Appreciation for Running Water (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 12 Aug 2023

Appreciation for Running Water

We were visiting relatives in Colorado when Dave's phone rang. Someone from county utilities, letting us know we had a major water leak at the house, it had been happening for more than a month, and this month's water bill was going to be over $700. Yikes! And ... gee, thanks, for waiting a month to let us know about it.

(Aside: the county recently force-upgraded everyone to new "smart meters" which are supposed to send alerts for problems like this. However, that only works if you can log in and set up an email address — and we'd been going back and forth with the county for months about why the system wouldn't let us set up an account, but nobody in the utilities department seemed to know much about how the online access worked.)

We had them send someone to turn off the water to the house. When we returned home a few days later, we called again to have the water turned back on briefly so we could see what was going on. The leak was somewhere between the meter and the house, making it our responsibility (natch). The county said they had no way of telling precisely where: it could be somewhere under the driveway, or under the garage (ouch!)

It was Friday, so of course there was no chance of persuading anyone to come out and take a look.

Life on the Rez

Thus began our ten-day "Live Like a Navajo" adventure. You read about life on parts of the Rez, and on some of the Pueblos too: several of the tribes in New Mexico and Arizona lack decent water infrastructure to many houses, part of why COVID hit some tribes so hard. But reading an article while sitting in a comfortable house with running water isn't the same as experiencing it.

We started by freeing up as many containers as we could: trash barrels, buckets, storage bins, anything we could find that might be watertight. That first day, we filled a bunch of containers during the brief period when the county workers turned on our water. After that, we found other places to fill up: the most convenient was the county spigot in the RV parking area at the Visitor's Center.

Toilet flushing with a pitcher of water was something I'd seen done, but not a skill I'd ever perfected. I'm much better at it now. Of course, showers were out. A bucket and washcloth really isn't a very satisfying substitute. On the other hand, a visit to the "splash pad" at Piñon park was almost as good as a shower. [Swamp cooler with hand-filled gravity water feed]

The biggest challenge was cooling the house, since this happened in the middle of a heat wave. Our house uses a swamp cooler rather than air conditioning, since evaporative cooling is just as effective in New Mexico's dry climate. But that requires water. It took a couple days to find the right fittings to rig a gravity-fed water system that we could refill by hand every couple of hours from water in buckets and barrels, poured through a kitchen strainer to filter out any big debris that might clog the cooler's pump.

A surprisingly annoying problem was how to wash (and rinse) dishes. We ate out a lot.

On Monday, a contractor we've worked with many times squeezed us in. That just confirmed what we'd already figured out. But he did have a recommendation for a company that could locate the leak. Unfortunately, the leak locator couldn't send anyone out until Friday. So we were stuck for at least all of that week.

Eventually we figured out how to turn the water on and off ourselves (SHHHHHH — don't tell the county. The utility workers told us not to touch it in case we might break something and be liable for umpteen thousand dollars replacement cost. But the turn-on is just a simple valve, like a lawn sprinkler, and we knew it wasn't stuck since they had already loosened it for us; it was hard to see why it should be particularly delicate.) Metzger's hardware in Los Alamos sells a tool that works fine. Once we had the ability to turn the water on and off ourselves, we could turn on the water then run around in a high-speed fire drill refilling all our buckets and barrels and taking quick showers. Life got a bit easier.

Leak Detection

Friday brought the leak detector truck. The method was interesting: he put an air injector on one of the outside hose spigots, to blow air back toward the meter; then he turned on the water and cast about with a listening device held just above the ground like a metal detector, listening for bubbles.

We were in luck: the leak was just a few feet from the meter, in the middle of a planting bed that would be fairly easy to dig up.

Of course, this being a Friday, we had another weekend to wait before we got any more help. We used the time doing what preparation we could: we cut down a juniper that was growing right over the leak since it was clearly going to be in the way, then we dug a hole down to the water line (well, Dave dug, I just helped cart dirt and rocks away). We verified the leak's location, and that the line was PVC rather than the copper everyone had expected.

The Fix

[hairline crack in PVC water pipe]

On Monday, our trusty contractor had someone who could come help us. He opened up the hole (I helped when they needed someone small to squeeze in and carefully hand-excavate dirt from around the electric line, which was right next to the water line). Once the hole was big enough, he spotted the problem pretty quickly.

Apparently, when they installed this PVC pipe, there was a rock sticking out into the path. That's no big surprise since we live on a basalt dome and there's more rock than dirt. Basalt is very hard, so breaking up a rock isn't an easy thing to do without explosives.

The original installer's solution to this problem was, "PVC is bendy, let's just force it over the rock." This resulted, eventually, in a hairline crack that didn't look like much but, under pressure, turned into a massive leak.

[PCV pipe routed around the rock] The fix was to install a series of right-angle joints to route around the rock without putting any stress on the pipe.

And we finally had water again! Time for a long, luxurious shower, and to wash the dishes that had been stacking up in the sink.

It was an interesting experience, being without running water for ten days. Kind of like camping at home. I know it's not the same as what people on the Rez have to go through: their lives might be a little easier if they have their houses rigged up to plug in water barrels ... but also a lot harder, because they have to travel such long distances to get their water. And a lot of houses don't have electricity, so no luxurious swamp cooler even if they haul enough water to run one. They have it a lot harder.

Yes, I am a spoiled twenty-first century American. But I have a new appreciation for the wonder of running water.

Tags: ,
[ 18:00 Aug 12, 2023    More misc | permalink to this entry | ]

Comments via Disqus:

blog comments powered by Disqus