Hello Readers of ‘The Pipe’,
It’s that time again. Another volley of personal perspective. As we here in North America are about to enter another summer (and growing season) it’s evident we do so (in some regions) with frighteningly low levels of stored water, both in the ground and in lakes and reservoirs. The author has been reading that in the middle and western states this summer and fall, severe water use restrictions can be expected, as a result. (PtP can recall the 1970-‘77 California drought where at the worst stage, residents of the City of San Rafael received as much as a $50.00 fine for as little as one too many toilet flushes.) And, how many readers remember “The yellow’s mellow but the brown goes down”, or “Share the water, shower with your neighbors”?
Well, now PtP believes it’s very possible a sizable number of us Sunbelters are, in the near future, going to revisit some of these strapped conditions. Yes, it’s scary, in more ways than one. (The author lives deep in an already stressed fire-prone forest.) How bad can it get? Only time will tell. But in this blogpost the author will revisit some of the standard water saving precautions we tend to forget or overlook in plentiful water times but may now, again, be worth paying attention to.
There are four consistent trouble makers when it comes to the most common causes for water waste involving residences. Pete likes to think of them as The Four Whales. This post will not be a repair tutorial but rather a maintenance preparedness reference for a possible Western/Mid-Western mega-drought.
1st Whale: Thirsty Mechanical Servants
Pete the Plumber’s long time good friend, Berkeley professor C. McGee, once had a fridge/freezer that should have been retired a generation previous to its demise, but the old Scot just couldn’t bring himself to chuck it and buy a new one. This went on for years until finally he was finding his chilling martini glasses totally entombed in ice. After PtP’s constant chiding (and ice chipping) the Perfesser relented and replaced the old servant with an efficient new refrigerator/freezer. (He learned from the appliance store that his old fridge/freezer had six motors which when new, the electricity to run them was cheap.) (The ‘Perfesser’s’ electricity (aside his drinking water) was also sourced from hydro-power, hundreds of miles away, part of the biggest plumbing system on the planet.
It was the same with his automatic washing machine. I think Eisenhower was President when it was made. A rivulet of water ran out from under it every time it ran. Conveniently a floor drain was feet away. When the rivulet eventually became a horse piss the old Scot’s disdain to spend was drowned into action. A a new mechanical servant was installed. (After a rather short interim (two utility’s billing cycles) later the Perfesser was bragging that between the savings over the old fridge/freezers electric bills and the water and power savings over his old washing machine, he was ‘ahead’ twenty-five dollars a month.
So, (the lesson) if you have been thinking (dreaming) of replacing some long serving water and/or power hungry appliance (fridge/freezer, dishwasher, or washing machine), according to meteorological science reports it appears there would be no better time than now to do it. *Also, if your dwelling is served by a water utility, you should check with them for any number of money saving incentives they may have on offer. Pete the Plumber has saved many of his clients considerable sums by recommending that action. If ‘things’ (drought effects) do get really ‘dicey’ again, fees are going to climb sharply to possibly astronomical. Any such incentive programs acted upon will have proved prescient. Don’t lose out.
Timing and the 2nd Whale: Bathing
Just as the public has been informed through community service media that we can save on our electric bill by timing our washing machine and dishwasher use to ‘off’ hours, time and water play another part in our rhythmical hygienic habit: bathing. Be honest now. Who hasn’t fallen back into long showers and/or deep soaks since the last time we were asked to drastically reduce our water usage?
The time it takes automatic appliances to go through their various cycles, is, automatically programmed. Even though our present, possible decadent bathing practice (2nd Whale) may seem ‘automatic’ to us, we are the programmer. We may discover here in the future just how much monetary expense we will endure to enjoy our presently unregulated bathing habit.
At the State Park we may insert several dollars of quarters in the slot to take a hot shower of the shortest ‘acceptable’ duration. In a worse case scenario we could see comparable pricing (or worse) at home, on our monthly utility statement.
May the author make a suggestion? (Too bad if you disagree). ‘Things’ can have a way of becoming pretty irritating to us in our daily activities, but one thing that is almost universal: a good hot bath or hot shower goes a long way reversing it. Though yours truly wasn’t in the military service (Boy Scouts doesn’t quite cut it) he wishes to mention/introduce a military term: G.I. Shower. You have probably heard the term and already understand the concept. (But PtP doesn’t want to lose any stragglers.) The G.I. Shower equates to a: quick, military version of a low water use bathing method, via a timing.
This method means shower water running in short segments, with it turned off in between, while the bather lathers. Then the water is resumed to rinse down the body. This timing cycle: water on/water off (in military scenarios) serves two purposes. One, is to reinforce the concept of efficient use of ‘supplies’, and the military’s other intent (of course) is torture: to ‘viscerally’ remind the bather who’s the boss.
PtP wants to tell you in the next paragraph about a little piece of plumbing hardware (which has been around for decades) that can remove any semblance of torture for conscientious civilians (sand crabs?) wanting/needing to take ‘action’ to combat the ‘tyranny’ of severe water restrictions, which could interfere with their personal desires involving the cleaning and maintenance of their bodies.
Mounting the Flow
With the incorporation of a flow control valve (Photo 1) on your shower arm, upstream of the shower head, lucky civilians can learn to enjoy an actual civilized version of the G.I. shower (with the superior to G.I. bath fittings in most homes). This routine will come in handy when ‘things’ get ‘dicey’. Because of the flow control valves ability to abruptly stop and then let go of a pre-determined temperature and volume of water, there’s a huge savings by two measures. Read on to find out how and why.
Most tub and shower valves manufactured at this writing are now single handle designs. The reason for this is scald safety. The long used two handle shower valve was cause for many tragic burns, usually involving children’s use of the plumbing and to a lesser degree tragic burns to adults from using an unfamiliar shower valve which was improperly installed (hot and cold piping were switched.) States like California (usually first at everything) finally put their foot down and mandated no more unregulated two handle and single handle shower valves. After a certain date a l l shower valves sold in the State had to be temperature compensated so that a bather, by his/her actions or due to a negligent plumber could not scald themselves when using the shower.
A two handle shower valve can be temperature regulated by plumbing in an additional temperature control device. The added cost of the extra device and the plumber’s labor time to install it makes this an unappealing choice for most consumers. Manufacturers found the simplest fix was to modify a single handle valve to attain the goal of scald-safe.
The internal mechanics of a scald safe valve means (except for one version mentioned downstream) the valve first begins sending only cold water. The hot water is added as the flow is increased, awaiting “The Three Bears” ‘just right’ point. As you go from cold to the hot in the “just right” direction, the flow also increases.
Many bathers using single handle scald safe shower valves (without the addition of a flow control valve) never find the “just right” combination of flow rate and temperature that they most desire.) See: Slight Detour, downstream.
With scald safe valves there is no way anyone can make hot come out first (like one could do with the ‘old style’ two or ‘old style’ unregulated single handle valve). An ability to turn on the hot water first is what caused so many scalds over the years.
‘High end’ models of some scald safe tub/shower valves are offered in a pre-temp version where the bather selects the desired temperature prior to turning on the valve. The price there-of is reflective.
The ‘G.I.’ Made Easy
And Mostly Painless
Having to re-adjust both temperature and flow rate each time one turned off a two-handle shower valve in order to conserve water, and perform a ‘G.I.’, the author believes was an imposing force of resistance to doing the routine. But, with the inclusion of the flow control valve on the shower arm, it’s an all new ballgame.
With a flow control valve (Photo 1, above) on the shower arm, we have the luxury of maintaining the temperature and flow the bather first selected, and, return immediately the same with each ‘on-and-off’. This allows (with a quality shower head) for a surprisingly degree of ‘pleasant enough acceptance’ for a more water saving bathing routine if and when it becomes mandatory.
A Slight Detour
The author lives in an apartment blessed with a spacious bathroom and spacious shower with a non-pre-select temp, scald-safe single handle shower valve. Because PtP likes things hot, to attain his desired temperature for a shower the valve will also have to be operating at near full volume. Now you might find this a bit odd but Pete prefers his hot water delivered from his shower head at a somewhat reduced (wimpy?) flow rate. Without the added flow control valve Pete would be out of luck. To get his desired temp he would have no control over how much force the valve produced. The flow control valve lets the scald safe valve operate normally to attain desired temperature and at the same time also lets the bather select the flow rate of that “just right” shower water. Not only that, but by leaving the knob on the flow control valve where he found his “just right”, he saves water with each shower by not having to “search” for his/her “just right” with the water running (with or without the neighbors).
The author admits that he likes nothing better than lying in his antique, 6’, legged cast iron tub, out on his deck (up to his chin) in 104 degree heaven, on a starry night, soaking with Ms.Piggy Bubble Bath in water that’s derived from his free-flow spring— for free.
Our first whale of a cause for high bills of water and energy, just discussed upstream, was out dated washing machines. Our Second Whale was bathing (our choice of shower habits). Our third whale cause for high usage and high bills is our toilets. A running toilet can easily go through 30,000 or more gallons of water a week. If things were to get drought ‘dicey’, at those volumes, someone’s most basic bodily function might have to function in a less than convenient place. (As a touring cyclist PtP learned first hand what a convenience a BM was on a manufactured fixture in a private setting.)
Toilets tend to leak large volumes of water in two places. Either the fill valve (Photos 2 & 2a) does not shut fully off and the tank over fills, and the excess flow, through a connected poly Fill Tube, goes over to and down the Flush valve’s Over-flow Tube (Photos 3, 3a & 3b), sending potentially thousands of gallons of fresh, drinking water, very slowly and silently down the MBD (Main Building Drain). The cost of that wasted (and soon to be precious) water at severe drought pricing would be prohibitive.
The second common water loss is a leak at the tank flush valve (Photo 4). At the time PtP first buckled on his tool belt there were several unique designs of flush valves commonly found in his district. Today, what’s called generically a flapper design (Photo 4 ) is industry-wide, the most common. Because of its shape, plumbers often referred to them as pancakes (Photo 4a). Over the years, other competing designs found some favor, one of them the tilt-back.
One of the major competing designs that did take hold that the author favored for its simple/dependable operation, was the ‘tilt-back’ introduced by American Standard. (Photo 5) The author appreciated this design because he could manipulate the ‘timing’ of the flush by adding/subtracting tiny weights. (Out of his tackle box).
PtP in his earliest tutorials (The Straight Poop—A Plumber’s Tattler) wrote Chapters such as: “Hot Rod Your Toilet Tank”. Those were different times, both culturally and state of the environment. He would not suggest you follow those instructions, today. Manufacturers have stepped up to their obligations to society, so to speak. You can find very efficient toilet choices today.
*PtP was once admitted to an exclusive, experimentally focused medical clinic which happened to have terribly performing toilets. As a bribe, he wrote the manufacturer of one design of high performance/efficient toilet and offered to write a magazine article for the most elite publisher of the ‘enlightened builder’ genre, IF they would donate toilets to the clinic. When Pete wasn’t being treated, he was busy installing toilets.
Regardless of the design of flush valve you might encounter, the sealing of the water in the tank is accomplished through the use of rubber type material, formed into preferred shapes for the valves seat (Photo 6). Rubber type compounds do break down over time, in water, and need to be replaced.
Regardless of the shape of the flapper and the seat in the base of the flush valve, when the rubber type compound of the flapper (or ball) deteriorates far enough, leakage begins. In almost all cases the leakage is silent and only by billing shock is one alerted to ‘something’ being ‘wrong’. Thankfully, most all of the different ‘flappers’ are economically priced.
Over many years PtP discovered that the flapper (pancake) one manufacturer shipped with its toilet sometimes worked on other brands of toilet, also. He had a large collection on his plumbing truck to experiment with.
Most municipal water utilities will happily send you via the Post, free, upon request, some potent, brightly colored die tablets to help you determine if you have a flush or a fill valve leak. These tablets are dropped (gloved hands?) into the tank and, in time (minutes) if the water in the bowl turns that color, you know the flush valves flapper needs replacement, or a seal in the Fill Valve has failed and is letting excess water into the Fill Tube of the Flush Valve. If that is the case the seal needs replacement. (Depending upon the age of the toilet (and a worst case), replacement of the flush valve itself might be required if a new pancake/flapper cannot prevent at leak at the Flush Valve seat.)
Replacing a flush valve itself can be a time consuming procedure but a motivated layperson is capable of doing it using my other books: “Installing And Repairing Plumbing Fixtures” and “The Straight Poop”, available at used book sources. The Straight Poop can also now be downloaded for free on the Net.
The last common source discussed for slow, silent leaks are automatic valves incorporated into irrigation systems. If you have automatic irrigation systems which are maintained by professionals there is little worry about faulty valves. But if it’s your responsibility, it’s worth walking the turf occasionally with an eye not just for dandelions but also soggy spots (especially near and around the valves). If it does soon get ‘dicey’ (severe drought) water pricing will take care of the dandelions (and probably/maybe even your lawn, or plantings) but you won’t want to be pissing away the then precious commodity in a futile attempt or paying an exorbitant water bill (if they let you). Perhaps the situation (this? time) merits a professional’s attention?
There are other common leak sources and ‘situations’ that can affect your water bills but the topics we’ve discussed are the most prevalent ones and those easily diagnosed by the dweller of the property involved. Even if you don’t find yourself so impacted, in casual communications with those in your ‘bubbles’ you may be able to offer some valuable hints on the subject everyone will be talking about, and…help someone else?
*In the 1970’s drought in California a particular ugliness arose (that wasn’t plant growth). PtP has empathy for those who by nature are green thumbs and maybe ‘don’t feel really alive’ unless they are caring for their gardens. (Pete’s first ‘outside of home responsibilities’ job was a Gardener’s grunt.) In California’s 70’s drought there happened to be a high concentration of “one-percenters” in the area, served by PtP’s water utility. These individuals did not care how much dinero it cost to maintain their 40+ acres of urban, manicured tropical forests and grounds.
When the pain level of the general public (having to let their landscaping die) started spilling over into the ‘overflow tube’, there were bills introduced to allocate water (a specified amount) per person NOT by account numbers. It got bitter. I hope we don’t have to witness that once more.
Ace In The Hole
Hopefully this summer and growing season will come and go with little suspense and the sky will stay put and we’ll again soon be thinking about ski and boot rentals. PtP (nevertheless) plans on getting off his “gasoline plantation” forest homestead for the duration, just in case—harvesting oysters and razor clams in Puget Sound (knee-deep in fire-proof H2O!).
When It’s ‘That’ Time Again,
Peter Hemp is a San Francisco East Bay residential plumber and plumbing author and former R & D steam vehicle plumber. His hobbies are ocean kayaking and touring the Left Coast by bicycle.
All Rights Reserved