Kripa and I are watching Windy City Rehab – a show on HGTV where the renovations (mostly gut renovations) happen not in a small town or suburban area, but in a major city (Chicago) – and this is reflected in the home costs, permit complexity, and particular construction challenges of building three feet from your neighbors. We’re enjoying the show because the cost estimates they give for renovations are realistic and the house age/architecture is often similar to our house so it’s generative for our design process.
In episode 2 of Windy City Rehab, (spoiler alert!) a pipe bursts in the basement of a home they’re renovating and floods that floor. Chicago gets cold – many of you heard about the record-breaking freezing temperatures that hit Chicago at the end of January 2019. Apart from those sorts of headline extreme temperatures, it is routinely below freezing during the winter, which comes with it the risk of freezing pipes.
Ok, enough preamble: when Chicago was hit by a spurt of snow and cold in late January 2019, I went over to the project to shovel the snow because 1) I don’t want our neighbors to hate us, and 2) in Chicago you’re responsible for maintaining your streetscape (the space from your home to the street including sidewalk) which includes weeding and snow removal.
I went inside to check on the progress, and heard a sound. I searched around and figured out it was coming from the basement. The sound got louder as I went down the stairs.
I think we all know where this story is going.
[Kripa: It’s a ghost!]
About 2/3 back in the basement water was springing from the ground to the top of the window. The window was broken and water was going outside onto the sidewalk.
I texted our contractor who I knew was out of the country, so while I didn’t expect a response, I took a shot. I looked for a water shutoff (couldn’t find anything), so I started finding emergency plumbers on my phone.
Luckily, our contractor responded within minutes and gave me the contact info for one of his plumber contractors. The plumber answered the phone on a Sunday and agreed to come by ASAP.
[Kripa: This is the point where Brian calls me and says, “Remember that episode of Windy City Rehab…” I don’t remember exactly our conversation – I think I’ve blocked out most of it, as one does with house renovation-related trauma.]
While I was waiting, I took a closer look at the leak. I could see that the pipe had a leak near the ground. I bent the pipe up a bit, and that dramatically slowed the water from a spurt to a dribble. My heart rate dropped to a normal level.
At this point I surveyed the damage, and I was surprised that there wasn’t THAT much water pooled either inside or outside. I mean, there was 3’x8′ ice pond on the sidewalk outside and a 10′ diameter soaked spot around the leak (though since the concrete floor was torn up some was soaking into the ground), but for the amount of water coming out per second I would have expected worse. My hunch at that point was that the pipe had burst that day, maybe even just an hour or two earlier.
I went out and shoveled for a while, and then the plumber arrived. He surveyed the leak, and said we would need to turn the water off at the main, which is outside the front of the house.
The problem? There was so much snow we couldn’t find the water main. We dug around for a while, but the amount of snow combined with the lack of tools like a snowblower made this a fruitless task. It was also very cold – I had to keep running inside and blow on my hands because they were hurting (inside being around freezing versus below freezing outside).
The plumber then went back to the basement, found a sledgehammer standing along the wall, positioned it below the leak, took out a hammer – and hammered the pipe flat. The leak stopped. “Fixed” he said, standing, and smiling at my dumbfounded look – which reflected the fact that flattening the pipe would never have occurred to me.
He said this would work for now, and then once the snow stopped, which wasn’t forecast for another 2 days, he would come back and do a proper fix. He positioned the gas heater they were using during the day close to the leak and turned it on, saying that would keep the basement above freezing.
Now my only problem was managing anxiety about having a gas-powered flame active inside our house 24 hours a day.
UPDATE: It’s been a few weeks, and I can happily report that the leak was handled, and our contractor confirmed no damage to anything. The gas heater also didn’t have any problems, though I did go check on it a few times.
When mom told me what happened, that episode of WCR is exactly what I was thinking.