House Full of Zebras

Victorian House

I’ll bet it even comes with its own ghost.

My dream house kind of looks like that beauty up there. Look at those balconies. There’s a turret. The big windows, the wide front porch…and even solar panels! (The owner is green!) I can’t see the inside, but I can guarantee that there’s a back staircase, wood floors, a fireplace in every bedroom, weird little closets and nooks and crannies, and claw-foot bathtubs. And if we lived there, one day Mini-Me would be fiddling around with her bedroom fireplace and a brick would become dislodged, and she would remove it and find the secret compartment where a young woman of the North had concealed her tragic Civil War diary, along with a locket given to her by her lover, a soldier for the Confederate cause. Pardon me while I take a minute to swoon.

Anyway. We don’t actually live in a 150-year-old house. In fact, our house is about 65 years old, one of a series of tract houses thrown up in the late 1940s to accommodate soldiers returning from World War II. A previous owner was a do-it-yourself sort who single-handedly put up an extensive addition, including a master bedroom and bath and an enormous kitchen. In theory, I am in awe of his undeniable skill. In practice, it means that if the house is 65 years old, then the addition is maybe 35 years old, and things are wearing out and breaking down, one at a time. Basically, our house has all of the Issues but none of the charm of a Dream House.

So stuff is falling apart in our house on a fairly regular basis, but here’s the thing — it is always something weird. You know how you go in for medical tests and you’re always worried that you have Von Schnitzelhauffer’s Disease or some other rare, fatal thing you read about on the Internet, and the doctor piously intones “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras,” and sure enough it turns out that rather than some rare fatal malady, you actually have pinkeye? Out here, the horses left the barn 20 years ago. It is always a zebra.

Illustrative Examples:

Some years back, the sink faucet in the master bathroom was dripping. Nothing big — just a nice, steady drip. Day and night. Drip, drip, drip. Now, we could have called a plumber, but the Reader’s Digest New Fix-It-Yourself Manual assured me that I could save the money and fix it myself! The problem was almost certainly, according to the RDNF-I-YM, a seat washer.

A what?

I’m so glad you asked. The scoop: A faucet has a whole apparatus that you don’t usually see — it’s all beneath the surface, as it were. It consists of a stem that has a bunch of hardware on it, including a little object called a valve seat. Sitting atop the valve seat is a seat washer, which can wear out over time, causing leakage and, yes, dripping. The RDNF-I-YM made replacing a defective seat washer sound like a lark, a piece of cake, a walk in the park, so armed with my copy of the RDNF-I-YM and a smile, I trekked over to the local Home Depot and came out half an hour later with a 50-cent seat washer in my purse. Boy, did I feel smug.

Faucet mechanism

Where else but this very blog  can you find Irish music, romance novels, and plumbing, too?

And you know, fixing it wasn’t that hard at all. I was feeling pretty darn good about myself until I turned the water back on and found that the faucet was now dripping approximately twice as hard and twice as fast as it had been before.

“Hmm,” I mused. I turned the water back off and went back to the Home Depot and picked up a slightly larger seat washer. There was maybe a little less swagger in my step as I went back home and tried again. This time, the drip had turned into a steady trickle of water.

“How odd,” I remarked. I took the thing out, adjusted it, tried again. No joy. In desperation, I replaced the original seat washer on the stem. The trickle became a veritable gush.

At that point, I decided it was time to call in the cavalry in the form of a licensed professional. A plumber was summoned. He took one look at the various parts and pieces spread around the bathroom — like Frankenstein anesthetized upon a table, to paraphrase one of the greats — and picked up a small object. It was the valve seat itself, and it had a nice fat crack in it.

“Oh,” I said. Basically, I could have spent all afternoon, and in fact did spend all afternoon, switching out seat washers, and it wouldn’t have made a blessed bit of difference. Live and learn.

After that rather painful initiation to the art and science of plumbing, I went on to become, if not an expert, at least minimally competent at small-scale stuff like flapper replacement and so forth. In a moment of great triumph, I even successfully replaced the fill valve (the doodad that regulates water flow in the tank) in the Master Bath. So of course, when our upstairs toilet began to run, I knew exactly what to do.

By way of clarification, I should mention that we have three bathrooms in our house. Bathroom #1 is original to the house; we call it the Blue Bathroom. The Master Bath was added by Owner #2; that’s where I learned all about seat washers vs. valve seats. And then there’s the Upstairs Bathroom, also added by the previous owner; it’s a dark, nasty little cave, reeking of cat pee. Still, it’s a functional toilet.

Or, I should say, it was a functional toilet.

Anyway, it was running, so I did what any reasonable person would do and replaced the flapper. That didn’t fix the problem, so I decided it was time for a new fill valve.

Fluidmaster Universal Toilet Fill Valve

This is really a very easy fix. Really.

No problem! A toilet fill valve, for those of you who have sailed through life blissfully unknowing, is the “#1 Solution To Fix Noisy Toilets.” It says so right there on the box! EASY INSTALL! — it screams in big white letters. “Install with confidence. Installs in 15 minutes.”

I installed with confidence. It took about 15 minutes. Awesome! I gave the restored toilet a few experimental flushes and was about to strut downstairs and brag when I realized the floor was wet. Also, the toilet was still running, but at this point that was the least of my worries.

“Goodness gracious,” I said. I fiddled with the valve, I fiddled with the line, and then I noticed that water was leaking out of the spot where the water line went into the wall. “Well, that won’t do,” I observed.

I went downstairs to share my observations with the Handsome Husband and suggest that we might want to bring in the experts soon rather than late. While I was explaining what had happened, Mini-Me’s voice floated out from the Blue Bathroom: “Why is the ceiling dripping?”

“Heavens!” I exclaimed, and ran to shut off water to the house and call the plumber. But our regular plumber was not answering their business or emergency lines — did I mention that all this went down over a holiday weekend? — so I frantically googled “Plumbers open on Sunday” and ended up calling an outfit called The Plumbing Doctor.

I liked The Plumbing Doctor. All their experts are addressed as Dr. So-and-So, which, on one hand, that’s how you know we’re in the DC area — even the plumbers are “Doctor;” but on the other hand, I like it, because they’re certainly more expert than I am and it’s always a little weird when the plumber comes in all “Good afternoon, ma’am! I’m Mike,” and in any case I would have happily addressed our guy — Dr. Manning — as Your Most Awful and Serene Imperial Highness if it meant that I was going to be able to take a shower that night.

Dr. Manning fiddled with the toilet for a few minutes and then informed me that a new fill valve was never going to stop that toilet from running. Apparently: a) It’s an old toilet (Fun fact: If you remove the lid from the tank, you can usually see the toilet’s date of manufacture stamped inside. Ours said 1948.) b) It’s an American “Standard,” which, name notwithstanding, uses unique parts that are hard to get. c) The underlying problem was neither the flapper nor the fill valve. (Thanks, Fluidmaster!) It was the “gasket.” It might be possible to replace the “gasket,” but “gaskets” for Truman-era toilets are increasingly difficult to come by. Dr. Manning finished by “strongly recommending” that we replace the thing altogether.

I was like, “Mon ostie de saint-sacrament de câlice de crisse! VAS T’ENCULER, OLD TOILET!!!”

No, what I actually said was, “That’s very interesting. Since it is now 9 o’clock on Sunday night, is there a temporary fix that will stop the drip into our downstairs bathroom?”

There was. Dr. Manning capped off the water line, and now we have a pee-reeking storage closet with a sculpture in the shape of a 1940s American Standard toilet where our Upstairs Bathroom used to be. I should paint the thing and fill it with flowers:

Toilet Full of Flowers

And why not?

And why not? I used to think I wanted to live in an old house, but it wasn’t until we bought our Money Pit that I realized what I really wanted was a beautiful house, an interesting house, and a house with character. Oh, and working toilets would be nice. And character doesn’t just happen — it’s built gradually, one eccentric decision at a time.

And if the house looks like this — well, all the better.

Another Victorian

That round window tho

Get out your tools, Handsome Husband! We have a new planter to decorate!

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