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Plavix® For Water Pipes?

June 11 - 16, 2006

Hubris. You sense it’s coming and still you’re stunned by its arrival and the severity of the lesson.

Like everyone else, we’ve been playing financial catch-up for years. Hence our pride when 2006 began to look like the first year we’d have saved-up vacation money to spend on… our vacation! Pat’s Town & Country van needed new tires after 70,000 miles: $1,000. The Bounder needed new tires last year, but we put it off until this year: $2,100. And, still, there was $1,500 left over in the vacation fund! If we were careful, no plastic would be needed.

Somewhere during all the renovation work on our 1924 house in the past few years, we had replaced our aging water heater with a newer, more energy efficient model. At most, it is three years old. The only original 1924 construction area that had not been upgraded was the 1/2-inch galvanized steel water pipes that ran from the street connection and through the walls to the various utilities within the house. The water pressure at our kitchen sink has always been moderately acceptable at best, and then only after regular disassembling of the faucet to clean accumulated crud from the filter. On at least two occasions we’ve gone without water at the kitchen sink for a week while waiting for faucet parts to arrive.

So, when Pat, a big fan of the DIY and HGTV networks, told me one morning in March that we needed to drain our water heater twice a year to prevent rust buildup, I deftly ignored the comment. My gut said a relatively new water heater that’s shown no predilection for problem behavior and clean water emanating from all the household water outlets are clear signals to leave well-enough alone. After all, just cleaning out the filter in the kitchen faucet, though necessary, had resulted in a mini-disaster… at least twice.

Pat brought up draining the water heater again in April and again I ignored it. In May, he kept quiet and I was lured into a false sense of relief that he had come to his senses and dropped the idea.

Sunday morning, June 11th, was just eleven days away from our upcoming two-week vacation on the road with our motorhome. For whatever reason, I slept late that morning and didn’t get the computer in my office turned on and the coffee pot started until 10:30. It usually takes me an hour, four cups of coffee, and three cigarettes to fully wake up and deal with a new day, so when Pat walked by my office door at 10:45 and said he wanted to drain the water heater that day, I assumed he expected my help and was merely advising me of the day’s agenda. I thought to myself, “Oh crap, here we go with this again,” and returned to reading my email.

Fifteen minutes later I realized something unusual was going on in the laundry room and walked out there to find a hose hooked up to the water heater and Pat holding the other end over the garden catch drain. “This is simple and I can handle it myself,” he told me and I returned to my office shaking my head. Twenty minutes later, Pat walked into my office and announced, “We have a problem!”

The two of us spent the next hour draining the water heater a second and third time, refilling it and reopening the valves all to no avail: we had no hot water to the kitchen sink or the bathroom sink. The cold water ran just fine. And, strangely enough, the hot water in the shower ran just fine, though the tap handle for the tub chose this particular moment to lose its grip and needed replacement. After expelling air from the lines, both the bathroom and kitchen faucets did dribble hot water, so I decided to leave them on in hope that gravity and built-up pressure would eventually move the apparent blockage through the pipes.

Never happened. Monday morning I called our plumbing and heating company who told me Jose was working in Oakland that day and would drop by in a few hours. Of course, after checking everything out, Jose told me what I already knew: the pipes in the whole house needed to be replaced. The shock came when he gave me the estimate: $3,500 for just the hot water pipes and $6,200 for the whole plumbing system.

I had called our other plumbing service company and they had wanted $95 just to send someone over to give an estimate which they would credit towards the cost of the job if we hired them. In fact, they were the ones who had installed the new water heater three years ago. But Jose’s company had replaced our furnace, added air conditioning, and serviced our climate control system twice a year. They’d also done the work on running heat and A.C. to our attic last year.

“When can you start?”

“Wednesday. How much of it do you want done?”

“All of it. Doesn’t make sense to do one and not the other when the other will eventually fail as well. How long will the job take?”

“Two days. I’ll be here eight A.M. Wednesday morning, then.”

The good news was the old 1924 1/2-inch galvanized steel pipes were to be replaced with 3/4-inch copper pipes and I looked forward to encountering enough pressure in the nozzle to wash down the shower curtain before getting out of the shower. Perhaps I might actually have to stand at the kitchen sink while I filled it up for dirty dishes rather than find something else to do for five minutes? I was giddy with the possibilities and tried so very hard to focus on them rather than the financial commitment.

Jose arrived Wednesday morning promptly at eight o’clock… by himself. And left for the day at 1:30. Same schedule on Thursday. Friday morning he arrived to haul away the old galvanized steel pipes whose interiors looked like a Plavix commercial, and to collect the check. At most he spent thirteen hours on the job which works out to $472.บบ/hour. Clearly, plumbing is the business to be in!

“So, I need to cancel the vacation, right?” Pat asked when he got home Thursday night and found the hot water running for the first time since Sunday.

“Hell no! We’re already in debt with this little excursion and, trust me, the vacation isn’t going to add that much more to it. Besides, we both need one now more than ever!”

EPILOG: To avoid attracting ants, we thoroughly rinse out every food can we open before tossing it in the recycle bin. When Pat did this for the first time with the new pipes installed, the cat food can blew out of his hands and skittered across the kitchen floor sending the cats fleeing for cover and Pat grabbing for a towel to dry off from his instant shower.

The washing machine now fills in less than two minutes. The backyard pond, prone to evaporation on hot days, can be filled from the hose in less than five minutes (it used to take twenty). The kitchen sink now fills in less than 90 seconds and hence I can no longer crush soda cans in the laundry room while waiting.

And, according to Jose, we now have enough water pressure to run a dishwasher. Unfortunately, we estimate that a dishwasher would cost us about $80,000 because to accommodate it, the whole kitchen would have to be renovated.