Wednesday, March 15, 2017

How the granddad I never met helped fix the water system the other day

When the former Party Doll Strickland asked "Hey, is the well out of water, or something?" the other morning, I knew it was going to be a long day.  I was wrong. Turned out to be several long days, but this story has a happy ending. My grandfather, Charles Smith Minor Sr. of Anderson S.C., died a decade before I was born, but among the things I eventually inherited more than half a century later was his set of Handy dies and taps, fitted neatly into a hinged wooden box with slots and discs routed out to hold these tools.  The helped save the day when we discovered, long after we should have, that our water supply system up here in the Blue Ridge Mountains had three separate leaks, spread out over more than 300 feet of horizontal pipe and another 250 or so feet of pipe down in the well.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. On that Tuesday when all of a sudden we didn't have any water, I took a quick look at the water pressure tank and gauge under the house.  Tank looked ok, but you can't really tell anything by looks.  The pressure gauge, however, told the short story: There was near zero water pressure, and after turning the pump breaker off for 15 minutes, then back on, the pump had reset itself -- and I watched as the water pressure came up, then dropped back down, then came up, then dropped back down.

I know a few things about water wells and pumps and pressure tanks from a summer job many years ago with Bainbridge & Dance Water Well Co. in Guilford College, N.C.   And I know a little about leaks, so I called a couple of plumbing contractors and explained the problem.  That's how I met the Pump Man, as he is known around Floyd VA.  His real name is Rick Gibson, and in a quick trip out he determined that the pressure tank's internal bladder had gone bad and that the tank itself was waterlogged. That pressure switch didn't look any too good, either, rusting away as water dripped down one side, and part of a wire showed copper. Not good.

A couple days later, Rick was back with a new pressure tank and switch.  He made short work of installing it -- cutting the old tank out and removing the bad switch, and putting in the new ones. And then we watched the pressure gauge as the water dame up, then dropped back down, then came up.... Well, you know the story there: Another leak.

So we traipsed 300 feet down the hill to my workshop, where there's a frost-free hydrant where I get water for various projects in the workshop or the barn. There's a big handle on top that lives a four-foot internal rod with a rubber blob at the low end.  Lift the handle and water flows; push the handle back down and the rubber blob stops the flow of water -- and nearly as importantly, a small hole in the pipe casing allows the four-feet of trapped water to trickle out. So the water doesn't freeze, and the frost-free hydrant can be used even in cold weather.  Rick put his ear to the galvanized pipe sticking up out of the ground, listened intently for a moment, and invited me to do the same: we could hear water running constantly, which mean this was where the second leak was.  Would we have to dig it up and replace the whole hydrant?  "Don't know yet," Rick said.  "This is the kind of thing that takes the fun out of plumbing."

Rick's been in the plumbing business for some 32 years, and had learned to take one thing at a time.  He removed the hydrant head and, after a good bit of grunting and pulling and levering and wrenching, pulled out the four-foot rod.  But there was no rubber blob at the end of it, as there should be. There were only some damaged pipe threads where the rubber blob's internal fitting should have screwed onto the rod.  Rick began using a small saw and file to try to tidy up the damaged pipe threads. I watched for a couple minutes and thought of something. "You know, I think I have a set of dies somewhere that belonged to my grandfather. Lemme see if I can find 'em -- but I'm probably not lucky enough to have the right size die if  can lay my hands on the box."

I was wrong again, and happily so.  The wooden box of dies had five or six taps -- the threads you would cut inside a nut, for example, and five or six dies, for cutting the screw thread on a piece of pipe or rods.  And after a couple tries, we found exactly the right die.  Took a good two minutes to recut and thus restore the original threads.  The Rick gently lowered the rod down into the hydrant pipe, slowly fished around for a moment, then began turning the rod in place.  Then he pulled it up, and as it came he was smiling.  The old rubber blob -- misshapen and part of it split, so it wouldn't seal off the shaft -- came up with the rod.  And our luck was holding: Rick had a replacement for the rubber plug on his truck -- sort of a minor miracle itself.  How often are you going to be able to produce the right die -- from a set manufactured back during the Great Depression -- and then find out that you have the right esoteric part on your truck?  Trust me, as the President likes to say, but not often.

So with the hydrant restored to good order, and having fixed two separate leaks, we traipsed back up the hill, got under the house, and after flipping the breaker, watched the water pressure come back up on the brand-new pressure switch gauge -- and then watched in dismay as the water pressure went down again, then up again, then down again.   If you're still reading this, you know what this meant: yet a third leak, somewhere in the system.

"We'll have to pull the pipe out of the well and look at the pump," Rick said.  I groaned.  In my Bainbridge & Dance days, that meant some back-breaking work, pulling flexible pipe out of a well and walking it out into the field just to get a gander at the submersible pump. And I knew how much pipe that would be, because our well driller had gone down 360 feet before deciding that was deep enough.

But there was more good news: In the years since I last pulled pipe from a waterfall someone had invented a three-wheeled contraption that would grab the pipe and pull it smoothly out of a deep hole in the ground.  It took a little maneuvering to get the gizmo off Rick's truck and in the right place to pull the pipe, but pretty soon Rick was laying down 50-foot figure-eights of pipe and electrical wire behind him.  The pipe was solid, but when the end came up out of the well, the pump was just hanging on with a bit of electricians' tape and a few pieces of electrical cable.  There were remnants of three metal hose clamps, but each one was missing part of its metal band because, I do believe, the screw was of a different kind of metal -- and galvanic action had eaten those clamps for lunch.
And all that pipe had been empty of water, indicated that the foot valve at the top of the pump was not holding the water in the pipes. This was, of course, the key leak Rick had been chasing all day,  but the other two leaks had to be fixed, too.  And our luck was still holding, because Rick had the right replacement valve to install on the pump -- plus the right hose clamps and barb to keep the pump connected to the pipes and keep water flowing into the house, and not back down into the well.

So  after replacing the pump valve and attaching new clamps and using some fancy tape to wrap parts of the pipe, we put the pipe back in the well, replaced the camp, and trudged back up to the house to consult the pressure gauge. And lo and behold, the water pressure came back up -- and stayed where it was supposed to.  Finally there was cause for some celebration, of sorts.  I observed that it's not every day you have to  trace three leaks spread over 300 feet of horizontal run and 250 feet or so of perpendicular pipe, and Rick allowed as how that was on the unusual side.  "But the real miracle was that I had all of the parts on my truck to fix each of those leaks, and didn't have to go off for hours hunting them up.

But, I pointed out smug, it took my grandfather's tap-and-die set to save the day on that hydrant. "Yeah," Rick said. "But I've got a set just like that at home. Just didn't have it on my truck."

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