January 2004

Visions of perfect plumbing prove to be pipe dreams

By David Feela

As the snow begins its accumulation in the mountains, most of us stop fretting over how much water will be available for the coming year. Snowpack stands as a fairly reliable yardstick to measure what conditions the summer will bring. Of course, for quite a few years not much of the white stuff has reached the ground in Cortez. That’s why we stare at the mountains, as if pure longing could bring the snow to town.

And that’s also why last December (three days before Christmas) my wife and I became anxious, but it wasn’t mountains that piqued our interest. No, the Montezuma Water Company informed us that our meter reading increased from the usual 6,000 gallons per month to over 17,000 gallons.

Naturally, we raised our eyebrows at such a wanton waste o f water. I mean, this was considerably more than our recommended eight glasses of water per day. If sugarplum fairies are said to flit around during the Christmas season, I can assure you that plumbers do not. Exactly two years before this water problem, we replaced a defective frostfree pump at the corner of our house. By “we” I mean that I called a plumber. And the best advice I can offer about finding a good plumber is that a plumber’s penchant for the size of his ad in the Yellow Pages does not always amount to a passion for pipes.

The plumber I’m referring to arrived two days after my call and offered to replace the pump once we had excavated the earth that surrounded it. For those of you who struggle like I do to understand plumber’s talk, the “we” he used didn’t include him either. At the time I mistakenly concluded he was offering us a chance to save money through an informal apprenticeship. I also supposed he had some last-minute Christmas shopping to finish and like Scrooge I had called him to work while he should have been home with his family. As he drove away for supplies, I grabbed my shovel and started digging.

I still can’t explain why I phoned the same plumber two years later after the water company called. Maybe I thought he’d remember us, be prompt, reasonable, and above all, arrive filled with goodwill for the work I’d done the last time he showed up so close to the holidays.

After peeking under the house, walking around the yard, and concluding that he didn’t see any spot where the waterline might be broken, he told us that if we figured out where the leak actually was, to be sure to call him, as he’d do the work “real cheap.” Then he handed us a bill for his standard $50 consultation fee and wished us a Merry Christmas.

I didn’t know what to do. That night I really did have pipe dreams, punctuated with geysers springing from each of the four corners of my sleep. Not only did we have a serious plumbing problem, but gallons of that precious stuff called cash kept seeping out of our bank account every day we did nothing to resolve the dilemma. The water company assured me that the leak was on my side of their meter, which meant “we” didn’t have a problem, I had the problem.

After the holidays they kindly offered to send a man around with a top-secret tool to divine the whereabouts of my leak, but until then they hoped I’d have a Merry Christmas.

So the next morning I returned to the Yellow Pages to locate another plumber. The new man came out just before sunset with a partner, walked around the yard, then asked if I had a frost-free pump on the property. I showed him the pump at the corner of the house and told him it was practically new. He pressed his ear to the pipe, as if he was listening for a train. Then he called his partner over; he did the same. “Yup” his partner replied, “there’s a river running down there.”

The new plumber arrived the following morning without his partner, who didn’t work weekends, but he got right to work. He’d rented a tiny backhoe to break through the frozen layer of topsoil and clear the muck away, so I got my boots and went out to help. Part of me was convinced that after the plumber had realized his own error about the location of the leak, we could get around to solving the actual problem. After all, I’d paid good money for the frost-free pump we were digging up, and now I was digging it up again.

But when he showed me how the fitting placed at the bottom shouldn’t be used for plumbing because black pipe rusts, and after he pointed out the difference in thickness between good PVC and the “cheap” PVC the previous plumber had used, I knew my faith in plumbers had been misplaced. He turned the water back on, checked for leaks, then backfilled the hole.

Last Christmas we celebrated the arrival of a real plumber. This year from my front porch I can see snow on Hesperus Peak that will eventually make its way down to irrigate my brown lawn. I’ve stopped making lists and checking them twice, because no matter what shape the economy is said to be in, at least my liquid assets are secured for one more winter’s night.

Dave Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.