Wrighter Lake, Wayne County, PA. — I’m not much of a do-it-yourselfer, for reasons that are all too obvious. First, I have less time than money. Second, when I do try my hand at something, I am generally not very good at it, a lesson I have learned the hard way on several occasions in my youth.
But up at the cottage in northeastern Pennsylvania circumstances are different. Here things have been cobbled together over the years by several generations of do-it-yourselfers. Trying to explain all aspects of a problem to a professional is a challenge unto itself. With a three and a half hour drive from Princeton to the cottage, trying to meet the pro in person becomes another major problem. Sometimes you just have to summon the courage and do it yourself.
So it was when I opened up the cottage this spring. The first challenge, as always, was to get the shallow well pump working. That’s a pump that pulls water up from the lake 30 or 40 feet to a pressurized tank that keeps the system charged.
Some years getting the pump charged can take an hour or more, as fittings are tightened, minor leaks patched, and water is poured from a bucket into the supply line to the lake and then into the pump itself. This year, amazingly, I got the pump to work on the first try.
Then came the second phase: Opening the spigot that lets the water from the pump tank flow through the underground copper pipe to the pipes in the cottage itself. You hope that you successfully drained all the water out of those pipes last fall, so that no freezing occurred during the winter. And you hope that the pressure doesn’t shake loose any of the 30 or 40-year old solder joints that hold the pipes together. To minimize that risk you open all the spigots in the cottage before you send the water on its way. Then you close them off one by one and hope that the system holds together.
Neither my luck nor the system held. As soon as I opened the valve at the pump, water began bursting from copper pipe in the bathroom. After I shut the water off at the pump I inspected the scene. Sure enough, some small amount of water must have been left in that pipe over the winter. Expansion of the ice led to a two-inch gash. Armed only with a blow torch, but no solder and no copper couplings, and probably 40 miles away from the nearest Lowe’s or Home Depot, we spent the rest of the weekend with old-fashioned running water: You want some “running” water? Well just run down to the lake with that bucket and bring it back.
Back in Princeton I toyed with the idea of hiring someone to fix the problem, but soon came to the inevitable conclusion that I would have to do it myself. Even among do-it-yourselfers, soldering copper pipes together is not always a favorite chore. The day before the Fourth of July weekend I went to Lowe’s on Route 1 north to buy the rest of the equipment I would need for the job. There I ran into store manager Franc Gambatese. I asked him if he could think of anything I had left out. “Soldering copper pipes?” he responded. “I don’t want any part of that. Let me get you someone else.”
In addition to the advice from the Lowe’s guy, I also googled “how to solder copper pipes together.” That leads to several cheerful videos telling you that, while some people say it’s hard, soldering is really easy. Then the smiling Mr. Fix-It demonstrates, using a brand new piece of pipe, held in perfect position in a gleaming new vice, and a shiny new coupling that fits perfectly over the pipe in the vice. Like a gourmet chef on a TV cooking show, Mr. Fix-It brings all the ingredients together in 90 seconds.
Reality TV should do a version of that video. The pipe would be in a dank corner of a dark room, resting alongside some highly flammable wooden stud and possibly an electrical line. “How we gonna deflect the heat from the torch so we don’t burn the place down?” the poor SOB doing the job would ask. “Maybe use some tin from out in the shed,” an unseen helper might suggest. “Get snips and cut off a piece.” From the helper you would hear an expletive. “We took the snips back to town with us — what do we do now?”
On Friday the 3rd I got to the lake in the late afternoon and went to work. I located an old cast iron skillet that fit between the broken pipe and the wall — the perfect heat shield. Then I hacksawed three inches out of the damaged pipe. My six-inch copper coupling would overlap one-and-a-half inches on either side.
Then came the first expletive. The new copper coupling would not even begin to fit over the old pipe. The old pipe, distorted by the freezing, wasn’t close to a perfect circle. I had some vice-grip pliers in the trunk of my car and tried to bend the pipe back into a circle. I got close, but no cigar.
The next morning I cut another inch out of the old pipe. The new coupling began to slide over this end. I spent 20 minutes or so sanding down both of the raw ends. Finally I got the coupling in place. The subsequent soldering did in fact take just a few minutes (the key is to torch the pipes long enough so that their heat — not the torch’s — melts the solder and draws it into the joint).
On the way back to Princeton at 5 o’clock Monday morning, we saw a porcupine ambling across the road. Heading, no doubt, to a do-it-yourself project of his own.