Experimental plumbing - a story

It’s been cold lately. I mean really, really cold. This is around the time that we usually get a January thaw hot enough to bud the trees, and it’s been -10 F. with cold, heavy winds.

I got up on Sunday, and my girlfriend came over.
"Look in the tub,” she said.

I looked in the tub.
We live in a minimally-to-not-at-all insulated old house that was converted to apartments in the 1940s or so. When they blocked out this apartment, they didn’t do a very good job. My kitchen is basically a hallway. It’s 5’ long, with the stove and sink along the left side, and the wall to the outdoors on the right. It measures 32" between the front of the stove and sink to the right-hand wall.
The bathroom is down the little hall formed by the kitchen, and has 2 walls to the outside, one to the kitchen. The other wall backs on the unheated entry way to the apartments. The tub is in the back of our small bathroom, and it touches the two walls to the outdoors, and the one to the unheated entry. The pipes go up inside the wall with the entry. It’s always freezing cold in the tub come wintertime, so we make extra sure to shut the sliding glass tub doors.

I slid the door open.

There was ice in my bathtub. Ice that was about a 1/2" thick, cascading from the spout down the front of the tub to the drain, which wasn’t completely blocked.
Ah. That would be from the intermittent cold-water drip that the landlord told us not to worry about.

"There is ice,” I said, “in our tub.”

My girlfriend smiled as though she had something happy to tell me and pointed into the bathtub.

“Turn on the hot water.”

I didn’t want to, honest, but it was the only logical thing to do. There was ice in the bathtub, and that wasn’t right. Something had to be done, after all.



The cold water was fine, but the hot water was frozen solid. No hot water. There was still hot water in the sinks, but not the bathtub, which was closest to the door in the unheated entryway. Right next to the door, as a matter of fact.
I peeked out of our apartment. Sure enough, some drink-addled neighbor had left the door to the outside open all night. Right next to our pipes. I think I know which one did it, too. Jerk.

My girlfriend was looking at me expectantly.

“The hot water pipe is frozen because the door was left open. The cold didn’t freeze because of the drip.”
She didn’t look satisfied. She wanted more.
“We should leave the tap on, in case the water comes back.” I explained. She rolled her eyes, then scolded me for using the hot kettle on the stove to melt the ice in the tub. She wanted tea.

Late that afternoon, the water still had not decided to turn on. My girl was at the dining table. She was drinking tea and writing a letter, but I knew that she was just waiting.
Y’see, my grampa was a master plumber all his adult life. So she figures that I must know something. She’s right. I remember grampa talking about how he had to tear out a whole wall once because of burst winter pipes. I had been reading at the time, so I didn’t remember any more of the story, but that sounded awfully inconvenient.
Also, with no wall there, it would likely be even colder in this windswept sub-arctic plain where we make our home.

"Well,” I said, getting up from the computer and stretching. “I guess I’ll go thaw out the tub now.”
Ignoring her raised eyebrow and small smile, I marched to the bathroom to assess.

OK. I’ve seen pipe-maps, or whatever they’re called before. The pipes are in the walls and they go up and carry water to supply us with hygiene.
The hot water pipe is here, and then the drain-pipe is next. Then the cold water pipe goes down.
Maybe, if I pour enough hot water down the drain, it will draw off some of the cold from the hot water pipe that runs next to it that we can continue to have a wall between us and the harsh outdoors where cruel mother nature dwells.

My girl watches silently as I use her tea-water again. I refill the kettle and put it back on.
“The hot water will melt the ice.” I explain. “Then we can still have walls.”
The eyebrow thing happens again, but she only suggests that I use a few pots to heat more water at once.

I pour four kettles and eight pots worth of water down the drain.
"Here,” I say, “I think it’s loosening up - now it’s your turn.”
“My turn?” She puts aside her pen.
“Yeah. My…back hurts. Tell me when you get tired, then I’ll do it again.”
"If you’d sit down instead of standing over the stove…” She starts, but, seeing me hobbling to the computer chair, she stops. I’m sure it was because she knows that the extra back support will fix my ills soon enough.

She pours a few sets of pots and kettle down the drain, sitting and writing her letter between each set. Helpfully, I put on some music so that she can work easier.

Then - it comes! The rushing roar of a mountain stream! The crashing of a pure hygiene-ated cataract of tepid joy! I dance before the cascading waters, secure that I can have walls! My grandfather would be proud! Perhaps I should call him! We would laugh together and extol our victories!

“Do you want some tea?” My girl asks, stirring in some milk.
“No.” I say, firmly. “I’m going to have a shower.”
"Okay,” She says, going back to her letter. And I know that she’s relieved. Proud, even. And that she loves me for my mighty prowess.

Oh, sure, you’ve got God credit now. But just wait until you, for instance, hook up her alternator backwards and drain her car battery. Will she remember this triumph then?

She will not.

Enjoy it while you got it!


You’re lucky the pipes didn’t burst. Incidentally, as I found out in a similar situation this weekend, a small hole punched in the wall and a hair dryer will do a pretty good job of thawing pipes.

Probably just putting an electric heater in your entryway and cranking it would also have done the job.

Well, that’s why I tried the hot water thing. I didn’t want the pipe to burst. I tried to let it fix itself, but that didn’t work. We’re on the second floor, and the entryway has a 25’ ceiling. So, the section of pipe that was frozen was almost to the entry’s ceiling. So - I couldn’t go at it from that direction. I might have tried the hair-dryer in the wall thing, but, because of the way our bathroom is done, I’d have had to punch through three walls to stick the hairdryer there.
When they decided to put in a toilet, they put the plumbing for that in a wooden box-like thing running up the wall The tub pipes are behind the box. The tub is faced with one of those plastic shower liners on uninsulated walls. There’s even a window behind the plastic liner. They just stuck it right over it, without insulating it or anything. So - punching through there would be noticed (and not kindly) by the landlord. And to get at it from the side, I’d have to go through wood box -> toilet pipes for upstairs -> wood box back, wall to get at it.

Argh! I did the best I could!!

Oh, and Rocketeer - uh-uh. Not me. Y’see, it’s her stepdad that’s the auto mechanic. So if we get a car and it breaks, that means that she needs to fix it. Just like I do the plumbing and the cooking.

That last post would be by me, of course. 'Point is my girl.


Total aside here, but as one who recently relocated from Burlington, VT I can totally sympathize with the “once cool old house chopped in to crappy apartments” thing. My favorite was when I lived in what obviously used to be the hallway that the servants used between the kitchen and the dining room

Boy, the housing can be really crummy around here, can’t it. I’ve got a dinner-plate sized hole in my kitchen roof from April. Luckily, that’s what finally made them fix the roof, so it doesn’t leak any more. Also luckily, my cat is an excellent mouse hunter.