Death by Plumbing


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Dateline: At the intersection of leaky old plumbing and a high tech disaster

Clogged artery

If you had told me a year ago, “Kim, in the next year, plumbing will become one of the biggest challenges in your life,” I’d have laughed myself silly. Right? Plumbing? Seriously dude? Not only have I done plumbing before, but residential plumbing just isn’t that difficult. Especially if you’re just basically replacing what’s already there.

Oh, how wrong I was! Plumbing has become my friggin’ NEMESIS!

Let’s start with the obvious. I’m remodeling a brick and concrete house. Whoever built this house thought that it was a good idea to embed piping with an expected lifespan of, oh maybe 70-80 years, into concrete and inside brick load-bearing walls. Well, you ain’t gonna replace those without some serious work and possibly structural risk. So that’s challenge number one.

What I’m trying to save. Back wall shows original tile. Foreground, side of tub is “new” tile

Number two? I basically bought this house because it has a beautiful, Art Deco main bathroom. At least partly. Now the bathroom isn’t entirely original, but it’s close. Someone before me faced the same problem of aging pipes, and didn’t handle it all that gracefully. There’s a clunky replacement of the valves for the tub/shower, and the spout has an inch-and-a-half gap between it and the wall. It’s not original and it looks decidedly unprofessional. There’s also an odd little platform, about six inches high next to the tub. This, along with some areas under the sink, and the tiles next to the tub faucet have what we’ll call “new” tiles. I don’t know when this work was done, but I’m guessing some time in the 1980s, maybe. While the “new” tiles aren’t an exact match at all, they are the right size, 15×15 cm, about six and a half inches square. They’re sky blue, and look OK where they are.

Tub faucets aren’t going to win any beauty pageants

So what’s the problem, Kim? Well, I need to get at the tub faucet plumbing to replace it. It’s old, and it doesn’t provide much water flow. I measured the flow last week, and it comes to something like 4-5 liters per minute, about 1 – 1½ GPM. Or, in normal English, “not enough to fill the tub before the water gets cold.” So I need to replace the faucet, but to do that I need to break some tiles. And the real problem is that they don’t make single-color, 15x15cm tiles any more. Oh, you can go to stores that have displays of them. They won’t tell you they have them. But they will tell you that they are “old stock,” and that they’ll have to do some research to find them. Weeks go by. Uncertainty increases. And in the end? Either you get no answer at all, either yes or no on tile availability. Or they stop answering your messages. Or they’re still checking. So far I have yet to get either a definitive “no” or “yes” as to the availability of such tiles. I’m starting to assume that “no” is the right answer. Sadly.

I could buy newer, solid-color tiles and cut them to size, which is increasingly looking like the go-to solution. Even though I don’t really like it. Or I could do something else like install something completely different on just that side of the tub. None of these is appealing, and it’s embarrassing to admit, but this question has become an obsession, a stumbling block holding up progress for some time. I don’t like any of the options, so I’m kind of stuck. Maybe a pressure pump will solve the flow problem, and what’s there might just hold up? All of this is my own mental problem, but it’s a real problem. Unfortunately, it’s far from either the only problem, or even the main problem.

So what else could go wrong with plumbing? Oh we’ve only just begun. (Cue Karen Carpenter.) So obviously I was going to need a plumber. Despite having spent a good two months asking my electrician almost daily if he could put me in contact with some of his plumber buddies, that well came up dry, so to speak. So I asked Julio, who provided me with a name of a plumber he had known for a long time. “But I’m warning you, he’s incredibly casual, will almost certainly be late, but he does good plumbing.” José came over (two hours late), and spent 45 minutes with me as I explained the labyrinthine plumbing system and what I wanted. “Well, you’re going to have to replace all the drains too,” he said. (I had been hoping to just replace the water pipes.) “They’re going to be rusty and you don’t want to remodel everything just to have them start leaking six months from now. And you’re going to have to find someone to break up the floor to get at them because I don’t do that. And it’s not going to be included in my quote.”

“Well, maybe you know someone who can do this? I’ve got to imagine this isn’t the first time you’ve had a job requiring this?” I somewhat hesitantly suggested.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he replied.

This was just before I took advantage of a break in the work and went to Ajijic to see my mother. About a week later, I hadn’t heard anything, and I was back in CDMX. I messaged José, “Are you still interested in my project? Do you want to make me a quote?”

“Oh, sure” he replied. And then texted me an insanely expensive quote per bathroom, plus extra for the main bathroom, and a quote for the kitchen. Talk about the Gringo price! This was the Gringo price and then some. No mention was made of the rest of the plumbing, installation of a water heater, or any of the other myriad details that needed to be managed. I was pissed off. Not only was the quote very high, but it was so vague that you could drive a truck through all the places where he’d easily be able to say later that something necessary wasn’t part of the bid and that he’d have to charge me even more. Frankly, it seemed like it’d have been a better bet to call one of the drug cartels to do my plumbing. Oh, and as I later found out, it wasn’t even necessary to replace the drains. The ones in the main bath are copper and in fine condition. And the other ones are also in fine shape. So not only was José expensive, he had suggested a lot of work that I just didn’t even need.

At that point I seriously contemplated doing it myself. While I’m not a professional plumber, what I am is someone who’s careful, who reads the documentation, and someone who holds himself to a high standard whenever I do something. Sure, if I did it, it’d take a long time. But I’d also feel pretty confident that it was done correctly. So I began to doing research and drawing up a plumbing plan. I discovered “TuboPlus,” a plastic pipe product (PPR, for you plumbing connoisseurs) from RotoPlas that seemed to have a lot of advantages over copper. I downloaded and read the 70-page technical manual on it. The more I read, the more advantages it seemed to have. To join it, you basically melt both ends with a special “Thermofusor” and then just stick them together. The stuff is supposed to last over 100 years at normal household pressures and temperatures. I couldn’t find anything bad online about it, except that if you don’t know what you’re doing and overheat the connections, you could block the pipe. This is a newbie error, and several plumbers had personally told me they thought it was a good product. Plus it’s less than a third the cost of copper, and it keeps the hot water hot to boot.

Anyway, learning about TuboPlus and drawing up the plumbing plan ended up taking rather a long time. There were also still a few mysteries to sort out about the existing plumbing. Meanwhile, a rare ray of sunshine poked through the dismal plumbing clouds. Antonio, my electrician, messaged me and asked if I still needed a plumber. “Yes!!!!!” I replied enthusiastically. Turns out his brother, David, is a plumber but had been working in Monterrey and was only just back. Not only was I thrilled to have a plumber just show up. But trust is a particularly important thing here. You can’t just hire some guy off the street. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about unvetted people showing up who then steal things, come back later with their gangster friends and hold you up, or other horrors. So the fact that David was part of the electrician’s family gave me great comfort. Not only does Antonio do good work, but much of his family was involved with my electrical project and they were all honest, hard-working people. Good folk. I was immensely relieved to have David available to do the work, and Antonio would be his helper. After looking over the plumbing, David swiftly sent me a quote which struck me as entirely reasonable.

As it turns out, the light at the end of the tunnel was actually an oncoming train. I was about to be flattened. Have you ever ordered parts for a plumbing job? Well, let me tell you, it’s a lot harder than electrical. Why? In short, wire bends around corners. You can easily connect any wire to any other wire or accessory (plug, light socket, etc). Plumbing? Not so fast, fella! With plumbing, you need to map out every single stretch of pipe plus count how many 90° bends, 45° bends, where the pipe goes from ¾” to ½”, etc. Conceptualizing all of this and then turning it into a shopping list took an embarrassingly long amount of time.

But by September 20th, I had made an online order at Home Depot. It contained about 35 different items, from elbows, to valves, to lengths of tubing in various sizes, some tools I’d need, etc. Just entering all of this onto the Home Depot Mexico website took quite a while. Unlike in the USA, the Home Depot Mexico website is a disaster. Not only does it load very (very!) slowly most of the time, but the descriptions of items appear to have been written by an imbecile with a degree in marketing. Like take a plumbing “T.” If you want one of these, you already know what it does. And it doesn’t matter what brand it is or what color it is. Sure, you want to know the material, but they all do the same thing, e.g., divert water 90° out from the main flow. What’s important is what size each opening is, and the material. So is that what’s in Home Depot’s site? Well, sort of. But they include a long, wordy description of what a “T” does, and then tell you the size. Sort of. Some of their sizes are in millimeters, which is the standard here. Others use weird fractions of inches, like 25/32”. Others are unclear about which hole is what size, and there’s no diagram nor measurements. Sometimes they give you inner diameters (which is what’s important) and other times outer diameters. Figuring out whether the pictured item is what you want becomes a sort of detective job. So just entering my online order proved to be surprisingly difficult.

But I finally prevailed, and the website said my order would arrive on the 23rd. I messaged David, who was eager to start. “Home Depot says the products will come on Friday, but I’m hoping it might be Thursday because they often can do it in only 2 days. I’ll message you to confirm when they’ve confirmed the order.” I had actually had good luck with the Home Depot website during my electrical work, so I figured I’d get my order quickly.

When Friday morning rolled around, I got an e-mail from Home Depot. “Your delivery has been rescheduled. See the e-mail below with the new date.” Now the delivery was supposed to come on the 28th, Wednesday of the next week. I messaged David, “I’m so sorry. This is out of my hands. We can’t really start without any materials.” He agreed and I figured I’d have to wait. Meanwhile I finally solved the last mystery of my plumbing system, namely where the cold water in the main bathroom comes from. There’s a separate pipe running down inside the house from the tinaco. Weird, but at least I understood.

So finally, yesterday, the promised delivery date came. My project would finally (finally!) be able to start. I got up early and checked my Home Depot account. There was no indication on it that a delivery was imminent. But, I hadn’t gotten an e-mail either saying that the delivery would be delayed. So I figured I’d contact Home Depot. They told me, “Yes, you are scheduled for delivery today.” So I went to wait at the house. Since it could be all day, I brought my laptop, phone, and some notepads. I figured I’d try to track down some of the inconsistencies in my floorplans and make notes on other things.

I got to the house around 9:00 as the odds of an early delivery were close to nil. I set up my computer and started to work. And I waited. And waited and waited. I pasted a note on the door saying, “Home Depot, I’m here. If I don’t answer knock loudly. Be persistent.”  By early afternoon, I began to get hungry. Finally, by about three, I checked my e-mail. There it was! An e-mail from Home Depot, sent about a quarter to twelve. “Your delivery has been rescheduled for October 1.”

October friggin’ first?!?!  Needless to say, I was furious. And starving. I hadn’t dared to leave to get lunch and had been too stupid to pack one. I folded up camp and went back to my apartment. Once there, I looked closely at my Home Depot account. There I noticed that the status of my order was only on the second step, and it said it was “validating my order.” What it wasn’t saying was that the order was being processed or readied for shipment. I began to wonder if I had been held up by some kind of computer glitch. I checked my PayPal account, and indeed the charge had gone through.

So I figured I’d just have to contact Home Depot, explain the situation, and they’d de-glitch their computer, and maybe, just maybe, be able to ship the stuff Thursday. (Today).

Ha! I spent a long time on a chat with a Home Depot representative who proved to be UTTERLY useless. “Your order is scheduled to go out on October first” she said. “I know; That’s what my account page on your website says. But I want you to do something to get this out faster. There’s nothing special in this order; it’s just garden variety plumbing supplies that are in stock at all your stores.” We went back and forth for nearly an hour. The best she could do was report my problem to someone else who might or might not look into it. As it turns out, I canceled the order since she didn’t give me much faith that anyone would be able to figure out why it had been held up. I signed off in a huff. What I really wanted was my order, not to start over. But I figured starting over would likely be faster in the end since Home Depot didn’t even seem to know what the problem was.

I was tempted to drive my car to the nearest Home Depot right then. But it was rush hour. And the entire reason I didn’t do this in the first place is that the pipe comes in 4 meter lengths, or about 13 feet. That means that I’d have about 6 feet of pipe sticking out of my sunroof while driving. I didn’t relish the thought. Would that attract police attention? Might I whack it on low-hanging trees? Hit something to the side while making a turn? The entire idea of driving with these enormous pipes sticking out of my sunroof through traffic-ridden Mexico City gave me the willies.

After sleeping on it, this morning I figured I’d give it another go on and just hope for the best. So what happened this morning? Their website is down.

Oh, and there’s no hot water in my apartment this morning either. As for me? I’m looking for a therapist who specializes in plumbing-related mental disorders.