June 25, 2016

Mostly sunny

Living in an old house can sometimes land you in cold water

By JOHN GLADDEN | Staff Columnist

Through the convergence of the epic forces of weather and plumbing, a pipe inside our tankless water heater froze one recent blue-black cold January night.

It dramatically unfroze the next morning when my wife woke to get ready for work and turned on the shower. She came back to the bedroom.

“There’s no hot water!” she said.

At least, this is what she told me later. I did not hear her the first time, as I was asleep.

I didn’t hear her, but in true husbandly fashion, I sat bolt upright in bed moments later, when I was startled from a deep winter’s sleep by the sound of water in the basement.

It was the sort of sound people pay good money for when they buy those relaxation CDs — the kind with titles like: “Night in the Forest,” “Ocean Waves” and “Wind in the Pines.” To an old-house person like myself, the sound of dribbling water is never a comforting sound. It’s an alarm.

In my T-shirt, boxers and tall rubber boots — I recognize this is more than you want to know about your friendly neighborhood newspaper columnist, but I am endeavoring to be factual for a change — I went down to the cellar of our 175-year-old house. Water was pouring out of the water heater, a 2-by-3-foot sheet metal box hanging on the sandstone wall. It’s like the instant water heater you might put under your sink to make hot water for tea, except this heats water for the whole house.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. Somewhere in its little copper heart, a pipe had accelerated instantly from freezing to 125 degrees and burst. The water heater’s small digital readout was blinking “E” for “error.” This was an understatement, I thought. I shut the water off and went back up the steps, trailing wet boot prints behind me.

Since this high-tech, money-saving, resource-conserving water heater was my bright idea, I thought the only fair and gentlemanly thing to do would be to offer to help my wife with her sponge bath. I thought better of this and called our heroic plumber instead, who began burning up the phone lines and the Internet, looking for the part we needed. In the meantime, we heated our water on the kitchen stove, bathing and doing dishes the old-fashioned way for a while.

One of the comforts of living in a house built during the Andrew Jackson administration is the knowledge that more generations of families have lived there without the benefit of indoor plumbing than with indoor plumbing. More people have lived in this house without central heating than with it. This is comforting to me, but to my wife and kids, not so much.

Remarkably, we are only the third family to own this house in all its years. Philena St. John inherited it from her parents in 1840 and her sons sold it to Abraham Welday in 1892. We bought the house from his descendents in 2001.

So, when the upstairs bedrooms catch chill on a winter night, I tuck the kids tightly under their blankets and say, “Just think what it was like for the Welday and St. John children. It must have been really cold up here back then.”

When Hurricane Ike took out our electricity and we were reading and doing homework by lamplight, I said, “Isn’t this nice? Just think. This is how the Welday and St. John children lived all the time.”

Following our water heater’s coronary, I cheerfully announced to the kids they’d have to wash up the old-fashioned way. I said, “You know, this is a good experience for all of us, because back when this house was built …”

“We know, we know,” they said, rolling their eyes. “The Welday and St. John kids … blah, blah, blah.”

Things are back to normal in our old house. I’m all for living history and everything, but even I have to admit that first hot shower felt pretty good. It gave me some time to think.

Maybe I could develop my own line of relaxation CDs for old-house owners. They’d feature the sort of comforting noises we often hear as we drift off to sleep. There would be titles like: “Creaky Pipes,” “Squeaky Floor Boards,” “Pitter-Patter of Tiny Clawed Feet in the Attic,” “Wind Through the Window Panes,” and “Wife Says: ‘There’s No Hot Water!’ ”

If I sold a lot of them, maybe I could make enough to pay the plumbing bill.

Gladden may be contacted at gladden@ohio.net or 330-721-4052.