How to Avoid Being Hosed by Plumbers

Home ownership

We had a plan.

The turkey needed to be cleaned and dry brined. Broccoli casserole was to be assembled. The pecan pie, spice cake and other desserts could all be made ahead of the culinary Super Bowl.

Taking a shower and discovering water with what I hoped was soil particles bubbling up from underneath a toilet bowl was nowhere on that to-do list.

Growing up, I always wanted to have a house with stairs. Maybe I had some secret penchant to possess a chair lift in my elderly years. Look how happy this guy is. Practically ebullient. “Look at my silly granddaughter in her aspirational Catholic school uniform wanting to ride on my chair lift.” He looks perfectly mobile and I suspect he had this installed purely as a display of wealth, much like his European scarf.

chair lift

Since moving in three months ago, I have played every new home buyers favorite game, “What’s That Noise?” Never having lived someplace with a sump pump, most of my paranoia is connected to basement flooding and what timbre of gurgling is normal. The snow from a week ago has been steadily melting, which initially delighted me in that I wouldn’t have to shovel the rest of my driveway before company comes on Friday for Friendsgiving. The disappearing snow wasn’t evaporating into the ether, like snow should. It was melting into the ground like rain water would. Note: These are all things I never cared about prior to owning a home. All of this melty melty was leading water into the drainage system.

For those that haven’t experienced life with a sump pump, it sounds like an industrial strength toilet being flushed or an unctuous gremlin regurgitating his lunch while demanding more. The gremlin was flushing more than that time I drank all the liquors at the University of Illinois. I worked from home yesterday and was wrapping up around 2:30. After shutting down, I checked the lower level of my house of carbs while vacuuming. The water was going down in the gremlin pit and promptly refilling. I finished vacuuming, started a load of laundry and hopped in the shower.

When I came out of the shower and went to check on my wash, I noticed pooling water with “soil particles” (pending lab results) in my downstairs bathroom. The water was spewing out from the bolt under the toilet like a water fountain. I grabbed my mop and bucket and started trying to clean it up. I asked my girlfriend to call her dad. The man knows everything when it comes to home and auto repair. He suggested it could be the ejector pump and to call a plumber.

I had a plumber clean out a drain a few weeks ago, so I called them. Meanwhile, my girlfriend and I alternated sopping up the mess with the mop and the towels you use put don’t put out when you have company. The plumbers arrived in about 20 minutes and I showed them where the water was coming out and the mechanical room with the sump pump.

Living in a house requires you know words and names for things. While my house vocabulary is rapidly growing, I might not have passed an entrance exam if I had to identify an ejector pit. When I call maintenance people I often use “thing” as my catchall. It works better in person than on the phone because I point at the “things.” The plumbers assessed the situation, asked if the house had a clean out. I said I didn’t know and that I recently moved in. When he saw the water in the mechanical room, it appeared to be leaking from the “main stack.” I associate stacks to pancakes, not plumbing.

This leaking was a serious issue.

“Ninety percent of the time leaking here means the connection of your cast iron pipe that leaves your house and connects to clay has broken.”

I may not know some of the words he used, but I do know math and that 90% isn’t great unless it’s your grade for an exam you didn’t study for. He went on to explain that would require digging up the lawn and putting in new pipe and it would be very expensive. Avoiding using a bathroom is very difficult when you have soiled yourself.

They grabbed towels and buckets from their van and opened the main sewer cap. Water started trickling out of the cap as he slowly loosened it. He said the water could shoot out and to put down towels. I feared a scene from [insert topical movie reference here] where I would be flung against the wall by the gushing water.

Fearing I was about to be hosed, I called another plumber. The previous inhabitant left cards and flyers for the people that serviced the home. I explained what was happening to this plumber and he expressed confusion as to why they would take off the cap for the main line. Running up and down the stairs to talk to the plumbers made me rethink that childhood desire to have stairs. While one plumber was draining the main pipe, I tried to find the clean out outside with the other plumber. We found a cap in the driveway.

I came back inside to call the plumber who serviced the home. He said all that needed to be done was to rod the clean out. I asked where that was and what it looks like. Thankfully he remembered where it was. I hung up with him and by that time the guys had confirmed the cap outside was the clean out and attempted loosening it. It wouldn’t budge, so they had to break it. Meanwhile, my basement had an open pipe with water steadily flowing from the pipe to the bucket beneath it. That bucket was full and now overflowing into the sump pit.

If you can’t spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker?

Rounders

I fear that I am that sucker when it comes to home repair. Calling parts “things” is a good tip off to someone that I have nearly zero clue what’s going on. Beyond that, I don’t like thinking that someone could take advantage of me, the resident idiot. Whenever there is a knowledge gap–plumbing, medicine, automotive, language barrier–there’s an opportunity to deceive. As TV taught us, knowledge is power. So the best thing I can do is get some flash cards and build up my house vocabulary.

The plumbers rodded out the pipe and cleared the blockage. I’ll need to re-seal the toilet at some point. Instead of thousands of dollars, the damage was only $75 and a few years less of using a motorized chair lift. I paid them and avoided telling them to keep the change.

Yesterday I was the 10% that didn’t need his yard dug up and new pipes installed. For that, I will be extremely grateful.

How to Avoid Being Hosed by a Plumber

  1. Get a recommendation. Ask a neighbor or family member. Randomly calling a company isn’t the best bet.
  2. If you can, get a second opinion or find a knowledgeable person to ask.
  3. Trust your instincts. If something sounds more severe than you think it should be, say so.
  4. I always try to watch what people are doing to learn how to do the task if I need to in the future. Plus, it shows you care what is happening.
  • I used to drive a tow truck … is a statement that’d have a bigger impact if you knew me. I’m not handy around cars. One thing I learned is to start right out by fessing up to knowing nothing, and then casually muster up some interest and ask lots of questions. There’s an art to it. You don’t want to come off as suspicious. You want to come off as someone who is awe of a guy who can tell if you’re blown a gasket. (Not in the crazy sense – I think every fully gets it when I’ve blown THAT gasket.) If you can capture that I-wish-I-knew-that-kind-of-stuff attitude, most people love explaining things to you. Along the way, it becomes more-or-less apparent when someone’s trying to pull one over on you.
    I love the way you write!

    • Andrew Ledet

      Thanks for reading, Jeff! I had a similar situation at the hardware store trying to rent an air compressor. Sometimes the town idiot gets some pity. Other times, taken.