Best Laid Plans All Wet

Damn if last night I hadn’t made a list of all the shit I needed to do today. Nothing earth shattering, but it was a plan — a plan! Groceries, dishes, laundry a bike ride, dusting, vacuuming, a stogie, blah blah blah. Then at 7:30 a.m. Susan hears a strange hissing sound coming from the basement and we go down to investigate and one of the two water heaters is spilling its contents all over the concrete.

Thus begins the odyssey of getting a new water heater, which supplants all of the other stuff I had agendized. First we call our regular plumbers but get nothing but answering machine. So we call a plumbing/heating/electrical company that we’d used last year for a fuse box emergency and the good news is they get a guy out by 11 a.m. The bad news is he says the second, still-functioning water heater, which is the same age as the one that broke, could go at any time. The worse news is that he comes back with an estimate of $1,715 to replace the broken one and if we opt to do the second one as well he can give us a discount of $1,638. For a total of $3,400 dollars. He tells me this with a straight face.

I pitch it to Susan at work whose not very anxious to spend a weekend without hot water. Neither am I, but neither of us are all copacetic on coughing up three large for the luxury either. So I suggest just doing the one broken heater and praying that the other one holds (that second one serves the tenant upstairs) on for a while longer. Susan agrees and away this guy goes to pick up our $1,700 unit.

After he leaves I just can’t shake the feeling that $1,700 is just an off-the-chart rip. So I google “water heaters” and I find Home Depot offers a free telephone consultation. So I call up and I get this nice guy Brian somewhere in Tampa, Fla., who takes all my information and comes back with a much more realistic figure of $860. In fact to do both heaters through Home Depot would cost basically the same as the $1,700 one that was probably on its way back from the warehouse at that very moment. He even volunteers to conference call Susan into the discussion where we fill her in. She’s pleased. I’m pleased. Brian’s pleased. I ask her to rush a call to the rip-off plumbers to head them off at the pass while I finish up with Brian.

From there it’s just a waiting game of hearing from whoever the installation contractor is, so I revert to my list. I boil some water and do the dishes, then I dust and clean, then I sweep and vacuum and get all the trash out. At some point the original rip-off plumber sheepishly shows up to collect his $57 “service call charge.” And I neener-neener him with much money I won’t be spending today with him thanks to Home Depot. He shrugs and leaves. After that the phone rings and its the Home Depot installer’s offic. First she tells me that there will be an additional $43 charge for a second permit since each water heater needs its own permit (what the hell?). Then she says ohandbytheway… we can’t install them today, which was totally contrary to what Home Depot had promised.

Oh yes you can, I tell her. Actually I said a lot more than that and much more emphatically, to which she responded by asking me to hold for eternity before coming back and saying, all right they’ll be there somewhere between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. I almost burst into tears in relief.

Around 2:30 in mid-vacuum of the livingroom and entry there’s a knock on the door and it’s a guy from the contractor. “That was fast!” I say. The vibe I get from him is “not so fast.” Turns out he’s just the lead guy here to scope out the job site and find every which way to tack on what he calls “additionals.”

But before we even get to that we get down to the basement and encounter the first obstacle. Surveying the clearance and the current venting he chirps back and forth with his super on his Nextel phone and the conclusion is that the new heaters are too tall and there isn’t enough clearance so it just won’t work and the only option is to relocate the heaters outside somewhere.

I digest this as best I can and ask for clarification. “You’re saying because the new heaters are two lousy inches taller than the old ones that somehow is fucking everything up and now we’ve gotta move everything into the northside garden?”

I swear he said “Cha-ching!”

My shoulders droop, crestfalllen. Then a lightbulb goes off.

“Well what if we used smaller water heaters?”

Now it was his shoulders that drooped as the dollar signs evaporated from the estimate he was fantasizing about.

“Uh, that would work. Instead of a ’12-Year 40-gallon’ you could go with a ‘9-Year 40-gallon Short’ and that would even be cheaper.” Then he brightened. “But there’s a $50 equipment-change fee!” I sighed and nodded that would be acceptable and he went to work building his “additionals” estimate which came to somewhere around $700 — including that additional $43 for the second permit.

Good to go, right? Heeeellllllll nah. A few minutes go by and I hear his super instructing him via the Nextel that for a basement install the water’s gotta be totally off — not even a trickle. Trouble is, the guy can’t find the water shut-off valve at the street. He found the one for the house to the south and shut that one off thinking that was ours until the neighbor came out and said what the fuck so he turned it back on. Then he finds the one for the house to the north and he shuts that off with the same results. So I call Susan at work and I ask her where it might be and she tells me it’s under the steps up to the tenant’s place. I retreat there with the guy and we find a green knob that we keep turning and turning clockwise but the water’s not slowing down in the slightest.

Dude shakes his head, which is contractor for “you are soooo screwed” and proceeds to detail how those are the worst types of valves because they fail so easily and the only way to repair it is to cut the pipe and solder on a new better valve but without being able to shut the water off from the street it’ll be gushing everwhere and there’s no way to solder on the new pipe. He shakes his head again and I want to tell him there’s no need to repeat myself: I’m screwed.

“You’re sure there’s no shut off at the street,” I ask… my last grasp at hope that new water heaters are in my near future.

“Not that I could find.”

I go inside and call Susan to tell her the problem with the valve and that the outlook is bleak. Then I tell her to keep her chin up and get off the phone opting to look for the phantom valve myself. I go down to the curb and I’m peering into and under layers of ivy that haven’t seen the light of day for years. I even scuff across some bare dirt across the sidwalk from the front steps in the last ditch effort to unearth the telltale cover.

Nothing. But something tells me it’s gotta be here. If the house to the south has one and the house to the north has one, then we’ve gotta have one, and so I drift to the cover of the easily visible cover to the valve for the house to the south. Then I look just to the left and there she is in the form of the hole to lift the small steel trapdoor. It’s well-camouflaged by a decent layer of dirt and partially covered by the creeping edge of an ivy patch but it’s there and I have to quell the urge to call the contractor dude an idiot who came this close to depriving hot water to me, my wife, and my daughter because he couldn’t find our shutoff if it had jumped up and bit him. Instead I ask him if I could get some sort of finder’s discount. He laughs and tells me that’s a good one. I tell him I’m not kidding. He starts to shake his head and I tell him to stop it. I come back inside and call Susan to tell her the good news and that I hope I don’t have to talk to her again until she gets home

That was about a 45 minutes ago. As I’ve been writing this the pair of “9-Year 40-Gallon” shorties have arrived and there has been much banging as the installation progresses. With every chirp of the Nextel from somewhere underneath the house and its muffled reply from the dude, I cringe and await the next layer of bad news, the next undiscovered valve or the next unconquerable obstacle that will prevent the heaters’ installation from being completed without throwing another gob of money at it.

And I could use a shower.