Plumber radiates confidence in the face of an amateur

SATURDAY'S HERO

January 29, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Every so often you have to swallow your pride and call the

plumber. Calling the plumber is an admission of defeat. It is an acknowledgment that no matter how many home-repair books you read, there are times when pipes get the better of you. My plumber, however, seems to enjoy our little visits. I think it gives him comic relief.

"How come you need me?" he asked with a smile on his face as he arrived at our house one day this week. "You're the expert." He good-naturedly reminded me that the last time he came to visit, he had performed major surgery on a toilet I had "fixed" a few weeks earlier.

I told him that I can handle the little household problems, like worn-out washers, but I saved the big, complicated, professional-caliber worries for him.

And, today, I told him, there was a whopper -- a radiator was leaking. Water from the radiator had seeped out of the radiator and stained a wall on a lower floor. When the radiator supply valve, or handle, was turned on, you could hear water thumping on the subflooring.

After wrestling with the radiator problem for several days, I had come to the conclusion that one of the pipes underneath the floor wasleaking. Fixing it, I surmised, would require ripping up floorboards and installing new pieces of pipes. This was a job for my plumber.

Under the terms of the workman-referral pact, I cannot reveal the full name of my plumber.

The workman-referral pact is the agreement friends and neighbors enter into when they pass along the name of a trusted workman. You are given the name of a good plumber, carpenter, painter or electrician, but only if you promise not to tell anybody else about him.

The thinking is that, once you start blabbing about your terrific plumber, other people will start calling him. Pretty soon he will get too popular. And before you know it, your pipes will burst, you will be up to your armpits in water and the message on your plumber's answering machine will say he is now spending winter in his new Florida home.

I can only tell you my plumber's first name is Coleman, that he has a sense of humor, and that he is reasonably tolerant of my amateur attempts at plumbing.

As we went upstairs to look at the leaking radiator, I noticed that neither Coleman nor his helper were carrying any big floor-ripping or pipe cutting tools.

The only tool he had on him was a pair of channel-lock pliers. That, it turned out, was all he needed to fix the "major plumbing problem." He opened the radiator supply valve, then he put the pliers on the packing nut that sat immediately below the valve, and he tightened the nut.

The water stopped leaking from the valve. And the deep thump under the floor was silent. I was mortified. I had called a plumber to work on something that could be fixed with a lousy pair of pliers.

What was even more annoying for me was that I had tightened that very same nut a few days earlier. When I tightened the nut, the leak kept leaking. But when Coleman did it, the leak stopped.

"Plumber's touch," Coleman explained. "And," he added, "you have to turn clockwise," gently implying that I might have turned the nut in the wrong direction.

Since the leak was fixed so easily, I desperately looked around for a real plumber-caliber problem to justify his visit. I came up with one. Some of the other radiators on the top floor were not filling up with water.

Coleman checked my report out by "bleeding" the radiators, that is, opening a small valve at the ends of each radiator. When water did not come out of the valves, he knew something was wrong. Hot water radiators are supposed to be full of hot water.

While his assistant kept vigil by the radiators, Coleman went to the basement to work on the pipes near the boiler. He began working on a green, covered device, which I later learned was called the pressure-regulating valve. A home-repair book told me this, and the book also said it was a device that only skilled professionals should tinker with.

It turned out that our pressure-regulating valve wasn't working correctly. It was gummed up. That meant that another device, one that was supposed to add water into the system whenever the water level got low, wasn't working either.

Coleman took the pressure-regulating valve apart. He cleaned it. He put it back together. He got the water feeding the system again. When water began to come out of the bleeder valves on the top floor radiators, his assistant relayed the news to Coleman that the system was working correctly by banging on the pipes.

So the plumber's visit had a happy ending. In a strange way I was glad that the pressure-regulating valve malfunctioned. I told myself that fixing it was a true "plumber-caliber" problem.

I tried to overlook the fact that the tool he used to fix the pressure-regulating valve was a simple pair of pliers.

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