Invisible dotted lines on invisible (punctured) pipes

I’ve been a fledgling furnace-fighter for two or three months, now — our 167,000-BTU Bryan hot-water boiler system in the basement is about thirty years old (it has an operating life of about twenty years, so it’s on borrowed time), and is a source of nostalgia and amusement to the contractors we’ve had in to price a replacement. One contractor laughed fondly when he saw it: “Ohhh, one of these! and (I’m not kidding) patted it like a toothless old dog. “Yeah, you’ll save a lot of money with a new boiler.”

The problem was that our boiler was losing pressure. It’s supposed to stay steady at about 15-20 PSI, but it held at about two or three. Our fill valve (green; cast iron; kind of looks like a Korean war fragmentation grenade) isn’t working, so the system wasn’t filling itself with water. I’d add water through a hose, after being instructed how to by the Chuckling Contractor, but about four hours later, the pressure would be back down to five PSI. Overnight, back to two. I’d try to bleed the upstairs radiator (because that’s what every website tells you to do when you have a heating problem; it’s like medieval doctors and their leeches), but since the pressure was so low, the upstairs radiators sucked air instead of blowing, and I managed to quickly take several radiators out of commission.

The loss of pressure seemed like the Mystery of the Ages to our furnace contractors, since if the pressure was dropping that quickly, they’d expect us to see a massive water leak in the house. But there was no leak. “Maybe you’ve got a crack in the boiler, and the water is boiling off. Yeah, you hear that noise?” “Um, I think that’s the TiVo fan upstairs.” “Oh”, they’d say, crestfallen.

After several heating contractors, in a spirit of optimistic experimentation, tried filling the boiler again (and quoting a price to replace our amusing museum piece), I finally came to a realization. Heating contractors’ sphere of influence extends only as far as the actual boiler unit. The rest of the system — pipes, valves, radiators, is the Domain of the Plumber. I called our plumbers, and we quickly located the problem — a massive leak under our powder room, which is external to the foundation, and so the leak hadn’t been easy to spot. Every time I’d add ten gallons of water to the system, ten gallons would go merrily flooding into the crawlspace.

the smoking gunThe smoking gun, as it turned out, was a hole in the heating pipe that our flooring contractor had put there only four months ago, when we had the old kitchen tile removed, a new floor laid down, and new vinyl tile laid over that. The floor-er had driven down the half-inch plywood with massive three-inch nails, probably left over from some kind of federal highway project. Of course, we had to rip up the vinyl and the floor to find the problem.

I’d love to make our flooring contractor out as the villain of this story, but our plumber told me that there’s two kind of floor-ers; those who have already put a nail in a pipe, and those who are going to put a nail in a pipe. This opinion was borne out the next day by the carpenter we hired to re-lay the floor, who told me his own war stories about sawing through pipes (and about having to rip up freshly installed floor at the end of the day after hearing meowing sounds coming from the subfloor, on one job.)

So, if this is a morality play, it’s hard to know what the message is. To err is human, but to really fuck up your house in a hurry, you need a contractor? The re-work is… galling, but I suppose you win some and you lose some. If the powder room floor had been laid as part of a contracted and guaranteed job, I’d be asking for my money back, but it was done as a quick “might as well” for cash under the table, so I think I’m just going to cut my losses, and hope that the money wasted here will turn out to be a cheap education later. Or something.

Incidentally, I found out that my theory about spheres of influence in the house was right. Troy, our plumber, commands a body of knowledge both broad and deep — but, to him, our boiler is just a gray box with a gauge on the front. The dotted line separating worlds is a very visible bolted flange about six inches above the boiler box, where one specialty ends and another begins. The same is true of roofs and gutters, of chimneys and chimney liners, of painting and plastering.

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