Hot and Cold Running Water

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I like to listen to podcasts on my drive to and from work. One of my favorite podcasts mentioned the impacts of the presence or absence of hot and cold running water on a story in last week’s episode. You can listen to it at Writing Excuses. Do you ever stop to take a moment to consider how much something you take for granted shapes your world?

We had the ‘privilege’ of experiencing that principle first hand recently. A few nights ago, as Jessie filled the sink to wash up the dinner dishes, the water pressure dropped off. Drastically. No one was in the shower, no toilets had been flushed, no faucet had been left running; and even if they had, the drop was much too deep to be normal. I grabbed my multi-meter and headed for the basement for some basic troubleshooting. Twenty minutes later, I knew a little more than I did before: the pressure switch was working, the breaker wasn’t tripped, there was sufficient voltage to the pump, but it wasn’t drawing amps. Clearly, the pump wasn’t running.

Great. This was a relatively new pump. We had replaced the previous pump on Valentine’s Day weekend last year. I remember it well; there was a 6-inch cover of snow on the ground, the mercury hovered at about 5 degrees, and the wind chill made things feel more like negative five degrees. Our well is about 180 feet deep, with a 150-foot riser pipe on the pump. Which froze solid as I swapped out the old pump with the new one. That’s also a long way to pull a twenty five pound slug of metal. We didn’t get water until 2 in the morning, and it didn’t run clear until mid morning. That was a Valentine’s Day NOT to remember.

You really learn to appreciate a basic amenity when it’s gone. Some are easier to give up for a bit than others. Lose power during a storm? Unless you’re relying on a piece of equipment for heat or life support, a few hours spent with oil lamps for light and actual human conversation for entertainment can be enjoyable, even nice. No water? Not so much.

When you turn on a faucet, you tend to expect a steady stream of water, hot if you want to wash your hands, cold if you want a drink. I must have — out of sheer force of habit — tried to get a glass of water at least 5 times that night. Another double-edged sword of indoor plumbing, the bathroom, reared its ugly head about that time. Sure, a toilet beats an outhouse flat — until there’s no water for flushing. I wonder how many people know how to ‘bucket-flush’ a toilet? And showers? For those, we needed to lean on the generosity of my sister-in-law, who lives about ten minutes away. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a hardship, and it isn’t, but it isn’t exactly the same as just stepping into your own shower, either.

Full disclosure: things could have been much worse. We do have a secondary water source. In one corner of our basement, we have a city water hookup. Several years ago, our township required our neighborhood to hook up to the city water system. For several reasons, one of which being the excellent water quality of our well, we chose to keep the well plumbed to the house, and outfitted the city supply with a faucet for emergency use. In this case, it was an absolute God-send. Even after lugging three buckets of ‘flush water’ and three coolers of drinking water up from the basement, I was still glad to have it.

Sleep came difficult that night. I kept turning the problem over in my head, as I turned over in my bed. Why would a new pump fail? Was the intake clogged? Did the motor burn up? Had the well gone dry? There are three new houses being built in the neighborhood; had the construction and heavy equipment cracked the well casing? What the heck would we find when we pulled the pump?

The next morning, Jessie, my son (who’s a plumber, conveniently enough) and I swung into action, dragging that daggone pump back out of the bore for inspection.

What we would find turned out to be a full well (Thank God!), a filthy, muddy pump, and, better than one could hope for, broken power leads. The frigid conditions last year must have made the insulation brittle when we installed it the first time, and it took a year to finally fail. After a thorough rewiring, complete with heat shrink insulation and plenty of rubber electrical tape, and a quick bump check to make sure the pump still turned over, it was ready to go back in the well bore. Ten minutes to purge muddy water from the line, and we were back in business.

Returning a brand new, still-in-the-box $400 well pump because it wasn’t necessary was the best feeling ever, almost as good as the celebratory hot shower.