It's so wrenching, getting caught up in unfamiliar traps


December 18, 1993|By ROB KASPER

I recently spent a long, intimate session with a "P" trap.

A P trap is a piece of pipe that sits under the drains of most sinks. It looks like a sideways letter P, but it also looks like a backward J. So you can ask for it by either name at hardware stores, and either way you can be corrected.

I had seen a P trap on television. It appeared as "the source of the clog" in commercials for drain cleaners. In these commercials, the drain cleaner liberated gunk from a curved piece of pipe, the P trap, and sent the clog fleeing down a connecting drainpipe.

I always got a charge out of those commercials, even though, like much of what you see on TV, they bore little resemblance to what happened in your house.

A clog brought the P and me together. A bathroom sink, or "vanity" in plumbing parts lingo, would not drain.

I attacked it -- somewhat successfully -- with a plunger. The backed-up water did go streaming out of the sink. But instead of disappearing down the drain pipe, the dirty water ran all over the floor.

It turned out that the old metal P trap had rusted out. Instead of removing the clog, my work with the plunger had pulled the last vestiges of lining loose from the rusted pipe.

This created a hole in the P trap and allowed the water in the pipes to follow one of the basic laws of household physics: Namely, at every opportunity dirty water will seek the floor.

If this problem had occurred in my own house, I probably would have called a plumber. But this was my parents' P trap. I had broken it while "helping them out" around their house. I felt guilty. I think that no matter how old you get, you always feel guilty when you screw up at your parents' house.

Moreover, I was trying to show my parents that I was good for something. That all those years my parents had spent typing my high school term papers and quizzing me about Latin verbs, and signing all those checks, were not for naught. That all their help in my formative years had prepared me to now put in a new P trap. Maybe.

My first step was to remove the old P trap. This was pretty easy because it was so corroded it virtually fell apart. My next step was to buy a new P trap, made of plastic pipe, at a nearby hardware store.

My third step was to break the new P trap. I snapped it with my bare hands, and with a big pipe wrench. This is not recommended.

My next step was to quit, at least for the day. I took the broken P trap over to my brother's house, where we conducted a plumbing-repair think session. This meant we ate barbecue, drank beer, watched basketball games on TV, and every once in a while stared at the broken P trap.

This particular brother knows how to fix things. A few years ago, much to my amazement, he single-handedly installed a bathroom with a shower in his house. To this day the water in that bathroom continues to seek the drain, not the floor.

I suppose I could have let my brother put the new P trap in at our parents' house, but sibling rivalry dies hard, even with plumbing. Besides, he is a little brother, and it is written in the code of big brothers that we never acknowledge that little brothers are better than us at anything.

I did, however, listen to a little of my brother's advice, which was to treat plastic pipe gently. The next day after yet-another trip to the hardware store to buy more parts, and after a couple hours scrunched under the sink struggling with a new plastic P trap, I got the thing in.

Highlights of the repair included actually going face to face with a clog. This one was dark, gunky and stubborn. It didn't want to leave its hangout, a piece of pipe that connected the P trap to a larger drain pipe.

But several jabs with a coat hanger sent the clog packing.

When I was finished, I forced my mom and dad to stand in the bathroom and watch as water from the faucets flowed out of the sink, down the drain, past the new P trap and into waste-water oblivion.

Bending down under the sink, I pointed out that not only did they now own a new, bright white P trap, they had an entire P-trap package, complete with gleaming tailpipe, connecting the top of the P trap to the sink, and a handsome new feed pipe, connecting the bottom of the trap to the larger drainpipe in the wall.

It is hard to gauge public reaction to new plumbing. But my parents seemed to like what they saw.

I hope so. It is their Christmas present.

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