Monday, October 20, 2008

The Pipes, The Pipes Are Calling

This weekend we took delivery of a brand new, cost me deep in't purse, all-singing, all dancing, microprocessor-controlled, blue LED-equipped1 dishwasher.

The old one had worked fine for about 15 years, but had recently developed the habit of giving everything a good soaking then switching on the heater and baking the sodden food remnants onto the plates, forks and casserole dishes. This meant that we had to take recourse to washing dishes by hand and by golly that was Not To Be Tolerated by official edict2.

Not being in the position of having a spare 900 bux for a new dishwasher (the 400 bux versions having been given the royal sniffing-at and having been declared not optimal replacement strategies by the higher-ups3) I decided to attempt repairs. After all, a dishwasher isn't a very complex machine really. You've got a plastic tub with a watertight door. Check. A pump motor that squirts water in and sucks it out. Check. There's a rotating spraybar or two, powered by the water jets. Check. A valve that opens to let water in, and another that opens to let it out again. Check and check. An electric heating element. Ow! Check. And a timer that tells everything when to work and when to stop working.


It didn't take a genius4 to work out that since all the other bits were doing what they were supposed to be doing, just not doing it as many times as they should, that the timer was the prime suspect for whatever was going wrong, and accordingly I went online to ascertain how much it would cost to buy a replacement. I wouldn't enjoy doing the job, but I could sustain myself as I tried to undo rusted-in screws and took the occasional juicing from un-disconnected wires with thoughts of not having been skinned for a new dishwasher.

It transpired that I could get almost every part for the dishwasher except for the timer, which was no longer made5. Two courses of action were open to me.

  1. I could attempt to buy what might be a working second hand unit from a scrap dealer or online auction site
  2. I could buy a new dishwasher

The advantage of the first would be a possible saving of cash at he expense of some emptoring of the caveat. I say "possible saving" because scrap dealers now operate on the assumption that whatever they are selling is made of unalloyed 99.99% pure gold6 and online auction houses suffer from price exaggeration hardly less extreme due to shill bidding7 and witless snipers9. This can send prices soaring way beyond the actual market value of whatever it is that is causing such activity.

The advantage of the second plan would be that Mrs Stevie would release the agonizingly painful back-hammer armlock she had me in.

So, a couple of weeks ago, we went out on a Friday night to look at dishwashers, and after only four hours or so I managed to narrow Mrs Stevie down to the choice of either the on-sale Whirlpool Dishrattler DeLuxe or me going to Sears' cutlery department and stabbing myself in the throat. Since I would be required to remove the old dishwasher and put in the new one, we reached an accord, and it would only cost me 650 bux.

I drove home with mixed feelings. On the one hand the seemingly endless dishwasher selection process was over. On the other I was soon to be down the cost of not one but two middle tier drill presses. Put another way: there went all thoughts of that metal-turning lathe I'd had my eye on. I was able to put it all in perspective too, though Mrs Stevie displayed no empathy and just told me to stop crying.

The next day, Saturday, we went to Sears, before breakfast I might add, to seal the deal. We met with a very helpful chap who bore a strong resemblance to Paul Giamatti, who played the chief of police in The Illusionist with such verve, made John Adams come alive in the eponymous HBO film of the same name, and totally stole Big Fat Liar from the kid from Malcolm in the Middle. I was so convinced that he was the actor, perhaps researching his next role as a Sears' sales person, perhaps simply forced, as so many are, into a second job simply in order to pay the electricity bill, that I began ad-libbing lines from the various movies I had seen him in, trying to provoke a response.

Unfortunately, I was mistaken in my identification and all this served to do was to puzzle the salesman first thing on a Saturday morning and annoy the hell out of Mrs Stevie. Win-win from where I was standing (on one foot by then, the other ankle having been roundly kicked during my impassioned and inspired rendition of the "blue man" scene from Big Fat Liar).

The salesman disappeared for a bit, then returned and announced that the dishwasher we had laboriously selected was, in fact, no longer available. Mrs Stevie asked about the floor model and it was my turn to get annoyed, since said dishwasher was quite badly dinged up. Fortunately, Chief Inspector Uhl (as I had taken to mentally calling him), only offered to remove 10% of the purchase price, and even Mrs Stevie wasn't so demented by the laying-low of her dishwashing plans to go for that.

Of course, this was entirely according to the wily Uhl's plan, and he quickly sprang the second part of the trap when he offered to show Mrs Stevie the current models on a computer. In no time at all the dastardly Viennese Chief of Police had persuaded Mrs Stevie that her only hope lay in a top-o-the-line model, the Whirlpool Bone China Coddlermatic With Power Rinse and Ultra-Galactic-Noise-Suppression, 900 bux in change with a year's service contract.

Once again Sears' carpark rang with the anguished howls and hopeless sobs of a man whose credit is deemed three times more worthy than the Federal Government's.

The dishwasher was due in town Last Saturday, and after the mandatory four day sulk I did a dishwasherectomy and uncovered the pipes and the wiring. Not a pretty sight. The pipes were tickety-boo, because when I had removed the original dishwasher after we moved in, I had catered for the change in standard in which the water feed for the machines went from being on the left side of the machine when viewed from the rear to the right side (when viewed from the rear).

Soldering pipe in that 27" square cubby-hole was no picnic, let me tell you, and I had no wish to engage in doing it again. Luckily the stoptap seemed to be working just fine, with no drips once I had shut it off. For once it seemed that the anti-handyman demons were caught napping. The wiring, however was another story.

When I had installed the now-broken dishwasher 15 years ago, I knew very little of wiring or plumbing. I had, in fact, paid for installation to be done for me. The Mrs Steviedad had ridiculed me and announced that installing a dishwasher was easy. He had done his with a friend and it took no time at all. I took him at his word and cancelled the 100 dollar installation fee10.

The dishwasher arrived and I discovered three facts of life:

  • firstly that the piping would have to be re-done
  • secondly that dishwashers are supplied sans plug or even external wires, the assumption being that the installer can choose to wire them directly to a junction box or connect them using the cable supplied as part of a fitting kit
  • thirdly that the wisdom of the Mrs Steviedad must be filtered through a fine mesh before taking it at face value
The fitting kit had been cancelled along with the installation of course, and I was forced to do a day's plumbing in sub-optimal conditions, acquaint myself with US electrical practice and code and improvise an electric cable with a plug on it11.

When the thing was finally in place I thought to wonder aloud on why the Mrs Steviedad had thought this was so easy. Mrs Stevie then told me that his friend worked for the organization responsible for supplying gas and electricity to the entire length and breadth of Long Island, and it was in fact he who had done the work while her father had held the beers.

The socket I chose to plug it into turned out to be a circuit that also was called upon to supply the fridge, microwave and toaster oven in addition to the dishwasher. There had been many times in the intervening years between my installing the old dishwasher and being faced with installing a new one in which to regret that decision, but I could do little about it other than go and reset the breaker when the fridge compressor kicked in during a marathon cook'n'dishwash session. Lesson learned though. I would use the opportunity to run a new 20 amp circuit to run the fridge and dishwasher and do the job right this time. After all, I was saving time on not having to sweat pipe this time around.

I was sorry to lose the spare breaker slot, as I was hoping to use it for a dedicated TV/VCR/Cable box/Hi-Fi circuit and had already bought the parts, but needs must when the domestic wiring is on fire.

On the plus side I had a reel of 12-gauge Romex-type cable that would be just enough (as it turned out) to do the job. On the negative side I had to buy the breaker and a GFCI12 wall socket capable of taking the load, and figure out how I was going to install the GFCI. I wanted to put it in a place already occupied by a wall socket, but there was the question of there being enough room in the junction box the socket was in to accommodate the old wires and wire-nut connectors and the deeper-than-normal footprint of the GFCI itself.

Here I hit on a spot of good fortune. It turned out that by dint of lying on my back and shuffling caterpillar-style headfirst into the dishwasher space, then banging my head on the pipes and impaling the back of my neck on the stoptap, I could peer up into the wall cavity with the aid of my trusty three-cell13 Maglite™.

When I did so, using iron control to restrict myself to only second class Words of Power, I could see that it would be possible to pull the original wires back from the junction box, and re-connect them in a new junction box I could locate behind the dishwasher. This would allow me to run the new circuit up to the junction box in the wall and fit the GFCI where I wanted it.

It would also allow me to make provision for fitting a proper ground since the original electrician had forsworn the modern concept of grounding all metal junction boxes with copper wire (now handily part of the Romex cable itself) in favor of an alternate scheme involving using two-conductor Romex and grounding through the next poor bastard to touch whatever was live, which would be me usually.

This I did, pulling the old cable out of the wall and reconnecting the various ends. It was a bit unpleasant, the old Romex being insulated with what looked like tanned lizard hide which had become sticky over the years, but not altogether unbearable since I had everything I needed to do the job and it was straightforward work. I would have liked to run new Romex and replace the old wiring completely back to the breaker, but that wasn't practical. It took from about ten am Saturday to about 3 pm to get all the work done and tested, and about half an hour after that the Machine arrived in theater.

The first out of job specification excursion event was the discovery that even though I had salvaged just about everything from the old machine in the way of hoses, I hadn't salvaged the one hose I needed which was the hose/90 degree manifold affair that is used to hook up the water supply, so it was off to Arse Hardware to get the parts required.

The next one was when I had everything connected, power cabled properly, water supply and drain hoses tight and so forth, then we tried to move the unit into the hole the old one had come out of.

It didn't fit.

No matter how I tried I couldn't get the machine to go back the final inch into the hole, which was important because the machine had to drop into a recess in the tile floor or it wouldn't accommodate the counter top. I pulled the machine out and removed the noise-reduction blanket and tried again. No joy. I pulled it out and carefully gathered the hoses and wire, each about six feet long and needing to coil themselves up gracefully as the machine was backed into position, and tried again, but it was no good.

"There's nothing for it" I said to Mrs Stevie, who was at the Thin-Lipped and Foot Tapping stage. "I'll have to remove the side from the counter top so I can crawl through the dishwasher hole and into the space behind the fridge. Then I can watch as you push the machine back and see what's causing the problem".

She snarled her assent to my plan and in no time at all I was crouched like some sort of African fetish doll behind the fridge watching the dishwasher bang up against the stop tap and the pipes leading from it. Mrs Stevie took the situation report and pulled the dishwasher back so I could attempt egress from my confinement, which I did after about five minutes of agonizing contortion. Mrs Stevie gave me time enough to get onto my hands and knees so I could crawl over the various knee-crippling hoses and cables and bang my head on the nail-encrusted wood of the counter before she began questioning me as to our course of action.

"What do we do now?" she snarled.

"Argh!" I answered.

Once I had extracted myself from the kitchen fixtures I surveyed the problem - which now included a stop tap that dripped on account of one of the thumps it had taken probably doing for the seat seal - with a jaundiced eye and came to a reluctant conclusion.

"I'll have to do some plumbing" I gloomily announced. "It'll have to be tomorrow though. I'm too tired to start soldering pipe in that little cubbyhole tonight. I'll burn the house down or something."

So we went to have something to eat at a diner, there being no room to eat in the house owing to all the kitchen furniture being moved out of the way to make room for the dishwasher installation, and on the way I stopped at Home Despot to pick up the needed parts.

The way I saw it the stop tap had to go and the piping needed re-routing into the wall cavity. I would cut off the whole assembly at the tee joint connecting it to the hot water supply, cap off the tee, split the pipe in a new location and solder in a new tee, ball-type lever valve and enough pipe to bring it up to the level of the wall, and install the original coupling. Unfortunately I had an appointment on Sunday which would involve me being away from home from 12 until 7 pm. This left two or three hours maximum on Sunday morning to do the work. I wasn't kidding about being too tired to do it that night; I've tried to crash through the tiredness barrier before and I always regret it the next day when I'm redoing whatever I screwed up last thing the night before.

Once we returned to Chateau Stevie I decided to try and get ahead of the game by constructing the bit of pipework encompassing the new stop tap, the tee piece and the curvy piping needed to accept the coupling in my secret experimental pipe manifold construction laboratory, or as Mrs Stevie calls it, the basement. That way I could reduce the need for pointing a long roaring blue flame at the woodwork and wiring in the house wall and I could make all the joints right-way-up instead of upside down.

It took about an hour, all told, but because I was tired the joints looked a right mess, and when I got a look at them the next day I was anxious as to their watertightedness. Only time and water under pressure would tell, though. I had been as careful as I could with the soldering, and everything should be OK despite the cosmetics.

I hoped. Picture here and here.

Matters were complicated by the need to shield the wooden studs and wiring from the heat. I keep a plate of steel around to use as an improvised heat shield for stuff like this, but I couldn't find it no matter where I looked, so I was forced to use an old, blunt circular saw blade as an improvised improvised shield. It turns out that the blade retains heat for quite some time and I received some of the nicest burns on my fingers I've ever had discovering that snippet. The studs I protected by dampening them with water.

I drained the water from the pipes and cut off the coupling, which I then attached to my new pipe manifold. So far so good. Then I cut the pipe at the tee, cleaned it up, applied the flux, slid the cap on and began heating the pipe. Picture here.

It became obvious after a while that it was taking much too long to heat the pipe to the proper temperature, and an ugly suspicion formed that there was water in the pipe. This turned out to be the case, and I immediately went to class three Words of Power with no compunction whatsoever. You simply cannot solder a pipe with water in it since the water turns to steam which carries off the heat. I cut the pipe again in the place I was going to place the new tee and tried again after allowing the pipe to drain. Once again it mysteriously began to fill with water and steam. I went downstairs and opened all the basement faucets. Still no dice.

I stopped and wondered where the water was coming from. Possibly the water shut-off valve was leaking, allowing water to dribble into the system. I shut off the water main at the stopcock. No joy. I finally surmised that the water was from a column trapped in a vertical run of pipe, which was expanding just enough to dribble into my pipe when I applied the heat. The only answer was to use the compressor to blow out the lines. Once that was done I got the pipe capped in no time (and set fire to one of the studs despite having dampened it beforehand, but I managed to quench the blaze before it got completely out of hand), but because the bits had all been heated and allowed to cool three times the joint was another ugly one and I was not a happy camper. Plumber. Whatever.

I attached the new manifold to the water supply and turned on the water. I was rewarded with no leaks from my new pipe, but a steady drip form one of the 50 year old joints which must've let go during the soldering of the new parts to the old.

This was a blow.

It is generally a bad idea to try and resweat old components because the original joint becomes brittle, oxidation in the pipe-pipe connection restricts the flow of solder and it is hard to get flux to flow down the tiny cracks in question, and the newer lead-free solder may not be fully miscible with the older super-leaded stuff. Normally I would cut the pipe and run a new joint in these circumstances. Today, however, I was running out of time so I wire brushed the joint as clean as I could using my Dremel tool14, brushed on some flux and ran some solder into the joint (after blowing out the pipe with the compressor again, of course). Picture here.

Wonder of wonders it worked. No drips. I put the dishwasher through a quick fill/drain cycle to check everything was tight and pushed it into place.

It wouldn't fit.

I did a little dance of pure rage, used my entire stock of class four Words of Power and once again crawled into the space behind the fridge. Mrs Stevie wasn't there to push the dishwasher today, but my rage gave me the strength of ten men. Would that it had given me their brains too.

I pulled the dishwasher into place and determined that one of the counter-top supports was fouling it now, just before I heard the "click!" of one of the front legs dropping into the well, locking the dishwasher into place and imprisoning me quite effectively.

"Well, that worked" I said to myself, banging my head hard against the wall to punish Mr Brain for yet another inappropriate ambush ploy. I don't know how I eventually dislodged the bloody dishwasher and gained my freedom. It is possible the class five Words of Power I used caused a momentary increase in air pressure enough to lift it clear of the floor and thrust it out of the cavity. I know some of the wallpaper caught fire.

I was out of time and so ran for a shower and left the house for my Dungeons and Dragons manly high-stakes poker game.

I got home around 7 pm and got to work with the wrecking bar and clawhammer, and in no time I had removed the offending support timber. Then I fabricated a new one from a piece of maple I had in the Basement of Deferred Project Storage. I had intended that piece of wood for a far more worthy project, but I was getting fed-up with this one. I slid the dishwasher into place just as Mrs Stevie returned home.

"Took you long enough" she sniffed.

  1. The sovereign sign of state of the art sophistication
  2. Drafted and broadcast by Mrs Stevie
  3. Mrs Stevie
  4. Fortunately
  5. Of course
  6. One might make a case for the various governments of the world nationalizing their scrap dealers and backing their currencies with The 1995 Ford Taurus Hubcap Standard
  7. The process whereby one uses either one's friends or sock puppets8 to "bid up" an item as though it were desirable
  8. Multiple online identities that belong to the same individual, adopted to convey a false impression of democracy in action to serve whatever ends the nitwit owner of said identities has in mind, in this case, driving up the auctioned item's "value"
  9. Who wait until the last few minutes of an online auction and then start bidding small increments in order to secure an item
  10. It is a mark of how badly this event scarred me mentally that I clearly remember the amount involved despite Mr Brain
  11. I used an air conditioner extension cord with the end cut off, if you're interested
  12. Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt. It detects an imbalance in current flowing between the live wire and ground and the neutral wire and ground and breaks the circuitry if it exceeds a certain value. This value tends to be enough for you to get a mild belt on a rainy night if you grab a string of lit indoor-outdoor fairy lights for example, but good enough to blow and take out your elaborately constructed Xmas Light Display O Seasonal Merriment every Christmas Eve there is a hint of moisture or a snowflake lands within three hundred feet of the socket
  13. "D" cells U.K. U2
  14. A wildly underrated tool by many but God-like in my eyes

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