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The Damp Bathroom: More Plumbing Misadventures

Our house is prone to weird air currents. We are getting used to them, but the hows and whys are mysteries we may never solve. In summer, when it’s hot outside, the upstairs also gets very warm. This is neither a surprise nor a mystery: heat rises, the second floor has no air conditioning, and the entire house is somewhat lean on insulation. But there’s one spot right outside our bedroom door where the warm upstairs air falls and pools. It’s like the reverse of walking through a ghost. Instead of a cold spot in an otherwise comfortable room, it’s a warm, musty spot in a moderately cool room. It’s not just a spot that isn’t being cooled; we know the air is coming from upstairs because it smells like the attic, too. It’s that old wood smell that I often associate with one-room school houses, small country churches, and historic buildings that give educational tours, and if you have an old house, I’m sure you know the smell I mean. It’s not bad, per se, it just is).

I suppose we should be grateful we have heating and air conditioning at all in a hundred year old house, and for the most part it works about as well as you could expect it to. And right now we’re in that seasonal limbo where we don’t use either the heat or the air conditioning very much, which is really nice for the utility bills but bad for our bathroom.

Our bathroom is another one of those weird air current spots. When we aren’t running the heat or A/C, the bathroom just kind of stays damp. For the most part, it’s only noticeable in the shower curtain, which doesn’t fully dry and sours, so I have to wash it more often, and the hand towel which also never dries, which is gross. A smart-ass might look at the room and point the finger of blame at the cabinet sitting in front of the bathroom’s sole vent, but I say to him, “Put that finger away, fool!” Not only is it rude for him to point, but he’s ignoring the fact that the air blows out from behind the cabinet just fine in the summer and winter when the heat and A/C actually run. It’s only spring and fall that are the seasons of the damp hand towel. Which is unfortunate, because in spite of my complaints, autumn continues to happen every year, and is in fact happening now. And even when only Kalen and I are in the house, and I know the towel is damp only from our freshly washed hands, it still grosses me out.

I know I could run the exhaust fan more to help, but it’s loud and makes my brain feel like television static.

It’s a relatively new exhaust fan, we replaced it ourselves, and I specifically lobbied for a louder fan, because there are few things more soul crushing than desperately needing to use the toilet at someone’s house only to turn on an exhaust fan that barely makes a whisper and will NEVER cover the sounds of your intestinal distress. We all pretend that bathroom exhaust fans are to help usher out odors, but we know that the primary purpose of the bathroom exhaust fan is to provide an auditory cover. So we got a loud fan. It helps pull out humid post-shower air too, but I hate leaving it on unless strictly necessary.

Another possible contributing factor to the damp bathroom was the bathtub faucet. The faucet has dripped since we moved in in 2016. We didn’t notice it much at first, but the supply taps had been turned off at the floor when we moved in, and after using the shower, we’d hear a slow drip… drip… drip…. It was slow enough that we believed it was just water slowly dripping back down from the shower and out the faucet. Over the last six years, however, it has progressed from drip… drip… drip... to a steady trickle.

Last week, I tested the rate of the trickle by placing my watering can underneath the faucet with the intention of using the dripping water for all the plants now overtaking my dining room. We had looked at possibly replacing the faucet before, but because it’s an old claw-foot tub, it needs special hardware not only to look right but also to fit into that whole situation, and weren’t ready to fork out almost $600 and probably mess up our master bath with our rookie plumbing skills. The watering can (easily a gallon, maybe more) was full in less than four hours, and I realized that we had better take charge in finding a solution for what had clearly progressed from a drip to an undeniable leak.

So, after smashing down some lingering embarrassment over how much water we must have wasted over the last six years, Kalen and I tackled another plumbing project. This one was a little less urgent than the last plumbing job we did, thankfully, and we took advantage of the time that we had. We took one last shower before we got to work to help our own cleanliness go as far as possible, should the NOOT (Natural Orneriness of Things) rear its gummy little head and bring disaster down upon us.

We started by taking pictures of the whole set up with the tape measure to provide varying references should we find ourselves at the Blue Store wondering what size pipes were back at home, and then we took everything apart.

It all disassembled relatively easily, and we took the opportunity to soak everything in vinegar as well. Some of the buildup on the faucet was undoubtedly soap scum, but a lot of it was mineral deposit from hard water, predating the water softener we installed a couple years ago and which I had either been unable or too lazy to adequately clean.

We had long ago determined that the culprit was the hot tap. The actual hot tap. You may have noticed both the taps are labeled “hot,” which I assume is because someone before us broke the porcelain handle that said “cold” and the only replacement they could find said “hot.” But the one that was leaking was the “hot” tap that actually controls the hot water, not the “hot” tap that controls the cold. Even so, we figured we would check both sides and replace whatever we could to preemptively treat future issues.

This is not a particularly helpful post if you’re looking for actual advice on how to fix a similar problem with your own old-fashioned plumbing. Unfortunately I don’t know the names of any of the things we fixed or changed. We basically followed a principle of “try and unscrew anything that looks like it might feasibly unscrew” and “if it won’t unscrew anymore, tug on anything that looks like it might just pull away.”

Eventually we had various thingamabobs, whosits and whatsits galore. We had initially thought (nay, hoped) with our limited plumbing knowledge that we would open everything up and find a gasket (oh, hey, that’s a thing we know!) that needed to be replaced, but we were confounded by the general lack of places that needed gaskets at all. We put most of the pieces in a little bag and went to the Blue Store.

I love this aspect of hardware stores. There’s something so fundamentally simple about taking what you have into a store to make sure your replacement pieces will work. I also love how it automatically makes excuses and explanations for whatever messy state your appearance might be. Why are you coming into a store with dirt on your face and grass bits up and down your legs? Oh, it probably has something to do with the broken lawn mower blade in your hand. Did you really go out in public with your hair unwashed and a large wet spot on your shirt? Oh, the broken faucet in your hand speaks of the trials you have already endured this morning and excuses your state of disarray!

We compared the little boxes of replacement cartridges to the ones we fished from our bag and tested the set screws to ensure they would fit in place of the stripped ones we had pried out. We looked but found no matching porcelain handles to clearly indicate which lever controls the cold water. And at the checkout we sorted what we bought from what we brought to prove that we aren’t thieves, we’re just trying to cover all our bases.

With only minimal frustration we put the entire array back together with the agreement that if these efforts didn’t at least improve the issue, there was nothing else we could actually do and we would just have to bite the bullet and get the whole replacement faucet. We put everything back in place, taking extra care to get the “hot” and “hot” labels on the appropriate taps, and gingerly turned on the water. The cold now dripped a little behind the handle but not out the tap. The hot water, fully opened, was a flood of water gushing forth, and in the closed position, continued to flow at nearly the same power as when opened.

We turned the supplies back off and scratched our heads. We took a couple pieces back out and put them back in again and tightened a few things (reversing our initial strategy of, “if it screws, unscrew it, if not, pull on it” with “if it unscrews, screw it tighter; if not, push it”).

And, to everyone’s shock and amazement (I’m including you in “everyone” because I’m sure you’re dubious after reading our methods) it worked. It doesn’t leak anymore! And thanks to the extended vinegar soak, it’s shinier than I’ve ever seen it! So shiny it makes the rest of the tub look filthy! (I tried to retouch the photos, but don’t look too closely, okay?)

The only thing we can’t figure out is how we messed up the actual mechanics of the tap handles. Originally, the handles pointed down in the off position and were lifted up one quarter turn to the on position. Now they turn the opposite direction. We know we can put the start position wherever we want, we figured that much out. But if we put them like they were before, pointing down for off, we now would have to push them back toward the plumbing to turn on. Instead we’ve opted to have them point up in the off position and pull down to be on, and we’ll just have to fight six years of muscle memory every time we try to adjust the shower. I’m sure there’s something with the cartridges we changed that made the knobs turn the opposite direction, but we can’t figure out what it would be, and we’re even more doubtful that we would have accidentally, completely unknowingly, done it to both of them.

And now we get to laugh at the handles sticking straight up like someone walked into the bathroom and said “stick ’em up!” and the tub complied in surprised terror. But it didn’t wet itself, and that was the goal, so we’re counting it as a victory. Another plumbing job well done. Or at least, another plumbing job done. The quality of the work is open for interpretation.

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