Brian's Blogs

D-I-Y Plumbing

I started working in the BBC as a sound engineer, but very soon started writing for a variety of programmes. Here's a short item I did for the Woman's Hour programme on Radio 4:

It was all the fault of the ghastly TV programme - There was this bloke extolling the virtues of do-it-yourself plumbing. - So easy, you just twist off, pull off, push on and twist on - tap washers of course - and it takes no time at all. No need to call in a plumber!

Well, it just so happened that the wife had been getting on at me for the last three months to do just that. The kitchen tap juddered and the bath tap dripped. And after she'd finally gone to all the trouble to get me a plumb it yourself manual, well it seemed unfair to put my feet up every day while she slaved over a hot cooker - you know the rhetoric that the stricken wife emits, I'm sure.

Well, anything to get a little peace, I finally trudged off to the local DIY shop to buy two washers - the grand total of 2p. That seemed enough for one day and I promised to get down to the real work on the Sunday. I'd have all day then if anything went wrong - a wise decision as I later found out!

That Sunday morning saw me slipping downstairs in a dressing gown, and out to turn off the boiler - a must if you're doing anything with the hot water system I found out. Then off with the stop valve and upstairs again to pour Simone's bath.

Aha! I hear you say, What a dutiful husband! Well can you think of a better way to drain a hot water tank? Mind you the chap who wrote that plumber's manual probably hadn't experienced changing a washer with the wife still in the bath.

First the shroud had to come off, and then the large nut underneath had to be unscrewed - the tap that is. It was a difficult one that hadn’t been undone for years and was now silted up with lime. A hefty pull with the spark plug wrench from the car sorted that one out. Now there's a tip for you. Did you know that the nut on a standard tap is the same size as a spark plug? No? Well now you do. Anyway, off came the washer, on goes the new one, a quick screw of the tap assembly and Bob's your uncle!

One working tap - 5 minutes job and you don’t know what all the fuss was about. A round of applause from a foam covered wife gazing admiringly at the one she loves, and off I trot to repeat the process in the kitchen while Madame carries on beautifying the bits that no one else is allowed to admire.

Another ten minutes has elapsed. Simone is out of the bath now, the two taps look as ordinary as two taps would look to anyone and the man about the house switches on the water again at the stop cock. A gurgle and a gush … and a gurgle again. I'm sure that's not how it should be.

And then a bang bang bang and an apologetic splutter from the hot water tap - well you can guess of course, I'd got a dreaded air lock.

Simone was dressed by now and came downstairs to hear curses muttered under the breath and a red faced handyman leafing through the section on air locks. The first bit dealt with a process called Blowing Through. Apparently the theory goes that by forcing air downwards through the cold water system from the tank, you unblock the air lock and everything should be alright.

So I climbed into a pitch black attic, plastic pipe in one hand, paraffin lamp in the other, while balancing precariously on rafters, convinced that at any moment my big toe would be waving through the ceiling to the room below. Well, I soaked my shirt with ice cold water, singed my hair on the oil lamp, got covered in the dust of ages - and got precisely nowhere.

The second method was to drain the system and start all over again - but as draining the system had started off all this hanky panky in the first place I thought I'd give that a miss this time.

Third method was to connect the kitchen hot water tap to the kitchen cold water tap and let the pressure blow through. But it would so happen of course that we've got one of those swivel-nozzle-taps which you can't connect anything to - so that one was out.

The fourth and final method - prior to calling in a real plumber - and you'll be lucky on a Sunday - the fourth method is to connect a hose pipe from the lowest cold water tap to the highest cold water tap - in our case from the outside loo to the upstairs bathroom. Theory has it that the mains water pressure should be much stronger than the tank water pressure, and so by connecting the two, the poor air lock doesn't stand a chance.

Down to the garden shed and out comes that filthy old hose that we couldn't use last summer when the drought was on. Borrow a spare tap connector from a friendly neighbour - I could tell he was friendly the way he wasn't too concerned when he answered the door with his dinner napkin still round his neck - and then the awful job of running that old pipe from one tap to the other.

Simone thought it best if we ran what we could outside the house and in through the upstairs window. Starting from the bathroom I gently uncoiled the hose halfway down the stairs and out through the little window, and then, …, oh no. There it was stuck on top of the garage roof. There was nothing for it but to climb out the window and throw the retrieved hose pipe down to my waiting spouse who was by now having convulsions seeing this green object winging its way earthbound. I think it would be better were I to pass over the details of how I got stranded on the garage roof, with a ladder lying on the ground and a wife with a very odd sense of humour. Suffice it to say that it took a whole half hour to connect each end of the hose to the two taps in question.

The next little problem, really quite a minor one when you think about it, was how to synchronise the mass switch on. With true boy scout ingenuity I devised a plan whereby we could both count together. At the final count we would both open our respective taps and let the pressures equalise.

Nothing happened, at first, and then suddenly there was a loud scream from downstairs, and a rumbling sound from the attic, which was slightly reminiscent of a hippo breaking wind.

The taps around me gushed water; I placed the hose pipe in the bath and ran downstairs to find Simone sitting in a large puddle of water.

I suppose I should have warned her to expect a heavy back pressure from the hose. She obviously hadn’t expected it and was now soaked from head to foot. But, and this was the important fact as far as I was concerned, we cleared the air lock and in so doing had been able to change two tap washers without recourse to calling in the plumber. Think of the saving! I told her.

She didn't sound that interested at the time, and maybe I can't blame her. But it was only a few days later that she was pointing out a heavy leak from the guttering at the back of the house, and I knew it was only a matter of time till I came back from work to find the do-it-yourself book lying open at … GUTTERING.

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