Monday, February 15, 2021

Shut off.

    "I smell gas," my wife says, coming up from our basement, which is like the setting of a Stephen King novel.
     "I do too, sometimes," I muse, from the sofa. "The house is 115 years old. It must be because of the cold."
    It was 0 degrees this morning. Now it's warmed up to 16.
     "I'm going to call Nicor," she says. It's about 2 p.m.
     I did not leap up, shouting, "The hell you are!" Which, had I known what is coming, I might have done. I would suggest we instead crack a window in the basement and wait for spring.
     But nobody wants to blow up. Houses sometimes do that. Ka-boom. I raise no objection. She calls.
     Meanwhile the dog, which has had tummy troubles, fixes me a meaningful look. We go outside just as the Nicor guy arrives in a white pick-up truck. My wife goes to let him in.
     The dog and I walk. I'll draw the veil. When we return, the Nicor guy is in the basement, waving a wand attached to some device around some rusty pipes by the far wall, by the fuse box. He explains that he's shutting off the gas. Get a plumber, fix the leak.
    "And then you'll come back?" I say, hopefully, trying to get up to speed and process this development.
     "Someone will, yes."
     I did not foresee this development. It seems important to get all the information I can from him while he's here. He shows me where the leak is.
     "Shouldn't you tag it or something?" I say, worried about my ability to point out the proper spot should a plumber actually arrive in the near future. 
     "We only do that for complicated leaks," he says. He shows me the valve he used to shut our boiler off, the boiler that would normally be filling the radiators with hot water, heating our house. But now won't be doing that. Because the gas is off.
     Then he's gone.
     He briefly reappears outside the house, locking the meter no doubt. I suppress an urge to bolt outside, wading up to him in the snow, drop to my knees, hands clasped in front of me. "Please, PLEASE turn our gas back ON!"
     It's about 2:30 p.m. 
     "Panic" is the wrong word. "Focus," is closer. Get a plumber, get him in here, get the pipe fixed, get Nicor back, turn on the gas. I feel magnificently focused.
     My wife steps in. We have a magnet. In the kitchen. With the phone number of Village Plumbing. I call. Explain the situation.
     "I'll call you back," the lady on the other end says.
     While I'm doing this, my wife remembers that we pay $5 a month for Nicor Home Solutions. Which, in theory, is supposed to help with this kind of thing. She phones and gets put on hold. I open the taps to a trickle in all the bathrooms, the kitchen, and the slop sink in the basement. Keep the pipes from freezing. That feels like decisive action.
     I stand in the living room, and can feel the house cool. 
     Twenty minutes pass. I phone the plumber back. "He'll be there within an hour," she says, with a note of exasperation. "I'll call you when he's on the way."
     "Within an hour?" I say, grasping at hope. Yes, within an hour. 
     Nicor Home Solutions finally picks up after a half an hour. They want to know if any of us have COVID. My wife explains we do not. They too have a plumber who would also be here, also within an hour. My wife wonders should she have him come.
     "Yes!" I say, con brio. "Between the two of them, one of them should show," I am normally the most laissez faire, let-things-work-themselves out kind of guy. Let's wait for the free Nicor plumber. We've been paying five bucks a month for, Jesus, probably 20 years. Might as well get a return for our investment.
     But this does not seem one of those coast-along situations. Plus I do not have faith in people. Nicor took half an hour to pick up the phone. It would take them half a week to get here. I have no point of reference here. I don't remember this happening to anybody I know. 
     I leap on Twitter and Facebook to inform the Hive. I could see needing to tap their intelligence. I lay out the story, ending, "The plumber is, in theory, on the way. I'll keep you posted."
     The Village Plumbing plumber arrives, and I somehow resist the impulse to hug him in greeting. Tall, handsome, he has worked on our boiler before. I lead him to the the fitting that the Nicor guy had pointed out. He applies wrenches to it, conducting a monologue on the relative merits of gas company practice now versus in years past that discretion dictates I do not record. He opens the pipe up, observes that it is rather loosely sealed.
     Even as he is doing this, he informs us to call Nicor back up right now and tell them that the problem is fixed and they were to come back now and turn the gas on. Star the process.
     "Do you have any space heaters?" Eric the Plumber asks. 
      "No," I say. "I don't think they would be much help in a place this large."
      "They can do a surprisingly good job." This worries me. I do not want to heat my house with space heaters. I want the heat back on, and just raising the subject seems to imply that is in question. He speculates whether Nicor will pressure test the lines when they return—could cause other leaks. Old house like this, one you jiggle one pipe, others could go.  
     "Yeahhhh..." I imagine the Nicor guy saying, "You're going to need to replace ALL these pipes. And your basement is a foot too shallow. That's not up to code..."     
     I try not to think about it. I do think about all the people everywhere who this happens to who aren't johnny-on-the-spot types. Who don't leap to get that plumber. Or can't find one. Or pay for it. And wonder which is more dangerous: a slow gas leak? Or a house without heat in February when it's 10 degrees outside?
     My wife reaches Nicor, and is told someone will be by before midnight. Eight hours away. I place my fingers on a radiator. Still warm. That's good. Minutes to cut your heat, hours to get it back. That's life as I understand it.
      The plumber sent by Nicor Home Solutions arrives, about 15 minutes after Village Plumbing leaves. He seems very young. We send him away with apologies.
     There seems nothing to do but write a column, which I am doing now. If a meteor were headed toward earth to destroy it, I'd probably do the same. I can decide later whether this is the sort of hale, we're-in-it-together problem that readers can relate to, or a terrified bleat of white privilege by a suburban burgermeister who for a few hours glimpsed the skull of bureaucratic bungling that normally is kept well-fleshed out and smiling for me. (Editor's note: the latter, which is why you're reading it here and not in the newspaper).
      My wife goes in the basement, finds a space heater the size of a large lady's purse that I didn't remember we had, and sets it up near her computer in the living room. I place my hand two inches from its grill.
     "It heats the air for inches," I say. But after a while, it does have some slight effect.
      The snow is falling, in big flakes. Quite pretty, under usual circumstances.
     At 4:30 I say, "Whatever we do for dinner, let's bake something." 
     "Right," my wife replies, "I'll make some corn bread..." She pauses—do you see this coming? I don't—then starts laughing.
     "The gas is off," she says.
      We put on our Land's End fleeces. I slip on a pair of fingerless gloves. It's 60 degrees in the house. At 5:30 we eat an early dinner. Hearty tomato soup with gnocchi. It feels very Eastern European, to be sitting in our kitchen in our coats eating hot soup. Almost an adventure. Like camping in your kitchen.
     Darkness falls. I notice that all the trivial crap that usually dominates my low-level consciousness has fallen away. Getting the heat back on is all that matters.
     At 6:30 p.m. another Nicor guy shows up. Before he even knocks on the door he tramps around to the side of the house and turns the gas on. First thing, he goes into the kitchen to see if the stove lights. Then we tramp into the basement and he lights the pilot light on our boiler and fires it up, then does the same on our hot water heater. He is niceness itself. 
      After he leaves, I first of course inform social media, which shares my relief. Then wonder if we handled it properly. Maybe we should have saved money by not calling Village Plumbing and just waiting for Nicor Home Solutions to send somebody. But I had no reason to assume Nicor would get somebody out, and quick action seemed important. Anyway, done now.


  1. One of the first things I did when I bought my house was replace the old furnace with a new one and made sure it was a reputable company with 24 hour service. Over 20 years it has gone out (like a week ago last Friday at 8:30 at night), I place the call, they called back within 30 minutes, furnace was back an running within an hour. It's a very nervous feeling until they show up and fix it. And when they show up you feel so relieved. They are like great magicians when they show up and fix it. Your problem happens and it 40 degrees outside you don't worry so much, but when it's below zero it a bit frightening. I wonder if you could have just called Village Plumbing in the first place.

  2. I tell people all the time, never, ever call the gas company if you smell gas in the house.
    Call a plumber, because the plumber won't turn off your gas & lock it off, even in cold weather, he'll just fix the leak!
    And actually, you aren't smelling the gas, which is odorless, you're smelling a chemical called Mercaptan, which is added to the gas & is distantly related to the liquid skunks spray out.

  3. I do property management and maintenance . I called the gas company because of the smell and a 6 flat had no gas for 2 days in January a couple years ago . it was in the 30s. the leak was outside and they had to bring out a back hoe . when I smell gas now. I call the plumber. but tenants call the gas company and end up with the gas shut off . sometimes for days. ive ground barrel locks off the meter while waiting for them to come back and turn it on. just turn it on after the repair my damn self. can't have the water pipes freeze. which of course has happened. what mess that is. at least I dont own or live in these buildings.

    I think you handled it all just right Neil. safety first

  4. This is wonderful, and could not have been done justice in 700 words, IMHO. But the jewel in the crown is: "I can decide later whether this is the sort of hale, we're-in-it-together problem that readers can relate to, or a terrified bleat of white privilege by a suburban burgermeister who for a few hours glimpsed the skull of bureaucratic bungling that normally is kept well-fleshed out and smiling for me. (Editor's note: the latter, which is why you're reading it here and not in the newspaper)." Cherce, indeed.

    That being said, you discover a gas leak and within 4 1/2 hours you've been visited by 4 helpers and it's working again? Seems to me that the skull was not really bared in this instance and that you were smiled on as usual. Though I appreciate the reference to bureaucracy better after reading the first 2 comments.

    As somebody who feels guilty pointing out typos, I revel in this one. "Land's End," ridiculously, has the apostrophe in the wrong place in this account. As far as the company is concerned, not as far as the dictionary is, of course. : )

  5. Speaking as one who's survived several domestic home maintenance crises over the decades (several of which had to do with growing up in a Wilmette house built in 1873), I can say that what you learn in your first experience with a failed (name of important home device here) will enable you to either avoid or at least minimuze the severity of the same failure next time, expecially if the professional you've summoned is willing to share a little knowledge with you. The trick is to express interest (if not downright appreciation) in their work without hovering all over them. Let them fix it first, then tell you all about it, and most are happy to do so.

    Thus I learned all kinds of tips that came back to help me in later years. For example, candles are a terrific source of heat, cheaper and more plentiful than space heaters (and if your house was chilly on Valentine's Day of all days, you weren't doing it right). Modern gas-fired furnaces are lit with ceramic ignitors, which fail in winter at the worst possible time (when you're out of candles), but it's still possible to light the furnace manually by watching its elaborate computerized igniting procedure, and sticking a lighter into the gas jet at just the right moment, thus restoring heat for a time while you run out for a new ignitor.

    Your closeup photo of a hot-water radiator was familiar to me, too, as that is the view you have while burping air out of your upstairs radiators with the magic key found in all antique homes: untwist the little radiator petcock until air whooshes out, continue that until water emerges, close the petcock, and your radiator will now heat fully from top to bottom.

    I will cheerfully admit that gas leaks are at a different level of severity than most home crises, but that which does not blow you up makes you stronger.

  6. I once had a small gas leak, Peoples Gas turned off the gas, but rather than call a plumber,I put some teflon tape on the threads of the pipe and screwed it back together myself. I don't recommend that course of action. However unlikely it seems that your gas leak would have had any serious adverse effects, a couple of these unlikely events have actually occurred in my neighborhood in the last few years: at least one family (perhaps more than one) of 4 or 5 people went to sleep one night and never woke up due to carbon monoxide poisoning; another family's house blew up very spectacularly from a leak -- the lot remains empty years after the event -- I pass by several times a week.


  7. Not being mechanically inclined, I don’t understand why a plumber is needed for a gas leak. Do the water and gas travel through the same pipes? Seems implausible, but what do I know? Can one of you big, strong men explain it to the little lady? (Explanations also accepted from women.)

    1. Gas and water both flow through very similar types of pipe. But different systems of pipe. Separately in their own pipe. Plumbers work on water, seat and gas pipe.

      If you want something not to leak do not call me call a plumber. I'm a carpenter

    2. Pipes is pipes. Which is why, in the land of Qanon, plumbers often perform colonoscopies in their spare time...

    3. Plumbers do indeed deal with, well, most everything that flows through pipes, whether in liquid or gas form. If your project involves properly securing pipes so they won't leak, you call a plumber. (From my limited experience with plumbing repairs, they can have it.)

      In reading the comments here, it occurred to me that when our old gas-fired water heater expired, the replacement was installed by one very competent plumber, who handled connections for water, gas and electrical, needing no assistance from anyone else, other than to lift the new heater off the truck.

  8. Well, I'll take the bait -- I was always the one who volunteered to participate (as the stooge) in a teacher's mathematical tricks. I think the case of the advice (which usually sounds like a command) to get a plumber is a classic division of labor, which confounds men as often as women. The gas company is responsible for bringing gas to your house, but not for fixing your pipes, which, regardless of whether they carry gas or water or refrigerant or anything else usually fall into the domain of the plumber. The homeowner whose house blew up was said to have fiddled with the furnace the day before. A lesson well learned, if you can afford it; otherwise, you takes your chances.


  9. From the intro, I was expecting a more harrowing tale. Rather than wearing your fleeces to bed under doubled comforters, you were back to normal in time for a post dinner nap. I'd call that a win.


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