Vengeful house makes coming home a bittersweet event

SATURDAY'S HERO

August 28, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Houses are like pets. If you leave them, even for a few days, they get even when you return.

The longer you are away, the more costly their revenge.

Spend a few days visiting the relatives, and your house will throw a tantrum upon your return. A light will burn out. A door will stick. The stairs will develop a new squeak.

Go away for a week and you raise the stakes. The plumbing is likely to get cantankerous shortly after you unpack. Faucets will drip. Pipes will throb. And toilets will sing.

Disappear for more than a week and you are risking the lives of major household appliances. Washers, dryers, dishwashers, water heaters and air conditioners are at the mercy of the vengeful house.

This year I tried to trick the house. I was out of the house for two weeks. But during the second week I left my family at home, to keep the house company.

The house was not amused.

"How are things?" I asked my kids when I returned home, looking around for signs of fresh damage.

I quizzed my kids, rather than my wife for a report, because I have learned that spouses tend to delay telling their mates bad news. But kids will tell of domestic disaster before you are out of the car.

"Anything broken?" I asked the boys. The two of them paused before answering. Each knew this was a rare chance to accuse his brother of a household offense. A free shot. A chance to get your brother in trouble with Dad.

They tried, but neither of them could muster up any evidence of wrongdoing. Nothing was broken, yet. The house, it turned out, was lying in wait.

It made its first retaliatory strike two days after I got back. The first-floor toilet, up to now a mild-mannered commode if ever there were one, suddenly began screaming. The float kept sticking. I had to spend lots of "quality time" with the upset toilet, calming it down.

Then there was the beep in the middle of the night. I tracked the noise to the top floor. The battery in one of the smoke alarms had faded and the annoying beep was the alarm's signal that the battery needed to be replaced. So I got the step ladder out of the basement, carried it up three flights of stairs, and clambered up to change the batteries.

I thought these acts of penance would be enough to satisfy the vengeful house. But the house wanted more.

Next it tried to electrocute me. I came down to the kitchen and tried to turn on a bank of four fluorescent lights, but they wouldn't work. I figured the problem was a broken wall switch.

So I fetched my tools, got a new switch, and started to replace the old one.

I thought I had turned off the electricity that ran to the wall switch. But I had not.

The wall plate covering this switch also covered the garbage disposal switch and a plug or, as the home repair books call them, a wall receptacle. I did not want any electricity flowing in the wires I was working on, so I plugged a portable light into the receptacle and went into the basement and started flipping circuit breakers. When the portable light plugged into the receptacle went off, I figured the juice to the adjoining switch had also stopped flowing.

I was wrong. Even though the switch was right next to the receptacle, it was hooked up to another circuit. I almost found this out the hard way, by getting shocked.

Instead I got lucky. I figured it out. I was pulling the master switch from the wall, when a thought hit me. Maybe the lights weren't working because somebody had fiddled with the little switches on each light. The lights could be turned off two ways -- by working the master switch on the wall, the one I was pulling out, or by flicking smaller switches on each light.

Sure enough, when I turned one of the smaller switches, the light blinked on. This told me that the wall switch was fine. And it told me, if I had continued removing the wall switch, I probably would have been shocked. The juice was still flowing in those wires.

I figured this narrow miss was another example of the house getting even.

But the house wasn't finished with me.

It had one more homecoming "gift" for me. When I switched on the central air conditioning system, there was a clanking sound, followed by the smell of smoke. The early diagnosis is that the compressor of the air conditioner has "burned up." New compressors cost a lot of money. That means I won't be leaving home again, for a long, long time.

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