It's not just the labor. You're also paying for the know-how.

By: Steve Manes , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Home Improvement Tips, Old House Terminology, Technology

I had no plans for my basement shop last week so, being an animal lover, when Meredith from Mayor’s Alliance asked me if her organization could use my shop as a holding facility for a feral cat spay/neuter trap-and-release I agreed. You can read more about the Great Owls Head Cat Roundup on my blog. This story is about something broken in my house that I found because of it.

One of the trappers had inadvertently left the water running in my basement bathroom’s sink and caused a minor flood. She cleaned it up before telling me about it later. Of course, I had to inspect her work and make sure that nothing got drenched in the mechanicals room, which lives behind a door in that bathroom.

I saw that the floor was wet on the concrete slab under the boiler. That was odd because the slab is raised four inches above the bathroom floor. If the water had been that deep my basement would have been flooded. So I grabbed a spotlight and checked behind the boiler and found a very funky looking pool of water. From the look of the crud buildup it looked like the floor had been taking water for months, which was draining into a narrow crack in the floor. Great, just what I needed to bring the termites back!

The source of the water was a copper tube attached to the vent on a backflow prevention valve. There should never be any water in this pipe unless the street pressure drops enough to create a siphon effect. What it does is prevent the water in things like irrigation systems from dumping their contents back into the drinking supply. Water is dumped out the vent until the pressure equalizes.

In my case, that valve was protecting the house water supply from the steam boiler. It’s required by code here. But something had broken in the valve because there was a steady drip from that tube. And it might have been months before I’d found it if I hadn’t had a basement full of angry street cats waiting for the ASPCA spay/neuter van.

Replacing the valve was something well within my tyro plumbing skills but there were a few things about it that had red flags waving in my head, not the least of which was a gas line three inches from the valve. So I called my favorite Brooklyn plumbers, Sessa Plumbing. Richie is as close as one gets to being a plumbing geek. He even collects old plumbing. This would be child’s play for him.

Richie was on vacation but his main man arrived and began scoping the job. He inspected and inspected. I couldn’t tell if the look on his face meant that this job was over his head or there was something else wrong. Then he told me what had him concerned. The valve was installed in the wrong location. Where it was located, my kitchen water supply was downstream of the valve, with the boiler. In other words, any pressure drop in the street line could suck boiler water up into my kitchen faucet — which is exactly the situation that backflow preventer valves are intended to, well, prevent! Worse, since this valve was intended only to isolate the relatively undemanding water needs of a steam boiler it was probably the heavy use from the kitchen that accelerated the valve’s failure.

He asked me if I’d had problems with my kitchen water. In fact, I did when I moved in — enough that I installed a dual cartridge filter which had to be replaced at least twice a year.

$700 later, I had a new water prevention valve moved to the proper location. See, I told you these guys were expensive. But with Sessa, as with any first-rate contractor, you’re not just paying for labor but knowledge.

It’s like the old joke about the consultant who got a panicky call to fix a nuclear power plant that’s about to go critical. He calmly walked in, studied the flashing lights for a minute, strolled over to a panel full of switches and hit one. Everything went back to normal. Disaster averted! Back pats and congratulations all around! Then he handed them a bill for $10,000.

The boss exclaimed, “What? All you did was hit a switch!” The engineer replied, “Yes, but I’m only charging you a dollar for that. I’m charging you $9,999 for knowing which switch to hit.”

Sometime long ago, a previous owner probably hired the cheapest plumber he could find to install that valve. And he got what he paid for.