Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ack! Plumbers! Again!


They've come and gone, and they made discoveries.

Those of you who followed the saga of Casa Ché in California know of the seemingly interminable episode of The Plumbers wherein the water heater gave out early one AM leading to replacing all of the supply piping in the house (as well as the water heater) and also part of the drains and sewer piping. There was a break in the drain line out of the bathtub which probably would have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that the wall behind the tub was opened up to put in new copper piping. So all that had to be re-done, even as we thought things were about to get back to normal.

Here in New Mexico our place started out around 1900 as an adobe ranch house more or less in the middle of nowhere; it had no plumbing. Supposedly, this was the house where Toney Anaya grew up, though personally I don't believe it. The story he tells, the house where he grew up had dirt floors and no indoor plumbing until the later 1950s. This house has pretty much always had wood floors (mostly wide pine planks, but the north and south bedrooms have narrow floor boards, not sure what species, probably pine, too, but it actually looks like maple), and there was at least an attempt to put in plumbing in the 1930's as far as I can determine from the old piping and its location. In the 1950's, pretty early I'd say, a bathroom was installed in the older wing of the house, and a kitchen and laundry room were added to the front by enclosing what was the portal. That's basically how the house is now. Though we had a lot of renovations done, it was primarily to rehab the place from a ruin and make it liveable, not to change the footprint.

So yesterday morning, I noticed strange sounds coming from the plumbing in the bathroom. Gurgling, burping, and what sounded like water draining directly onto the ground under the floor. Not good. There wasn't really a back up, either, though the water was draining slowly. I decided I better call the plumbers.

They came, shortly -- within a few hours -- Rich and Chris, local fellows who hadn't had their lunch. They scoped out the situation, heard the sounds, said, "Oh dear," kind of like I did, and they called their boss, Fred, who came to look things over. It sounded like the sewer line had broken, no doubt about it, and Fred gave me two bids to replace the sewer line, one if the break was close to the toilet, the other (much bigger) if it was far and they had to dig extensively. Both were pretty reasonable for what would have to be done, so I said OK, and Rich commenced to open a small hole in the bathroom floor in order to see if he could determine where the break was.

I was in the other room while he and his helper Chris were doing their business in the bathroom. Suddenly everything went quiet. I checked, Chris was here by himself, Rich having left. Chris was peering into the hole.

"What's up?" I queried.

"Ohhhh," says Chris. "It's not broken."

"It isn't?"

"Nope. Gonna go run the snake."

So he does, opening up the cleanout in front of the house. Meanwhile, it seems like the whole world is coming over. Fred had called the utility Emergency Spot number to locate all the utility lines in case they had to dig. So the gas man came, and the electric co-op people came, and the phone man came, and someone from the water and sewer side, the cable guy too, an endless parade of semi-officials, one after the other. It was quite a show.

Chris busied himself with the snake, and sure enough, the drain ran free within a few minutes.

"Is it OK now?" I asked.

"Yup. Shoulda done that first. Rich jumped the gun and Fred just went along. It was only a clog. Rich went to get the bigger equipment, but we don't even need that. Everything's running fine now. I'll put the toilet back as soon as I can get a wax ring."

A few minutes later, Rich shows up looking sheepish. Chris asks if he has a wax ring. He does, so Chris goes to put the toilet back and clean up.

Rich explains what had happened. He said there was a clog pretty far down the sewer line, but the problem seemed to be that the sewer line was broken because no water was backing up into the house, which is usually what happens when the problem is a clog. Instead, he said, they found out when they opened the floor that the water was coming out right below the toilet flange, so it never got into the house, it was just pouring out under it. He said it was really soaked down there and it would be best to leave the hole open for several days to let things dry out. Run a fan.

So the sewer lines are fine? Seem to be. I told him that the supply piping had been replaced just before we bought the house five years ago. It was all that no-break-when-frozen plastic, and it worked well. All the other drains were OK so far as I knew. He said they'd only charge for the clog and a helper, and that was fine.

He asked if he could have the stump at the side of the house. I wondered what for. "Heat" he says. It was the only thing he could afford to keep warm. Oh. I said sure. Take it. It might provide a few days' heat in a good tight stove.

I had to pay for the plumbers at the hardware store in town since they weren't able to take charge cards at the job site. And I learned that there had been very little work for anyone in construction and plumbing and electrics and so on for quite some time. This was a big job, even though it turned out to be only a clog. And the rush to make it bigger, it seems, was in part due to the lack of work for so long before. They weren't trying to over bid or over charge at all -- at least not to my way of looking at it, if what we suspected was wrong had been wrong, they would have had a lot to do, and their charges for it were in line. The problem was, they hadn't tried to clear the clog first, which they really should have done.

And the idea that Rich actually needed the stump to heat his own house -- because he couldn't afford to pay for gas -- made me sad and confused at the same time. Gas (natural and LP) rates are not cheap in this area, but they aren't outrageously high, either. Our house doesn't have central heat. There's a big free-standing gas furnace in the living room and we use electric heaters in the bedrooms when needed. The adobe warms up after a few days and holds the heat. When we're not here, we keep the house at about 50 degrees; when we're here, it's 68-70. We haven't spent a whole winter here, but from the utility bumps in the weeks we have been here during cold weather, we figure winter heating costs at around $250 a month, which is higher than we pay in California -- it's a lot colder here! -- but not shocking.

Well, we say. Compared to what? You'd expect a plumber would make decent money, and heating his house wouldn't be that big an expense comparatively, but it turns out there's so little work in the field, nobody's making much money, and yes, heat is a huge expense comparatively. What I paid at the hardware store went right to paying the bill the plumbers had run up there for supplies and equipment. So... how do the plumbers get paid? I don't know. So yeah, take the stump. Please.

Of course a lot of folks around here heat with wood, either what they can chop or purchase already chopped or pellets, and it is overall, they say, about 30-50% less than gas or electricity. If they can get the wood free, it's gravy. Or at least a warmer few days.

The Endless Recession is partially to blame for this situation, but part of it is just the way things are here and have been for generations. So much of what lucky people like me take for granted is a struggle here -- and it has been for as long as anyone can remember. I realize how lucky we are and how little I really have to complain about.

It was a beautiful day yesterday, the sky an incredible deep blue, the clouds almost too pure in their whiteness. After all the excitement, I went to check for something in the van, and witnessed the most incredible sunset in the west. Well. Compared to what? We've shown pictures of New Mexico sunrises and sunsets to friends in California, and they always remark on how "unusual" it must be. And we say, no. It's practically every day. When I was driving over to the hardware store to pay the plumbers' bill, I caught my breath gazing at the mountains, as I do almost every time I come here. The mountains here are just a stunning sight, like the starry firmament at night, with bright stars all the way down to the horizon, the Milky Way shining bright, like nothing you would ever see in California unless you were in the high mountains on a good night.

Below is an incredible picture taken outside of Flagstaff, AZ, that appeared on APOD in 2008. It's consciously dramatic, showing the San Francisco Peaks enveloped in the clouds they attract (mountains do attract the clouds around these parts) and the Night Sky -- after long exposure. No, your eye doesn't quite see it this way, but the sensation of what you do see, on a clear night in Flagstaff, or from where I am now, is almost as strong.

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