One of the cruel rules of life is that whenever your house fills up with visitors, something bad happens. On the Friday night after Thanksgiving when I saw the puddle of water on the basement floor, terror filled my heart.
I looked for the quick, easy explanation of where the water came from. My main suspect was the visiting 3-year-old cousin. He wasn't quite out of diapers yet. If he was the puddle maker, then after a little mop work and a short sermon, I could sit down and eat my supper.
But as I studied the puddle I saw that its headwaters came not from the 3-year-old kid, but from the 14-year-old hot water heater.
In Baltimorese, my hot water heater had "gone up on me." And when a hot water heater goes up, that means the water from the heater's tank goes down, all over the floor. It also means that you have no hot water to wash dishes, clothes and dirty bodies. These are commodities that our household has in abundance, especially when company comes.
I reacted to this catastrophe in my usual style. First, I shouted bad words. Second, I thumbed through my aged copy of "Basic Home Repairs." I have had this $2.45 paperback book since the 1970s, which is when it was published by Sunset Books. It seems to be aimed at home-repair idiots. It is my bible.
Following the instructions in the "stop the flood" section of the book, I shut off the water going into the water heater, and shut off the gas that was heating the tank. This, however, did not stop the puddle-making.
The bottom of the hot water tank had sprung a leak. Not a constant leak, an occasional leak. Whenever anybody turned on the kitchen faucet, water not only came out of the faucet, it also came out of the bottom of the hot water tank.
I selected the proper pan to catch the water. Ordinarily I use a saucepan or even a soup pot to catch leaks. But since the hot water heater sat so close to the floor, the only pan that could fit underneath it was the pan used to make sheet cakes. Luckily this was Thanksgiving weekend, prime time for pie-baking, and the sheet-cake pan was free. It did a great job.
I took these initial hot-water-heater-gone-up-on-me steps between 6 and 6:30 p.m. I was very aware of the time because it was Friday night and I did not want to spend a weekend with a house full of company and no hot water. Somehow, some way, I had to get new hot water and a plumber to my house on a Saturday.
I pulled out the household address book and dialed the number of every plumber I knew. I couldn't rouse a one of them. Filled with frustration, I stared at the leaking hot water heater. On it I saw the word "Sears."
I raced back to the phone and began dialing every Sears store in the area. This was no time for comparison shopping, I wanted a water heater and I wanted one pronto. The sheet cake pan was filling up.
Since it was the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the season, many of the lines were busy. But finally I got through to Norman, the hot water heater salesman at Security Square Mall. I had never met Norman, but I could tell by his voice that this man had, in his time, seen a few hot water heaters come and go.
Norman said he did, indeed, have a hot water and that it was on sale, marked down $30. More importantly he thought he could find a plumber who could put it in for me the next day. I said I would take the water heater if Norman could find the plumber. Norman said he would call me back.
I waited by the kitchen phone for about half an hour. It seemed much longer. In that time the stack of dishes, the kids and their clothes all got noticeably dirtier.
Relief washed over when Norman phoned back to say that he had found a plumber. The bad news was that it cost $30 extra to install a hot water heater on a weekend. So much for the $30 I had saved in the sale.
The next day I met "Nick," the plumber (whose real name is George), and who is one heck of a plumber. I say this because not only did Nick install the hot water heater in two shakes of a pipe wrench, he also installed a new kitchen faucet, which, as plumbing fixtures do, suddenly broke down in sympathy for the deceased hot water heater.
I learned a lot by watching Nick work. I learned that I could not have installed the hot water heater myself. I did not have the tools -- a torch, a pipe cutter, pipe -- that are required for the job. I did not have the know-how. And I did not have the nerve. As Nick worked, I glanced at the manual for the new gas-fired hot water heater. It outlined installation procedures and was dominated both by the word "WARNING," and by the thought, "If you do this yourself, you can blow up your house."
Nick also taught me where to find a plumbing supply store that was open on Saturday afternoon, (Schumacher & Seiler on Harford Road, till 4 p.m.).
And Nick told me there was really no specific reason for, or warning sign of, hot water heater failure. One night, it just happens.
I, however, have figured out what caused my hot water to fail. It was the check for about $500 that I had tucked in my dresser drawer. I was hiding it, planning to spend it on holiday gifts.
But the old water heater knew the check was there and acted accordingly. And now when I visit the basement, I glance at the new hot water heater and wish myself a "Merry Christmas."