Sleuthing Out a “Plumbing Problem”
This is the story of some troubleshooting I was called to do. A tenant had complained to the local health department about his landlord. I was asked to investigate and then write up a report for the health department. Following is the essence of what I wrote up. It’s not quite a murder mystery, but getting there.
On October 20 I received a call from the Landlord to investigate water problems in his rental downstairs. In my work, I troubleshoot plumbing problems. Also, I occasionally teach classes that include how to troubleshoot. On arriving and talking to the tenant, I was told the sewer had backed up and flooded part of his apartment. What I discovered on investigation, however, suggested a fresh water leak.
The only suspect source of sewage would be from a floor drain in a utility area next to and lower than the apartment floor. In this area is a gas fired water heater. For sewage to flow into the living area it would have needed to rise high enough to soak the insulation in the heater and extinguish the pilot light. Neither of these things happened. There was also no odor or discoloration as one would find with a recently backed up sewer. There clearly had been a quantity of water in the apartment. The toilet flush lever had been snapped off. To operate the toilet, people had been reaching into the tank to lift the flapper. The lid to the tank was in a trash can rather than on the tank. Also, a string had been temporarily tied to the flapper to lift it, but had come loose. I found the base of the fill valve was wrapped in green electrical tape and the valve was not straight as it should be in the tank, but tilting off to the side. Additionally, a hairline crack was found in the base of the valve. Directly above the fill valve, a hole roughly a foot and a half in diameter was in the plaster ceiling. This hole was under a toilet upstairs, but I found no evidence of that toilet leaking recently and learned that the upstairs was unoccupied and locked during the time of this incident. It was found by looking at the water meter, that substantially more water had been used for the billing period than would be normal. Taking into account that the Landlord had been gone much of that time, the usage should have been less.
Putting all these pieces together I’ll suggest that what really happened is this: The plastic toilet flush lever was snapped off. The tenant, or a friend of his rigged up a string to operate the toilet. Either in working with that string or in reaching down to the flapper once the string had let go, the tenant or a friend cracked or otherwise damaged the fill valve. It let go and sprayed a jet of water up into the ceiling of the bathroom until someone noticed and shut off the water. Excess water flowed to the drain in the utility area. The fill valve was then “repaired” with green electrical tape.
It is outside of my expertise to speculate on why I was told this was a sewer leak when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise, but I hope this helps you to reach a just conclusion.
I later learned that the tenant had not paid rent for some time and had attempted, in various ways to get local government to find fault with the Landlord for improper maintenance of the property, claiming it to be unsafe. Ultimately, no fault was attributed to the landlord, but this experience caused him to stop renting the apartment in an area that has long had a housing shortage. The only moral to this story that comes to mind is to perform a very thorough background check on anyone before handing the keys over to your rental. I suppose you could add that “facts speak louder than words”.
I have a Friend…
...who just loves to call me when there is some strange hot water problem to troubleshoot. Fortunately, we always seem to find answers. Sometimes troubleshooting involves finding what isn’t there, because simply noting what is there doesn’t really give you enough clues about what’s wrong. Sherlock would be proud!
That’s sort of what one of his jobs was like a while back. Sometimes the pump moved water. Other times it didn’t. Was it in the controls, or out in the piping, or? It looked like an air trap, so we fixed the piping to eliminate that… no luck. We tried bypassing controls… no change. We took things apart and flushed out all the piping, one piece at a time. It seemed to work and then it didn’t! The final bit of work gave us a useful clue. It worked fine with cold water, but when it got hot, it quit. Ahhh! It must be a thermostatic element in the piping. Close, but not quite right. It turned out the wrong type of element had been installed for this particular use.
They didn’t even have all these different types of thermostatic elements when I was out there every day, putting this stuff in. But things change. That’s a given. What was demonstrated on this job was when you eliminate all other possibilities, the problem is left there alone in the lineup, staring back at you. It had looked like some soft rubber had gotten into the line because when the pump didn’t work, water could still flow under street pressure, but the small pressure the pump created couldn’t move water. Flushing the pipes was the only way to be sure that wasn’t the case, or if it was, the rubber or whatever would have been flushed out.
This story reminds me why I’m a fan of simplicity, who is our friend. Complexity is not our friend when it comes to plumbing or buildings! It confounds and confuses us. It uses its tricks to deceive, and we don’t know what all of those tricks are. It seems to take pleasure in doing these things at the worst possible times, so they’ll cause the greatest disruption.
Just to be clear, the number of possible interactions increases as the square of the number of parts. One part = one action. Two parts = four. Three parts = nine interactions and so on. Then throw in time for corrosion and wear to happen, water hardness, user mistreatment or neglect, someone turning a wrench who should have been in a completely different line of work, and you begin to get a picture of why I like simple. Elegant simplicity is even better, but harder to reach.
My friend keeps me on my toes, and I’m grateful for that, even if I have to get out the oilcan and lube my brain occasionally.
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.