Showing My Love by Fixing a Broken Water Pipe

By Cam Mather

Ever lay in bed worrying that one of your water pipes might burst? And if it did, what you’d do about it? I do. Guess I’m just a worrier. But the upside to this is that I have a backup plan when it does happen. I believe that being prepared for this potentiality in fact decreases the likelihood of it happening.

That said, a water pipe burst here last night. I love our house. It was built in 1888 and I believe it will be around centuries longer than the houses that were built after World War II when energy was really cheap and we needed lots of houses, fast. Our house isn’t perfect, but it’s solid. One of the weaker areas is the plumbing, which has been cobbled together over the years. There’s even a pipe that I’ve been meaning to replace that is located flush against an outside wall. Really! It is right next to the concrete and it freezes anytime the temperature goes below -25°C. Now come on, what sort of plumber does that? It’s a copper pipe, against concrete exposed to the outside, in Canada!

I used to think that worrying about water was a country thing. Over the years more country folk have come to my renewable energy workshops than city folk because rural-dwellers know that when the power goes out the water stops flowing. Global climate change is bringing this reality home to more city people as tens of thousands of people in Ireland were without water for extended periods of time during a recent uncharacteristically cold spell. And thousands of people in the southern U.S. have been in the same boat as utilities in warmer climates that never had to deal with freezing temperatures are now experiencing them as carbon plays havoc with our atmosphere and our weather patterns.

Living off the grid, our water pump is a major draw on the system and so I am very aware of our water situation. We have two pressure tanks and when the pump comes on it runs for about 4 minutes to charge them up. On an average day when Michelle and I are here alone, the pump will come on about once a day. I often turn the pump off at night and then turn it on during the day when the sun is out although this isn’t necessary. Just part of my energy obsessiveness.

Last night I had just gone to bed when I noticed that the hot water tank in our bedroom was making funny noises. Yes, we have a hot water tank in the bedroom, but that’s a whole other blog. First I thought a cat was hiding in the closest, but after a quick inspection I confirmed that there were no cats in our room. So I had just fallen asleep when the water tank made its bubbling, gurgling, “Jabba-the-hut in need of Imodium” sound it makes when the pressure tanks have lost pressure. If I’d had the pump turned on it would have switched on when the pressure was low enough and I wouldn’t have noticed. But the tanks shouldn’t have lost pressure because it had been an hour since any water had been used. And I’d actually noticed that the pump had run at noon and the system should have been good until the next morning.

So up I got to investigate. The pump down our dug well comes into the old cistern which is under the kitchen, so I had to open the trap door and climb down. Everything there looked fine. There was no water leaking anywhere and no water running anywhere that I could see. So I climbed back out and went into the basement where I noticed that half of the concrete floor was wet – not a good sign. I traced it back to some PEX pipe near the washtubs that was leaking. I hate PEX pipe. Our basement isn’t insulated so it’s been cold down there. I think the pipe had frozen during a cold spell and now, since it had warmed up outside the pipe had thawed and the pressure split the pipe.

I hate PEX and I don’t use it. Our house is a bizarre combination of PEX and copper and I sometimes wonder if the plumber was smoking dope when he was plumbing the house. I have learned how to be my own plumber and I like copper. My neighbor Ken has taught me how to solder properly and frankly I just trust copper more. First off, I understand copper. Copper is an essential trace element for all living things and I think you can even get a multi-vitamin with copper in it. So if it’s going to leech into my water, at least I need a bit of it. PEX is “crossed-linked polyethylene” and frankly I can find no medical data that tells me that my body requires polyethylene. I’m not saying it’s going to leech, but if it does, I don’t want it. I’m exposed to enough plastics. My Dr. Pepper cans are lined with BPA-infused plastic. I don’t want this stuff in my house.

Prior to the widespread adoption of PEX, polybutylene was used a lot and it turns out that it didn’t work very well. It often became brittle and failed and you can appreciate that if this is happening behind drywall it can be a big mess. The beauty of our house if that when the house was built there was no indoor plumbing. So all the plumbing was installed after the house was built and just about all of it is accessible. This means I can get to and fix anything that breaks without ripping out walls.

I have learned to plumb with copper and have all the tools and spare fittings I need to fix a copper leak. But of course, this burst pipe was PEX. I tried to find a shut off valve to that section of the basement but none had been installed. So finally at 11 pm I just shut the water off and went back to bed. Of course I couldn’t fall asleep and I lay there planning my course of action for the morning. First I would try and put a patch and tighten some clamps on the leak and see if I could stop it, or at least slow it down. My experience is that this usually doesn’t work. Then it would be off to town to buy some faucets that I could put inline before the basement plumbing so I could shut off the water supply to the burst pipe. Then it would be on to my friend Jaeson’s house to borrow his crimper, which I need to work with PEX.

As a former cidiot who moved to the country with no real skills (other than laying out newsletters) I find all these challenges very empowering. In the city I would have called a plumber and been at their mercy. Now it might take me three days to fix it, but once it’s done, if it happens again I’ll know how to deal with it. And the reality of living where I do is that a lot of the time a plumber doesn’t want to come to my house. I’ve acquired an “I’m on my own” mentality living out here so I’d better figure out what’s wrong, and just fix it. Each time I fix something myself my skill level increases. I am often able to make the system better. In this case I’ll install a shut off that allows me to isolate the basement so if it ever happens again I can keep the water flowing to the rest of the house while I fix it.

I wish the pipe hadn’t broken. I wish I wasn’t spending Valentines Day fixing plumbing. But really, how could I show my love for my wife more clearly than by fixing a busted water pipe? Any idiot can buy roses.

Comedian “Red Green” has a great expression “Remember men, if the women don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.” While I constantly try and convince Michelle I shouldn’t need to be “handy” (because of my Brad Pitt good looks, in case you didn’t get that) the handiness is apparently becoming more important as we age along with our house. Previously I used the Red Green “universal adapter” for most of my repair work, but I’ve learned that duct tape will only hold for so long, so I’d better figure out what’s wrong and fix it right.

So now when I hear the faint sound of a broken pipe and plumbing in need of my manly touch, I jump from my bed, put on my work pants with the built-in knee pads, run my hands through my George Clooney-like gorgeous grey hair and get on to the task at hand! My mantra – “Who needs sleep? It’s go time!”

Luckily our plumbing isn’t quite THIS bad! (Photo from Wikicommons)

3 Responses to “Showing My Love by Fixing a Broken Water Pipe”

  • Lex:

    I recently had a similar though opposite plumbing experience to yours. I had to leave my offgrid place for a couple of months & despite great care with draining my mainly “copper” plumbing system, though there is a mix of pex too, I came back to find TWO broken COPPER problems. One was a compression fitting that was pushed off & the second was a split in the copper pipe. So, it ain’t just pex that might split. To do the repairs needed, I chose to use sharkbite fittings & PEX pipe. The pipes to be repaired / replaced were just too close to the studs & insulation to safely or wisely use a torch. There are remnants of one such fire in the ceiling of this mess of mixed plumbing.

    Unlike you, I REALLY LIKE PEX. Is it perfect, no, but neither is copper. Will it poison me? That I don’t know, but we’ve already done that for years to each other with lead, maybe CPVC, & plenty of headaches to health & safety have been also caused by the use of copper pipes.

    Also due to my remote location, copper is a hassle to get, use, work with & to get fittings for. PEX is easy, MUCH less expensive & it’s safe to use as no torch or flame is requred. PEX bends easily & can be snaked so much easier than copper. So, for a DIY person like me, on a limited budget, PEX is a safe, reliable & affordable plumbing solution. I’d likely burn my house down fixing all the copper craziness that was put into this fixer upper house.

    Perhaps the problem with PEX for you, is just all in your mind? Prejudice is a bad thing.

  • Neil:

    I don’t like PEX either! It just seems like one of those things that was invented to improve something that didn’t necessarily need improving (you know, sort of like what has happened with toothbrushes) but it allowed people to do plumbing without learning the skill of soldering or having to using the spatial ability required to plan out straights and bends of rigid copper piping… and, of course, buy a whole new set of equipment (PEX rings, fittings, mighty-mother-of-all-crimpers, etc) in the process.

  • Good luck Cam. I trust you’re well on your way to fixing it by now. Antoinette and I also once lived on an old farm and I remember learning a few plumbing skills the hard way.

    BTW, I was just on Mother Earth News and saw your blog there. Way to go.

    Sustainable Living Blog

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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