Polar Vortex Revisited

Another polar vortex is heading south, and a lot of us are in its path. The last time it was this cold – at least in my neck of the woods – was February 2013. I was living in a 100-year-old duplex with pipes that were about that old, too. From the archives, a story of water. (And the Jim of the story is the same Jim I love and adore, and for more than his mad plumbing skillz ♥)

Wishing you and your plumbing a safe and warm Polar Vortex 2019!

February 2013

To survive, we need air, food, water, and shelter. Last week, on the two coldest days of the Polar Vortex so far, I had air, food, and shelter, but for 36 hours, I was without running water due to what I thought was a burst pipe.

I knew I would be away for a few days, but I would be home before it got seriously cold in order to open the cupboards under the sinks and place space heaters in front of them. In Minnesota, I never experienced a frozen or burst pipe, but a few years after moving to Pennsylvania in 1991, the pipes in my apartment froze, and I spent several hours in the basement thawing them with a hair dryer. This time, I had a plan. And you know how the universe loves a plan.

Confident that I was prepared and in time for the deep freeze, I opened the door and walked into a lake in the kitchen as water hissed from a pipe under the sink. I stood there for a moment, confused, like the house yelled “Surprise!” Only there were no balloons, streamers or confetti, and there was definitely no cake.

When the shock wore off, I went downstairs and turned off the water main, and with every towel I owned, sopped up the flood in the kitchen. Next, I called my landlord, who called a plumber, who called me and said he might get a chance to stop by the next day. It was noon, the temperature was dropping, and I had one flush left in the toilet.

I needed water.

I have very little concept of distance or volume. I can’t tell you how long my driveway is or how much gas it takes to fill the tank of my lawn mower. And if I guessed, you’d laugh. That’s why I’m not an architect. At Target, I stared at the gallons of water on the shelf and wondered how much I’d need to get through a day, or at the very least, a night. I settled on 10 and wheeled my purchases out to my car, cursing the minus 10-degree wind chill.

It was sobering to realize how much water I use to simply wash my hands, brush my teeth, and flush the toilet. Ten gallons seemed like so much, and yet by morning, there were only two left. With no plumber in sight, I headed back to the store for six more.

Cold, cold, ridiculous cold. My Jeep was not happy. My exposed skin was not happy. When I got home, I turned on the stove and mixed up a batch of whole wheat, low-fat chocolate chip cookies. I heated a gallon of water on the stove so I could wash dishes, and poured another gallon in a plastic pan to rinse them, acutely aware that I normally use more than two gallons of water when I wash dishes in the regular way, when water magically comes out of the faucet.

Potentially-more-than-a-friend Jim the Carpenter called and asked if the plumber had been there. No, I told him. I’ll fix it, he said. I thanked him and told him I’d baked cookies. (I just didn’t tell him what kind.)

Jim arrived with everything to fix a broken pipe – gater bites, a piece of copper pipe, and soldering equipment – because from what I told him (in my “The pipe is hissing!” voice), he thought the pipe was split. I followed him downstairs and stopped just before the entrance to the creepy dark room in the basement under the kitchen. I’ve never been in that room because the bulb had burned out and I’ve read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe. Jim scanned the wall with his flashlight and said all the pipes were fine.

We walked back upstairs and he looked under the sink. He found the valve to the outdoor water spigot (so THAT’S where that is!) and turned it off. He went back to the basement, turned on the water main, and – low and behold – no hiss, no leak.

The valve, he explained, had most likely froze from the skimpy temperatures a few days before, but I was only half listening. The sound of the toilet tank filling was like a symphony.

The temperatures warmed the next day. I washed dishes and took a shower. I am fortunate, and I hope to not forget that.

As I write this, there are 300,000 people in West Virginia who are without running water because of a chemical spill, and there are hundreds of millions of people worldwide who lack safe drinking water. What I take for granted is another person’s precious commodity.

While my short-term water inconvenience hardly makes me an expert on chronic water shortage, I can allow it to teach me compassion for those who experience it.

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