve, so the near-dead water heater had to wait another day. That’s why I’m home again today, still babysitting the plumber, who is at this very moment using tools of a sort I’ve never seen before (that have astonishing hearing-damage capabilities) to wrest the old beast from its lair. Seeing it leave my house today brings me a certain perverse satisfaction as I recall its installation and my indoctrination into the never-ending anxieties of home ownership.
It was the fall of 1999. I had just bought and moved into this house that August, and one fine November morning I found myself taking a warm, then tepid, then suddenly cold shower; and then looking at cold, rusty water rushing down my driveway; and then using my dialup internet service to research water heaters; and then on the phone with Sears to order one. After that I found myself on the phone with all manner of people for several more days, trying to navigate all the headaches of converting from electric to gas, pulling permits, getting through inspections, wrangling recalcitrant service people, and fighting with the world’s worst customer service department. Three days later I finally had water again (let alone hot), and many exasperating calls after that I had a $500 gift card from Sears in apology for the multiple circles of hell I’d visited on my way to a hot shower.
The progressive wussitude of that Sears water heater in recent years meant that I was not terribly surprised when on Friday my plumber (here to do something completely else) noticed white plastic debris in the faucet screens and diagnosed its terminal illness:
“Dip tube failure!”
Turns out there’s a pipe in old-fashioned (“big ol’ tank”) water heaters that brings fresh cold water in through the top and down to the bottom of the tank where it is to be heated. It should then rise (recall your grade school physics lessons) to the top where it enters the hot water pipes supplying the house. The way water heater makers get us to buy new water heaters every ten years, now that tanks don’t rust out as reliably as they once did, is to make that pipe out of a white plastic that starts breaking down just a few months after the ten-year warranty expires. As it disintegrates, the fresh cold water starts leaking out, then trickling, and eventually rushing into the upper, no longer hot region of the tank, where it eddies and cools what used to be hot water, thereby sending merely warm, then tepid, and eventually cold water into the hot water pipes. It also sends its telltale white plastic debris to the screens of faucets, where wise plumbers can see that they’re about to get another call from a homeowner who is willing to pay overtime.
But when those homeowners have already learned that after a cold shower is the wrong time to deal with such a thing, and that Sears is the wrong place to call for it, they instead turn to said plumbers and say, “What kind of water heater do you think I should get, and can you put it in on Monday?”
That was Friday afternoon. Saturday I had a lukewarm shower. Sunday I had a cool shower. Yesterday I didn’t even try. Today I had a cold shower. The water heater knew, apparently, that its days were numbered and took advantage of its last opportunities to vex me. Tonight I shall pay the nice plumber whatever he asks and then mix myself a stiff martini and try to forget the number.
And that, my friends, is how I will graduate after twelve and half years from Beginning to Intermediate Home Ownership.