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It started as a leak in the toilet drain.

I hadn’t done any plumbing since we bought our house and was eager to try my hand at it. The toilet job seemed pretty simple: There was a cast iron pipe leading out of the bottom of the toilet. About a foot below, in the crawl space under the house, the pipe took a 90-degree turn and headed off into oblivion. The leak was above the 90-degree turn, but below the toilet. Replace that section of pipe, and you’re home free.

On Friday afternoon I visited the locally-owned plumbing supply store, told the salesman about my project, and bought the things that I needed. I had planned on replacing the piece of pipe from the floor to just past that 90-degree turn, using PVC instead of cast iron. This required taking the toilet up off the floor, as well as a handy little piece for making an easy transition from the PVC to the cast iron. I thought I’d just saw through the cast iron pipe with a hack-saw.

I spent about 30 minutes making a 1/8th inch dent in the 4 inch pipe before I went looking for another tool. (One thing I have learned, from the home improvement work I have done, is that there is nothing worse than working without the right tools.) I saved 60 bucks when, at Home Depot preparing to buy a “Sawz-All”, I ran into an acquaintance of mine who owned one. That made short (45 more minutes) work of the cast iron pipe, and I was on my way.

After the section of pipe was removed, and as I was preparing the floor for the new flange upon which the toilet would sit, my wife made a suggestion, and our project took a 90-degree turn.

“Wouldn’t it make sense, while the toilet is off the floor, to put the tile in?”

We had been discussing a bathroom renovation project for some time, which involved tiling the floor and tub enclosure, replacing the vinyl chair rail, installing a new vanity and toilet, and giving the room a paint job. Truthfully, it was the guest bathroom that was in direst need of the overhaul. This question is how it began.

So if we are going to install tile, we need to go ahead and get a new vanity, and so a new toilet. And of course the wainscoting we had discussed, and the paint, and why not get the shower curtain while we’re at it? After all, it’s on sale.

Our new vanity stands up on legs. It’s finish is Dark Espresso. The white ceramic counter top sits on top and overlaps each side, as well as the front, which extends out in the rounded shape of the basin. Very nice to look at, and the contoured counter top saves a few inches in the already tight space.

Our old vanity was the cheapest one at the store. It was white coated particle board. It sat on the floor. The counter top was a hazy pink pearl, the basin in the shape of a seashell.

Since the old vanity sat on the floor, it was alright that the pipes came up through the bottom. This wasted a significant amount of cabinet space, but wasn’t unsightly (setting aside the pink pearl seashell). Because our new vanity stands up on legs, pipes through the floor are unacceptable.

I should mention here that we didn’t think about the pipe issue until we had demolished the old ugly vanity. This was my first headache, because it meant moving all of the pipes back into the wall. My second headache came shortly afterward, when, upon examining the situation from below (in the crawl space that is, not laying with my head to the floor), I realized that a large beam ran the length of the wall just below the area through which our new pipe assembly must pass.

As we pulled away the wall board in the area behind the old vanity, we found our first piece of human history in the house. When we had moved in I had scoured the attic and crawl space for signs of those who had come before us. Living in an old house appeals to me partially because I feel a curiosity about and a personal connection to the events that have been happening here for the last century. I always hoped to find something significant: a picture or a letter, something human.

What we found was not a letter or a picture, but was somehow more human than either. Apparently, old medicine cabinets were fitted with a slot at the back or the side, specially designed for your used safety razor blades. In the crawl space I had found an old medicine cabinet, broken severely, and had paid little attention to it accept to avoid cutting myself on the glass. What we found in the wall were the razors. Hundreds of Gillette flat safety razors poured out of a gap between wall joists. My wife put on some gloves and began picking them up to throw them away, and I thought perhaps this was human history. This was evidence of time spent, the beginnings of days, for days and weeks on end.

This bit of plumbing required a little ingenuity. for each pipe (there are three, two small pipes bringing hot and cold water into the house, and one larger pipe through which water drains) I bought two 90-degree fittings and two 45-degree fittings. I also bought a length of 1-1/2 inch PVC (for the drain) and a length of 1/2-inch CPVC (for the hot and cold spigot). (CPVC differs from PVC in that it is made to withstand the heat of the hot-water tap. The plumbers who had come before me, wherever they may now be, had used CPVC for both the hot and water taps.)

Then I set to work. Instead of sending the pipes straight up through the middle of the beam, which would have required a great deal of drilling and I feared would compromise the house’s stability, I used a 90-degree fitting to turn each pipe straight up (I was starting with pipes running parallel to the floor), then a 45-degree fitting to angle them back toward the beam and the area inside the wall above. I ran them through a hole into the room, and then used my other 45-degree angle to re-straighten them. The last 90-degree fitting turns the pipes out into the room, now from within the wall, instead of out of the floor.

I did this for two of the three pipes (the drain pipe and the hot water tap). The only shut-off valve under our house does not turn off the cold water in the front half of the house. We’ve called a plumber to put in a valve, because I couldn’t find the shut-off at the street. I also completed the original project: repairing the leaky toilet.

Next, we repair the walls and prepare the floor for tile.

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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