The blind contortionist plumbers game

Only 4 weeks to go…

OK, I admit it. This weekend I had a bit of a meltdown. The list of things to get done before the Invaders from the South arrive doesn’t seem be getting any shorter, but the number of available weeks to get it done in definitely is.

My plan for this weekend was perfectly simple. To get the two remaining bathrooms finished. There’s not that much needed – a little bit of tiling to finish. A bit of grouting. And plumb in the toilets. Hardly a weekend’s work, right?

I decided to start with the bath downstairs.

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The bath has been sitting like that, tilted up on its side for months, because when I first tried to plumb it in, it had a leak in the waste pipe underneath. I tried a couple of times to fix it to no avail. So I left it and went on to something more exciting on the principle that if at first you don’t succeed try, try again. If after try, try again you still don’t succeed, ignore the problem and hope that the DIY fairies will somehow magically sort it out when you’re not looking. (Never works – can’t think why.)

Those of you who’ve been following the blog for a while will remember the saga of the bath with the plughole at one end, where my phenomenal lack of organisation resulted in the waste stack coming up through the floor in the wrong place.

The design of the bath means that even if the waste pipe had been put in the right place, it’s a bit of a tight fit. With the stack in the middle of the floor, I’d decided even a shallow waste trap wouldn’t work, so I’d custom made one by buying a flat bottomed bath waste outlet, cutting it in half and adding a bit of extra pipe so it would fit under the cross bar that supported the bath legs.

Easy peasy. Except that when I connected it up, one particular compression joint refused to play ball. No matter how tightly I screwed it, it leaked. Even with what felt like half a mile of PTFE tape wound over the thread and a bucket load of plumbers putty squidged into the joint, still it leaked.

I decided to take it all apart and start again.

Of course, none of this is made any easier when you’re having to play the blind contortionist plumbers game. Ever played that? Try joining two pipes together in a compression joint while lying on the floor on your back with your hands over your head underneath the bottom of a bath, so you can’t see what you’re doing, and trying to work out by feel whether you are turning the joint clockwise or anti-clockwise….. Trust me, it’s a whole lot of fun – not.

And it didn’t work. The pipes were still leaking.

In the end I decided to take the whole section out to see if I could get the offending joint to work, before putting it all back. Another mile of PTFE tape, and the joints tightened as much as I possibly could, I filled it with water and left it.

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Hallelujah – it’s not leaking.

So I put it all back in, playing the blind contortionist plumbers game again, poured a load water down the plughole, stood back and waited, and……it leaked again.

Cue the meltdown. Tears, tantrums and toys well and truly thrown out of the pram. Along the lines of “I hate this house; I’ll never get it finished; I can’t possibly have people to stay while it’s in this state….” You get the picture.

And then I drove down to B&Q and bought another shallow bath trap. One last ditch attempt to make it work before I give up and hang a ‘Display model only, do not use’ sign on the bath when my guests arrive.

But this trap was a slightly different design to the first one. And very slightly shorter. Which meant that if I turned it to one side, there was just about room to put a 90° solvent weld joint, which could then be welded to a length of pipe to reach the waste stack in the middle of the floor. No dodgy compression joints.

In the hope that the divine God of plumbing would look favourably upon my efforts I even drew a smiley face on the pipe, before welding it all together and leaving it overnight to ‘set’.

 

Next morning and the moment of truth. I poured a load of water down the plughole, stood back and waited. And…… that insidious little trickle of water appeared. It was still leaking.

Not, admittedly, on the scale of the puddles of the previous day. But enough to make me want to give up, shut the bathroom door and put up an ‘Out of Order’ sign.

But instead I tilted the bath up again and looked underneath to see where the problem was. All of my welded joints seemed to be dry. As did the compression joint on to the bottom of the bath. The problem seemed to be in the cap that shuts of the access to the trap. Which, it seems, I had forgotten to tighten. Duh!

So I do have a working bath after all. The smiley face worked.

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So that was my weekend. One solitary bath plumbed in. In the grand scheme of the to-do list, just a bit pathetic really.

Fortunately Mum and Dad were there to save the weekend.

While I toddled off to B&Q for my plumbing bits, Mum got on with the grouting. Which is a job I hate!

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So that means that bathroom is practically finished.

And as for Dad – well I’d asked him earlier in the week if he could frame the back wall in the kitchen so we could plasterboard it. Another job I’ve been putting off for a while as I didn’t really know how to go about it.

Neither did my Dad apparently. Rumour has it there was a fair amount of procrastination, head-scratching and general unwillingness to start. Possibly even the odd bit of cursing when he discovered that the wood I’d bought would have been better used making wonky corkscrews.

I’d probably have attempted to use the wood and ended up with a slightly corkscrewed wall. But my Dad, when he does eventually get going, is a perfectionist, so he went out a bought some properly square timber. And proceeded to build a beautifully over-engineered work of art.

It looks like one of those squirrel’s intelligence tests. You know – where you stick a hazelnut in the middle of an assault course and watch to see if the squirrel can work out how to get through it.

He deserves a medal for having created the only truly straight wall in the entire building. It would almost be an act of vandalism to board over it!

 

What do you mean, ‘Where’s the plughole?’

I am insanely jealous of these self-build smugs on the TV who run their building sites like a military training exercise, with endless checklists, projects plans, meetings and milestones. And who seem to know the precise position of every cable, socket, light switch and tap.

Of course, my theory is that naturally it’s easier to plan the precise layout and location of everything when it’s a new-build project and you’re starting with a blank piece of paper. Whereas when you’re working within the existing framework of an old barn, retrofitting pipes and cables alongside, through and around old stone walls, obviously things are a bit more problematic.

Well that’s my excuse anyway. I suspect, in truth, it’s probably got as much to do with my colossal lack of organisation skills as it has to do with the fact that it’s an old building. That, and the fact that I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, having sacked all the expertise (the architect, the engineer, and even Mr Incompetent Builder), and was consequently making it up as I went along – in no logical order.

But be fair, if you were in that situation, when your building was still at the mud floors and bare stud walls stage, would worrying about plughole positions be top of your to-do list? I mean, why’s that even important when the walls are falling down around you?

Blame it on free-standing bath I’d bought, which needed an equally free-standing waste pipe to stick up through the floor in the appropriate place. The lovely chaps pouring the floor screed needed to know where that ‘appropriate place’ was.

At this point I think it’s probably fair to acknowledge that anyone who was more organised than me (which probably covers about 99% of the world’s population) would have checked the whereabouts of the plughole in the bath BEFORE telling the contractors where to bury the waste pipe in the concrete screed.

In my defence, I was at work when they phoned to ask. In the middle of a budget meeting to finalise a £400million IT budget, trying to have a surreptitious discussion about plugholes was not easy. “Yes, I have bought a bath already. What do you mean, ‘Where’s the plughole?’ Where do you think it is? On the bottom of course. Duh! Gotta go….”

Actually, I didn’t have a clue which end the plug was, so I guessed and said it was in the middle. Now before you all roll your eyes or laugh hysterically, it wasn’t entirely random coin-tossing guesswork; there was some method in my reasoning. It’s a big bath, roomy enough for two, and nobody likes sitting on the plughole – so of course it will have been designed with plughole in the middle to avoid that. Perfectly logical don’t you think?

Perfectly logical, but totally incorrect.

But so convinced was I by my logical reasoning that I went ahead and tiled the floor around the sticking up pipe – still without checking.

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It wasn’t until I actually unpacked the bath that my ‘logical’ theory fell apart and I discovered the plughole was at one end of the bath, whereas I now had a waste pipe  in the middle of the floor.

Oops!

It wasn’t even as if my new bath were an old fashioned rolltop on legs. At least then I could have fashioned a fancy stainless steel waste contraption and pretended it was all part of the design. And it would have been easy to get to.

Nope. Mine is a modern free-standing slipper bath that sits flush to the floor. So I had it precariously tilted on a couple of blocks of wood, giving me about 3 inches of accessible space as I tried to connect the waste trap at one end of the bath to the waste pipe in the middle of the floor…

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Cue the bruises and lots of swearing…..

And unfortunately the plughole sagas didn’t stop with the bath. The phone rang again, right in the middle of a heated debate with the Head of IT over his megalomaniac plans to bankrupt the company. “Yeah sorry love, it’s Bob the Builder again. What about the plughole in the shower?”

At least I knew the answer to that one. “It’s in the corner. Sorry, bit busy. Can’t talk now.”

Perhaps I should have been a little bit more specific. I got back up to the house to find the waste pipe for the shower in the corner. Right in the corner. So close that by the time the walls were boarded, there was only about 1cm gap between pipe and wall – compared with the 8 inch gap between plughole and edge of shower tray. To make matters worse, I’d deliberately bought a low-level shower tray, aiming for that ‘it’s almost a wetroom’ look.

My DIY-loving dad spent a whole weekend drilling and chiselling the concrete trying to create enough space and depth to fit the shower trap and waste pipe. In the end, the position of the waste stack meant it just wasn’t possible.

Plan B required. “Dad, can you just build a 2 inch frame to raise the shower tray…?”

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My cunning plan? Create a tiled plinth – nobody will ever know that’s not what was originally planned….

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It all worked out in the end, but it would have been a whole lot easier if I’d worked out what I wanted in advance. Hindsight is a wonderful thing……

Another kitchen….another fountain…..

Anyone who’s been following my blogs has probably worked out by now that I’m not the most organised person on the planet. If I’m going on holiday, tickets tend to get bought the day before, bags get packed about an half hour before I leave for the airport, and hotels are found when I arrive.

And I am now beginning to think that if I’d been more organised that whole saga of the water in the bedroom could have been avoided – I mean, if I’d just told the plumber upfront where I wanted a couple of extra stopcocks, I wouldn’t have had to do it myself. (Mind you, he was supposed to be the expert – you would have thought he’d have been the one advising me on what the options were.)

Oh well, hindsight may be a wonderful thing but it doesn’t actually fix the plumbing. So having recovered from the trauma of the cold water running through the light fittings, I turned my attention to the hot water pipes.

These flow into the building from the boiler room, at the opposite end of the house from where the cold water stopcock is located. Which meant that the most logical place to put an additional shut-off point was in the roof space above the bothy, before the pipe passed through the metre thick wall into the two bathrooms beyond.

First check – which one of the half-dozen or so pipes running through the roof space is the one for the hot water??? Not exactly something you want to find out by trial and error – or by randomly cutting through the wrong one!

I worked it out by tracing the pipes through the various walls – into the bathroom and into the boiler room to see which was the one running from the hot water tank. Up and down the ladder a dozen times just to figure out which pipe was which – who needs a gym? Clearly another job that is going to take me longer than planned!

Hot water pipe identified, I got to work. Turn off the main supply, cut the pipe. Drain out residual water. Fit stopcock. Easy…

And since I’m now becoming an expert at this, I made sure the stopcock was closed before I turned the water supply back on. No water explosions in the roof – which meant I’d at least put that connection in properly.

So, also learning from previous experience, I went round and checked that all the taps were off, and any unconnected pipes in the bathrooms were capped off. And with a vague memory that we’d run a hot pipe up to the kitchen I went and checked that too. Just as well; there was an open pipe above the door into the cottage, put in when I’d originally planned to run the hot water from the same supply as the rest of the house. I capped off that offending pipe, and feeling smug (but nervous) climbed back up into the roof to open the stopcock. I didn’t immediately hear any sound of running water, but admittedly I don’t have the best of hearing, and I was sitting in an insulated roof space with metre-thick stone walls either side of me.

The euphoria didn’t last. By the time I’d got down the ladder and halfway up the corridor to the bathrooms, that ‘fear-of-the-sound-of-running-water-in-a-barn’ panic kicked in. Somewhere water was flowing freely. I dashed into the bathroom downstairs. Nothing. I hared up the stairs to the bathroom above. Nothing.

I took the plasterboard off (at least I was forward thinking enough to create an access hatch) and crawled behind the wall space to inspect the pipes.

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No leaking pipes anywhere.

I dashed downstairs again. And then I saw it.

Looking through a window from the stairs, through the living room there is an opening to the kitchen. And perfectly framed in this opening was a fountain of hot water spraying up in the middle of the kitchen.

I thought I thought I’d been so smart remembering to cap off the redundant water pipe to the cottage; I’d completely overlooked the pipe in the middle of the floor, put in place in anticipation of having an island sink in the kitchen.

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Another kitchen… another fountain. Hey ho! At least the Aga got a wash!

The tears and trauma of a bit of plumbing……

As you might have gathered from the previous blog, plumbing is clearly not my favourite job. In fact it terrifies me, but with 3 more bathrooms to get finished it’s obviously something I couldn’t avoid. I put it off for as long as I could – not hard given how much else there was to do – but eventually I had to bite the bullet and start playing with the pipework.

To make life easier I decided first job was to isolate the water supply in a couple of extra places so I could work on fitting the bathrooms without have to keep cutting off the water flow to the heating system.

My water is pumped in from a borehole, and it can be turned off at two points in the house. One stopcock turns off the supply to the kitchen and bathroom in the cottage, the other, located at the top of the house in the main kitchen, turns off the supply to the rest of the house.

(Interestingly, there is nothing to turn off the supply between the two – so if a pipe bursts in the roof space of the cottage, I’d have to leg it outside to the pumphouse to shut down the borehole. Bit of a design fault if you ask me – but since the original pipework bringing the supply into the house was installed by Mr Incompetent Builder, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.)

I’d had a plumber in once to put in the first fix pipework for the bathrooms before they were plasterboarded – but he’d turned out to be another contractor disaster. He got the hump about half way through the job because he claimed I hadn’t paid him for work done. I had. But he downed tools and started sending ridiculous letters threatening to take me to court and charge me Wonga level daily interest until I paid up in line with agreed schedule. I eventually sent him a copy of the transaction from my bank statement, at which point he realised he had received the money – it had just gone to account he didn’t use very often so he had noticed it. Well don’t blame me matey,  I just used the account number you gave me – a trader who has so many bank accounts he loses track of his customers’ money?! Seems very dodgy to me. I didn’t get an apology. I didn’t invite him back.

Which left me with not enough pipes, most of them not in the right places and none of them actually connected up to anything.

Hey ho – back to the old DIY option. After all, a few pipes and fittings – anyone can connect up a couple of taps, right? How hard could it be??

I duly sat down and drew up my plan of where I was going to put all my taps and loos, and worked out how much more pipe and how many fittings I would need. A quick visit to the local plumbing shop and I returned with enough pipes and fittings to plumb all the leaks at Westminster.

I started with the main bathroom and the ensuite above it. Plastic pipe fittings are dead easy. The pipe has got enough give in it that you can manipulate it into awkward spaces, and to join it together you just fit a pipe insert and push the ends into the fitting; (though as I learnt the hard way with the dishwasher episode, you do need to make sure the pipe is properly pushed right the way in!)

For the main bathroom I’d already bought the taps and fittings so I connected them all up. For the bathroom upstairs, I’d only purchased the bath taps, as I hadn’t finalised the layout of the rest of the room. Fortunately the plumber had stopped off the ends of all the pipes, so I could just leave them be. (Or so I thought…)

Right, now time to actually join it all up to the water supply.

I shut off the water, drained all the water out via the tap in the boiler room, cut through the main cold supply pipe and water came gushing out. Don’t panic, it’s just the residual water in the pipes emptying – I had my bucket ready! Admittedly the water seemed to be pouring out for ages, and I was beginning to panic that maybe I hadn’t turned off the stopcock fully. But just as I was wondering where the nearest spare bucket was, the water trickled down to nothing and stopped.

So, just fit a couple of T-joints, connect up the pipe to the new stopcock and jobs a good’un.

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The moment of truth – I went up to the kitchen to turn the water back on…  And heard the unmistakeable sound of gushing water coming from the bathrooms.

I sprinted down the length of the corridor and into the downstairs bathroom. Only to discover that I’d left the shower tap in the open position and water was merrily cascading out of the shower into the shower tray and down the plughole, exactly as it was meant to. I heaved a sigh of relief, turned the tap off and relaxed…. for about 2 seconds…. until that ‘fear-of-the-sound-of-running-water-in-a-barn phobia’ kicked in again and told me I could still hear gushing water and it sounded like it was in the next room.

I dashed into the bedroom next door to find water pouring through the light fittings and down the walls. Bolting up the stairs I discovered that the plumber had not been quite thorough enough. The pipes set in the floor for the basin in the ensuite had not been capped and were happily spraying a fountain of cold water up the wall of the sauna and down through the floor into the bedroom below.

Fortunately I didn’t have to leg it all the way back to the kitchen to turn it off. The new stopcock I’d installed was a few metres away, and it worked! The sounds of running water died away….

When I’d recovered from the trauma of the fountain in the bathroom and mopped up all the excess water, I capped off the offending pipes, checked all the taps were off, and opened the stopcock again.

The golden sound of silence – which meant that all my plumbing efforts were sound and nothing was leaking. See, it’s not that hard, is it?

Well that’s the cold water connected. Next job – connect the hot water pipes. Maybe I’ll leave that for another week…..

Why shouldn’t I have a fountain in the kitchen?

I have invented a new phobia – “the fear of the sound of running water in a barn” – I am totally paranoid that every time I open my front door, somewhere in the house there will be water pouring down the walls.

It all began with my first encounter with plumbing, which was installing a dishwasher in the self-contained cottage – the part of the house I was living in when I escaped the dreaded caravan. With no hot water supply in the cottage, I was fed up with having to boil the kettle every time I wanted to wash up. More importantly, the expat lifestyle in India, with maid, gardener, driver &etc.,  meant I hadn’t done any washing up for nearly 3 years, and I really wasn’t enjoying getting back into it. Executive decision – I’ll install a dishwasher.

I bought one of those slimline ones, perfect for the small kitchen in the cottage, and decided to install it myself. After all, it’s only connecting up a few pipes – how hard can it be???

For some reason, that with hindsight is completely unfathomable, I didn’t start the job until about 8 o’clock at night, assuming it would only take half hour. I mean, it’s all those push fit fittings. Dead easy….. (I really must get my rosy coloured glassed fixed).

Unfortunately, the plumber hadn’t allowed for anything other than the kitchen sink, so all the pipework in situ wasn’t in the right place to accommodate the dishwasher. The waste pipes were too high, so I had to take them all apart so I could cut a bit off the main stack. The water pipes were too short, so I had to add an extra length to them. Both of which meant disconnecting the sink, taking off the work surface, and emptying out and moving the kitchen cupboards. I was cursing the plumber and his pipework. But to be fair, my dishwasher was an afterthought, so I can’t really blame him. Half hour job – yeah right…… I finally crawled into bed at about midnight.

Something woke me up two hours later.

Thought number one: The burn is flowing well (there’s a stream that runs down off the hills and passes quite close to the house)

Thought number two: It’s not normally that loud

Thought number three: It’s the middle of winter; there’s 2ft of snow outside; the burn is frozen solid

Thought number four: ********************* (fill in expletives of your choice)

I dived out of bed, dashed into the kitchen, to find the connection I’d put onto the cold water pipe extension had come apart, and water was gushing out in a fountain in the middle of the room. Just in case I’ve never mentioned it, my water supply is on a high pressure pump from a 60ft borehole on my land. It’s the best water I’ve ever tasted, but it is always freezing cold. In the middle of summer, no ice ever required; in the middle of winter, you can’t hold your hand under the tap for more than 10 seconds.

And now I was wading through it barefoot, with my toes giving serious consideration to the idea of frostbite. I turned off the supply and wanted to cry.

It was minus 10 degrees outside, in an unheated stone house, at 2am, and I was standing in a lake in my kitchen. This might have been one of the (many) occasions that I questioned my sanity in taking on a project of this scale! I dropped a few towels on the floor to show willing, and went back to bed. Because things always look better in the morning!

Well that’s the theory anyway. But as far as I’m concerned, waking up to a freezing pool full of soggy towels in the kitchen and no water supply wasn’t much of an improvement on the 2am scenario. Fortunately investigation into the cause of the exploding pipe suggested it wasn’t anything serious; I just hadn’t pushed the pipe into the connection properly.

Not so hard after all. Off to the DIY store to by a new coupling joint and it was a 10 minute fix – both ends of the pipe well and truly rammed together! Job done. I had a fully functioning dishwasher so no more washing up. Happy days!

But so began the fear of the sound of running water in a barn. The thought of the remaining three bathrooms to be plumbed in was not exactly a happy one.