It dropped into the teens for a few nights.
Cold weather happens around Seattle, but down by sea level the water moderates the temperature – usually. Occasionally, a bit of Alaska drops in for a visit. Houses built for beach vacations may not be ready for ice in the pipes. I worried about my home, a mid-sixties waterview cottage that was probably heated with a wood stove for its first years.
A few nights ago I saw what I didn’t want to see, an ice cascade affixed to the side of my house under a faucet that I feared was broken before I bought the house. My anxiety level rose at the fear of a plumber’s bill. Within an hour, the plumber had me laughing. Sometimes we do the right things at odd times without knowing it. I hope that’s true for more than just pipes.
Every house has surprises. Seven years ago I had this house inspected when I bought it. The report was long and detailed, and I bought the house anyway. It has been the only house that’s really felt like home. I dutifully began fixing some of the problems specified in the report. Not surprisingly, I found a few things to work on that weren’t in the report, and didn’t get to everything all at once.
I bought in January, so there was no reason to use the outside faucets before spring. That’s when I found that the faucet on the back of the house was faulty. I turned the knob and water gushed out through the handle. Ah, so that’s why they had it capped. I turned off the water, which also turned off the heat to the house because it is radiant floor heating, and promptly drove to the hardware store. Where I also promptly found out that the faucet was so old that they didn’t have spare parts. Grumble. A full repair would actually be a full replacement, which would involve cutting into interior and exterior walls. The estimate was in thousands of dollars because of the possible complications. Instead, I bought a plastic cap that replicated the previous fix, and closed up the faucet again.
Last week the plastic cap broke. Ice covered the outside wall. It only looked like a cup of water, so luckily I’d found it early. Even while my anxiety and blood pressure levels were spiking, I called some friends to talk me through as I dutifully turned off the water, checked the crawlspace, checked the other faucets, installed a brass fitting I had in the utility room, and called a plumber. The plumbers were busy. No surprise. But they could be out the next morning. I cancelled some plans, and settled in for a vigil, possibly a quite cold one if the heat was off.
I decided to risk the heat because, without the heat, the other pipes might freeze. I left the water on, and checked the meter every hour or so to see if any frozen blockage had suddenly thawed and gushed out a leak.
Imagine this. The plumber showed up when he said he would. (Thank you Harbor Plumbing.) He was nice, friendly, and even let me follow him around as he diagnosed the problem. Evidently, whatever had I had done was good and quick enough because it looked like there was nothing for him to do without digging into a wall that didn’t seem to be damaged. I was relieved and perplexed. Where had all the water come from, and why had it stopped with such a simple fix? I told him the story about the water flowing out the handle, and the trip to the hardware store, and the fact that I hadn’t used the faucet in years because of what I’d seen. But neither of us was going to argue with what appeared to be no problem.
A few moments later, we both glanced at the faucet that didn’t have water coming out the handle. Why wasn’t it coming out the handle, and why hadn’t it all these years? He asked me to tell the story again. After I’d told it twice, he pointed out that, years ago, when I’d taken it out and put it back in, I’d probably resealed what needed to be sealed. Not only that, but from my description of the part, it is probably a frost-free faucet; which also means that the heater tape and protections on the other faucets may be overkill because they were probably frost-free, and that I had much less to worry about than most home owners. The water that turned to ice was just the remnants from in the line. He also made sure I knew that calling them had been the right thing to do. Small flaws in critical systems can cause massive damage if not fixed quickly.
A house always has things to fix. Since the drop in my portfolio, a lot of elaborate plans have been put aside. When the mortgage payments were also put aside, I had to resort to more frugal fixes. Here though, was a fix that I’d performed without knowing it. How many other things that I worry about are actually in much better shape than most because I’ve managed some fix at the earliest opportunity?
Problems are matched with solutions, and many of the solutions are put aside because they are too expensive, complex, hard to understand, or time-consuming. Thistles continue to attempt an overthrow of my lawn, but every spring I’ve simply pulled out the earliest ones – and my lawn has fewer invaders every year. Fitness is something to be done 20 minutes every day or so, but I manage to get in a run, or some dancing, or some karate, too infrequently, but often enough to be losing weight (though a gluten-free diet may take credit too.) Personal finance seems to be one of those things that require inordinate amounts of time to produce, but regular progress on spending less and making more is more powerful than an ever-procrastinated plan.
Maybe the grand plans we need to counter climate change, dysfunctional economies, and injustice are not as important as the individual efforts of people who reduce, reuse, and recycle; and the people who work at developing alternative currencies and local sharing; and the people who foster justice around the world by speaking simple truths about the way things are versus the way things ought to be.
The simple things we do can seem to have too little of an effect, which is why the plumber and I stood and laughed in my backyard when we realized how I’d managed to fix something without knowing it even though I was frustrated when I did it. What we do may seem small, yet it may fix far more than we can know.