Plumbing Repairs Require Good Communications

Scott Gibson

Our first house was a tiny summer cottage we turned into a tiny year-round home. The original bathroom was a broom closet in which the original owners had installed a toilet. There was no sink and no shower, and the space was so cramped that it was impossible to close the door while using the toilet because the door ran into your knees before it could latch.

We decided the first priority was to build an addition for a real bathroom with a shower and a sink as well as a toilet. This took some time, but eventually we were down to the final plumbing hookups--running new water supply lines and connecting the waste line for the toilet.

It so happened that my wife's parents were visiting on the weekend I planned to complete the work.

After breakfast I got to work. The water supply lines were a snap. The toilet was a little more complicated. For obvious reasons, the old one had been kept operational while we built the new one. To complete the transition, I had to disconnect the waste line from the old toilet and connect a waste line for the new toilet.

This would require a brief period in which no toilet would be available. But the whole process shouldn't have taken more than a half-hour, tops. I'd already roughed in most of the line, and it wouldn't take long to cut the PVC line and glue in the new connections.

I explained this carefully and slowly to my wife's parents. No big deal. My father-in-law got it. My mother-in-law nodded her head. Gotcha, she said.

I gave everyone in the house plenty of warning, singing out the one-hour warning, the half-hour warning, the 15-minute warning.

And as the appointed hour struck, I made one last check with everyone.

"Remember, no toilet until I give you the signal, OK?"

"No problem!"

One thing about old summer cottages is they don't give you a lot of room to work on plumbing. The building was up on cedar posts (many of them rotten, I noticed), and the ground was uneven. Up at the far end of the house, where the new bathroom had been constructed, I had less than a foot of room between the ground and the bottom of the floor joists.

Farther down the slope, there was more headroom. But not a lot more. I had to crawl into the work area on my stomach, pushing my tools in front of me. It was a little snug, but manageable. Once everything was in place I got to work.

First, cut the old line with a hack saw. Easy. Next, glue in a straight connector. Done. Last, connect the waste line from the new toilet.

It was this last part, something that should have taken five minutes, where things started to go wrong. As I was making the last measurements, cleaning and priming the end of the PVC pipe and getting ready to put the whole thing together I heard something troubling in the distance.

It was the unmistakable sound of a toilet being flushed.

For whatever the reason, my mother-in-law had momentarily forgotten our earlier conversation and decided to use the bathroom.

The open waste line next to my right ear was like an old fashioned ear horn. I heard the water rushing down the pipe. There was nothing to do but get out of the way as fast as humanly possible, and I rolled away, banging elbows, knees and forehead on low-lying joists as I went.

I just made it.

I gave it a couple of minutes, carefully approached the scene of the crime and completed the connection. When I re-emerged from beneath the house, we had a new toilet, and I had a new appreciation for always expecting the unexpected. That plus an undying resistance to plumbing repairs.


See a full list of Scott's how-to columns at Old House Questions and Answers.

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