Fixer Upper

Despite a bout of insomnia that kept me up all Friday night, Saturday was surprisingly productive. I normally only see the dawn hours when I stay up late enough, especially on the weekend, and sleeplessness afforded me the opportunity to shop at the Carrboro farmer’s market with M (though she’d gone to bed early and slept through the night).

I was a little frustrated, because while I don’t mind sleeping during the day, there was some house maintenance I’d been putting off for a while that I’d planned for Saturday. The light in the office ceiling fan was shorting out, and the toilet in the master bath was broken. It’s only a 24-year-old house, but I guess that’s normal wear-and-tear. So, after breakfast, I forced myself to stay up a little longer to whip the house into shape.

The Fan Light

A while back, we noticed a burning smell in the office. Not good. Some investigatory sniffery did not reveal the source. But shortly thereafter the light started flickering, and I put 2 and 2 together. Sure enough, when I pulled off the dome, the bulb was black and I could see a discolored wire. Though it seemed pretty serious, I put off fixing it out of fear for my life, and fear of the possible scale of the problem. I knew that to be prudent, I should find a way to cut the circuit or remove the fuse or something, so was waiting for a time M and I could work on it together during the daylight hours. I went into the attic to see if I could simply detach the wire leading into the fan, but no luck. But, judgment impaired and patience shortened by lack of sleep, I decided to dig into in anyway. It was really annoying to stumble over to the desklamp ever time we wanted to use the office… and a couple of times I’d instinctively flipped the overhead light switch, only to have the light flash briefly and go out, prompting an adrenaline-speed reaction to turn it back off.

Getting up close and personal to the light assembly showed that the wire was not just discolored, it was mutilated. I made sure the wall switch was off, and snipped the wires to the fan light. Wow. Not only were the wires crackling and frayed, but the socket casing was not so fresh. Why would it… ah. The elderly couple who’d owned the house had put in a 150-watt bulb. They were trying to burn my house down!

Okay, problem found. I drove to the locally-own hardware store, but it was closed by the time I got there (noon on Saturdays, indeed.) So to the Lowes (actually closer to my house, in an ironic twist on “local”), with burned-out lamp parts and toilet measurements in hand.

Side note: leaving the Lowes, I was getting into my car when some guy shouted at me from a few cars away, asking if I was from Missouri. How the hell did he know that? I thought furiously, wondering about my license plates (no, NC plates) or any other distinguishing markers, or if I somehow knew the guy… I was bewildered. Okay, no, he’d asked if I’m “from this area”, and my sleep-addled brain parsed poorly (and surprisingly). He wanted directions (I hope he found the place…. I was barely coherent).

I fought with the lamp for about half and hour, but all the pieces went back together grudgingly… the little pull-chain switch, the socket, the dome and its frame. A new 60-watt compact halogen lit up the room with nary a whiff of smoke.

The Toilet

From fire to water, next I tackled the toilet. This one was also a protracted problem. At first we were afraid the toilet seal was leaking, because M found water on the floor after flushing. Since we have another bathroom not far away, and it’s only the 2 of us, we’d just been using that one. I didn’t relish pulling up the toilet to fix the seal (the giant waxy ring that connects the toilet to the waste pipe), having helped a friend do it before (boy, that’s actually a great story… I should get him to get a Web site, start a blog, and write about it, so I could link to it… it would be worth it, he tells a great story).

So, a few weeks ago, a few months after M reported the problem (yes, months… I’m a busy slacker, and I didn’t want to get my hands literally dirty), I took a first-pass look at the toilet. I decided to flush it clean to confirm that there was a leak by getting into the “crawlspace” (more like a dirt-floor root cellar) and looking for leaks, since the house inspector hadn’t noted a problem last year. But when I flushed it, I noticed water running down the tank… I pulled off the porcelain tank lid, and got a face full of water. The ballcock stem was shooting a fountain of water, something straight out of a bad sitcom. There was the real problem, confirmed by a trip to the cellar. Just a matter of replacing the ballcock, then. Yay!

At Lowes, I was stunned to hear from the bathroom guy that crapper technology has changed! If you look in the back of your toilet, there’s normally a tube that rises above the waterline, atop which is attach an arm with a big plastic ball on the end; this assembly is the ballcock valve. It fills the tank, and as the ball floats on the rising water, it moves the arm, and at a certain angle, it shuts off the flow of water. There’s a more compact variant, too, where the float is a cylinder that rises up the valve tube. But now, now, there’s some tiny little valve that sits at the bottom of the tank, and uses water pressure to determine the volume of the water above it, shutting on at the right time. Brilliant! Mysterious! Cheap!

I installed it in three stages: step one was interrupted by an antiquated rigid water inlet pipe (the little connecting pipe under the tank) that wouldn’t cooperate; step two was a 5-hour nap while M went on errands and picked up a new flexible pipe; step three was connecting the pipe to the diaphragm valve.

I was flushed with success at finally getting all this stuff done. It somehow never occurred to me, until I wrote all this up, that I could have simply called in repair people months ago. But where’s the fun in that?