Saturday, January 17, 2009

Move Over Joe

Now that Joe the Plumber has hung up his pipe wrench and flushed his dreams of owning his own business down the proverbial drain in favor of a journalism career, there is one less overpriced, inexperienced plumber to call when the shower faucet springs a leak. Faced with this particular challenge of home repair, I entrusted my leaking shower’s fate to the gods of the orange aprons – the friendly, yet hard-to-find Home Depot workers – my trusty multi-purpose tool, and my son’s Fisher-Price horse flashlight. (Yes, it neighs when the light switches on.)

Some people fear spiders and creepy crawlies. Others are scared to open their recent 401K statements. But my biggest fear is a home repair project. Nothing is more emasculating than being defeated by an inanimate object such as a plastic toilet flapper or a flammable, kinked dryer hose. As a renter for many years, I relied on numerous superintendents, property management companies, and handymen to fix my dilapidated dwellings. So when I noticed that my bathroom mat was still damp 24 hours after the last wet foot had stood upon it, I did what any inexperienced new homeowner with limited fix-it skills does: I prayed that the problem would go away.

About a week later, the floor mat had gone from damp to soaked, the baseboard trim had the waterlogged look of driftwood, and water squished up between the tiles when I applied pressure. So much for praying this problem away. Immediate action needed to be taken.

I realized the first step was to find the leak. I tried to mentally scroll through all the leaky kitchen and bathroom stories I’d heard from friends and family over the years. Apparently I hadn’t listened that well, because I realized that my pool of stories was about as shallow as a puddle of squirrel pee. So I decided to trust my eyes and ears to ferret out the leak. How hard could it be to find?

I started with the shower head, an obvious culprit. The limey green buildup around the steel rim turned seemed to be a clue, but it turned out to be a red herring. When I initially turned the head to examine it, a steady stream of leftover water trickled out. The liquid appeared to find its way to the drain without any excessive splashing onto the floor, and the trickle quickly slowed to drops and then stopped. This was a major setback in my investigation. Where else does water come from in a shower but out of the head? You have to understand, my understanding of a shower’s anatomy was about as limited as a 12-year-old’s knowledge of the female body.

A new drip caught my attention. Water was pooling and forming drops on the bottom of the faucet knob. Ah-ha! The handle is leaking! But my self-congratulations on finding the offending leak evaporated as the drips stopped. Staring in disbelief at the now dry knob, I sat back on the throne to contemplate my options.

Then, like the Goonies in the cave, I heard it – water! Where was it coming from? I couldn’t see any drips. I leaned forward and listened. The dripping sounded muffled, and that’s when I realized it was originating from somewhere from within the walls. Then the familiar home repair fear seized my stomach as it began to sink in that I was out my league, way out. Was this a job for a plumber? Did I need a contractor to come in and tear out my walls to reach the leak? My recent experience with the locksmith (see the Baron Classic post) made me hesitant to hire help. Although the locksmith had gained entrance into my home, he had done so in a rather crude fashion by way of a power drill. I really didn’t want to shell out the dough for a plumber to fix a part that I was capable of installing myself. Memories of the cable guy charging us $40 to turn off the SAP function on our TV so that we could hear the sound again were still fresh in my mind. But that’s another story…

No, this was a problem that I was committed to solving. I returned to the faucet knob for a closer inspection and noticed that the underside of the pipe stem to which the knob attached was wet. I flipped out the Phillips screwdriver on my Leatherman multi-tool and removed the knob and metal casing from the wall. With the knob off, the water dripped safely into the shower instead of following the pipe and falling behind the wall. With the problem identified, I came up with the genius solution to shut off the water to the entire townhouse in an effort to thwart the pesky leak until I could get to Home Depot.

After two days of having to turn the water back on every time someone needed to flush a toilet, take a bath, or wash a dish, I figured it was time to readdress the leaky shower. It’s amazing how fast we had adjusted to our new normal, though. My shower was shot, so I used my wife’s bathroom. Can’t pour a glass of water from the tap? No problem, drink the water in the thermos. We even found a new reason to apply the water-saving if hygienically lacking adage, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

My visit to the plumbing aisle at Home Depot began much like my initial investigation into the leaky shower, by staring hopelessly at fixtures. I stood and pondered the plethora of maddeningly similar yet completely different faucet fittings and fingered one package after another to compare them to a nearly worthless component I’d brought with me.

I must’ve appeared like the hapless water buffalo that stands by the crocodile’s watering hole for too long, because a promotional huntress approached me with a “special opportunity” to have a professional water-tester inspect my home’s water at no cost and with no obligation. I politely listened to the bubbly blonde, but her gold hoop earrings distracted me from hearing everything she said. I tuned back in when she mentioned something about setting up a time for the inspector to visit. I mumbled something about schedule conflicts and she said thanks for the time and wished me luck finding what I needed. I told her what I really needed was someone in an orange apron to come help me. Amazingly, she turned and pushed a call button that I had totally missed in my myopic search of faucet paraphernalia.

Shortly thereafter, I was joined by a stocky, white-haired employee who listened to my less-than-technical description of the part I thought I needed to replace. “What brand is your faucet, sir?’ I had no idea. “Sounds like you have a Moen.” And with that he grabbed a $13.97 Moen single handle faucet replacement and suggested a core puller – a special, fancy wrench that retailed for $12.97.

I have to admit that I was more than skeptical about his choice. I think I was just astounded at the speed at which he provided the answer to a problem that had baffled me for a week. Could I really fix the leak with one part and a fancy wrench and $28 bucks? The part he gave me didn’t look anything like the thing that I’d seen in my shower. (Of course, the business end of the fixture was hidden inside the faucet pipe.) I left knowing that Home Depot was very forgiving in their return policy. A certain screen door I brought back three times before I got the right size came to mind....

I finally attempted to replace the faucet cartridge after the other water users in the house had gone to bed. End-of-the-week fatigue and doubt in the Home Depot guy’s grasp of my poorly described problem was already working against me. By the light of my son’s toy horse flashlight, which neighed and whinnied each time I squeezed the tail, I looked for the brand name to confirm if I indeed had a Moen. No brand names were in sight, so I plunged ahead.

For the life of me, I couldn’t get the fancy puller wrench to grab the screw on the faulty faucet piece to yank it out. The picture in the instructions didn’t match what I was seeing. I desperately grabbed the tip of the old faucet cartridge with my multi-tool’s pliers. Then, as the tip moved to the shower’s on position, the old cartridge suddenly looked just like the illustration in the directions. I could smell the sweet aroma of success over the rank odor of the mildewy floor mat. The fancy puller now easily attached to the leaky cartridge and removed it with a slight tug. I inserted the new one, lined up the tabs and reinserted the locking clip. I raced downstairs to turn the water back on. When I returned, the shower was spraying water everywhere, but the new fixture was dry! Praise the orange apron God! Thank you neighing horsey flashlight! I’m sorry I doubted you, fancy, special wrench puller-thing!

So, I hope Joe the Plumber is enjoying his new role as Joe the No-Foreign-Affairs-Experience Journalist. Because I’ve faced my fear of home repair, conquered a leaky shower faucet, and am now considering switching to a career in plumbing. After all, there will always be ignorant suckers like me out there ready to drop $500 for someone to replace a $14 part.


  1. If it's brown, flush it down. You should talk to a local paper and try to get a column.

  2. I agree. It is also the first time I have head you "pray."