Frozen pipes and PTSD

I don’t mind cold weather. Even REALLY cold weather. (I subscribe to the philosophy that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.)  But I do have ‘thing’ about frozen pipes, and I know when and why I developed PTSD (Pipe Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The fall of ’70 was my second year in medical school. My wife and I had recently married and moved into an apartment above an unused (and unheated) machine shop in Rush, New York, now a suburb but at that time a very rural area about 15 miles south of Rochester, where I was in medical school and my wife was in graduate school. Plumbing was something I took for granted. It simply worked. Until, of course, it didn’t.

When Cindy and I went home to visit our families in Yonkers for the Christmas break, it didn’t occur to either of us to think about our pipes. On our return to our apartment in rural Rush early afternoon on Thursday, December 31st, 1970 (in anticipation of returning to classes on Monday, January 4th) we discovered that we had no water. The pipes under our apartment in that unheated and uninsulated garage had frozen solid. Inspecting them, showed that it was a good thing there had been no thaw as the expanding water had ruptured the pipes in multiple locations. 

ruptured pipes

I called our landlord and explained the situation. In normal renter-landlord settings, this would have been his responsibility, and a plumber would have been called. Ours was not a normal relationship. A group of medical and graduate students (and significant others) were renting 3 livable buildings on 130+ acres for next-to-nothing, in return for which we agreed to do repairs and maintenance on what we lovingly called The Farm. Mostly this meant mowing lawns, fixing broken windows, and doing similar minor repairs. Mr. Hallick told me to go to the hardware store nearby where he had an account, and charge whatever materials and tools I needed to fix the pipes to his account. (I don't mind using his name, as he was an awesome landlord.)

I made a diagram of the pipes complete with detailed measurements and went to the hardware store where I showed them my diagram and explained the situation. It was about an hour before they closed for the holiday weekend.

Them: “You planning to do this yourself?” 

Me: “Yes.”

Them: “You ever worked with copper pipes before?” My lack of knowledge was pretty obvious.

Me: “No.”

Them: “Do you know how to sweat pipes joints?”

Me: “No.”

At that point, two of them exchanged ‘a look’ and huddled together for a brief conversation. Then one of them took me to the plumbing section where he took me on a guided tour as he loaded up a dolly with lengths of pipe, a big pile of elbow and t-joints, a propane torch kit, solder, flux, a pipe cutter, pipe hanging brackets, a square piece of asbestos tile to put behind pipes when using my torch, and various other items.  He explained each one and how it was used as we loaded up the dolly. I don’t remember any trace of impatience or condescension.

pipe and joints

The three of us went out into the parking lot, where they helped me load it up in (and on) my Volvo. Then one of them gave me a demonstration of lighting and using the torch, cutting pipe, sanding the ends, using flux, and sweating the solder into the joint. They watched me try and corrected my mistakes until they were satisfied I could do it.

sweating copper pipe

They explained about how to find leaks and how to use bread in the pipe to keep an area dry while doing a repair. And they wished me good luck. 

I spent several hours that Thursday and my entire Friday replacing all the copper pipe. On both Saturday and Sunday I tracked down multiple  leaks and fixed them, trying hard not to set too many fires with my torch where the pipes ran adjacent to old and very dry wooden joists. By the time Monday arrived and I resumed the role of medical student, we had functioning plumbing with no leaks, and I was competent at joining copper pipes, even in small spaces. And I had PTSD (Pipe Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Months later, I returned to the hardware store to get some parts to fix our ride-on mower and they recognized me and asked how things had gone. They were pleased - but obviously rather surprised - at being told I had succeeded.

Despite my success and considerable pride at acquiring a new skill, I was permanently traumatized by the sound of dripping water. To this day, I cannot go to bed if I think I hear something dripping on the far end of the house. I still have the tools I bought that day. (Our landlord didn’t want them.) I and proud that I can still join copper pipe neatly and reliably. Fortunately the need almost never arises. I have worked hard to protect the pipes in our current very old farm house, though, and I think about it every time we have a stretch of bitter cold with consecutive nights in the minus-20 degree range.

 


 

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