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Plumbing Oddity/woes
Living in old houses can be challenging. Things aren't always hooked up in ways you'd expect or would seem to make sense.

We've got an old faucet that's leaking. It's been leaking for a while. I would have done something about it earlier, but the plumbing involved is complicated. Or rather, not complciated: it's at the laundry sink in the basement, so all the pipes are exposed, and from the leaking cold water tap to the water main entering the house there are no valves. I cannot change the washer in the faucet without literally turning off the water for the entire house.

A few recent developments have made this more of an imperative to fix: First, the drain from that laundry sink is broken. Not clogged, but literally the downpipe is in two pieces. The sink was a piece of crap with poor support so that drain pipe was probably supporting more weight than it should have, but it's still a problem. Water from the washer now essentially goes right onto the concrete basement floor. It dries and is localised, but it's not good. Second, the leak has been getting stronger, so now the basement floor under and around the sink is constantly wet. And third, the leak is now warm water, which means that the hot water tap is now leaking.

Fortunately, there is a ball valve on the inlet side of the hot water tank, so I can shut off hot water to the house so I can fix that tap relatively easily. Or can I?

Last night I turned off the ball valve leading into the hot water tank. This morning I turned on the hot water tap in the kitchen. Water flowed. OK, I figured, there's plenty of hot water pipes above this faucet, it makes sense that they'll drain out through this open tap. Water flowed, and flowed, and flowed. It's cold water, not hot, but it flowed, and flowed. I did check, and while hot water pipes immediately coming out of the water heater are warm, the pipes go cold within 2-3 feet, so the hot water is not flowing from the tank. So somewhere in this house the cold water lines are leaking into the hot water lines. And it's not a small amount, either. My kitchen cold water faucet is currently flowing at slightly over 6 liters/minute (9 secs/l). With the hot water turned off, the hot water faucet is flowing at slightly under 3 liters/minute (21 secs/l).

Practically, in the short term, it means I can't fix the leaky faucet now without turning off the water to the whole house, which I was trying to avoid.
Ugh. Might as well turn the hot water back on.

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Dont sweat the cold to hot crossfeed. Apparently the single handle faucets are only built to isolate each side when the pressures are relatively similar. They will crossfeed if hot is shutdown and cold is not.

Spooked me too until I talked to a plumber. He said thats typical.

You think old plumbing is weird? Wait until you try to troubleshoot the electrical system :-(

When I moved in here, the power was out in the upstairs and downstairs bathrooms, as well as half of the upstairs and some of the kitchen. I did find a tripped circuit breaker, but resetting it only immediately tripped again. I figured if I could find the short and fix that, it would fix the dead circuit and all the power would be restored.

What I eventually found, in the basement, was a junction box suspended in mid-air by the three armored cables going into it. I'm uncertain if any of the BX cables had proper cable clamps, but at least one didn't, allowing the edge of the cable or box to have sawn through the insulation (and wire) and short out that circuit. I replaced the junction box, nailing it to a floor joist to secure it (this is an old house, technically, the floor joists are timbers, not lumber). Proper cable clamps secured everything so the cables wouldn't move, and everything got wired up the way it was supposed to. Flick circuit breaker on: Power to downstairs bathroom and kitchen restored. Upstairs bathroom and bedrooms: no go.

Tracing the tangled circuits from the breaker box (a mix of armored cable and Romex) I found some other oddities: one junction box had three wires coming from the circuit box: two hot, one neutral, and four leaving, splitting the neutral between the two hots. I don't know if that's code (I doubt it), but I left it. There is a fusebox in the master bedroom closet. I figured it was old, and not in the circuit anymore, but it's live, and removing a fuse turns off stuff. What it controls, and where it gets its power from, I don't know.

Some previous worker helpfully labelled some of the cables so you'd know what circuit they are connected to. For instance, the cable labeled 10 goes to circuit 8.

Working from the other direction, I opened up every visible outlet, fixture, and junction box I could find on the dead circuit upstairs. Using continuity testers that beep, I traced every wire I could find, putting labels on each end so I could keep track. It appears to be a closed system. If there is a supply line to that circuit, it is through some junction I couldn't find. Either I missed an outlet, light, switch, etc, or it's buried in the wall.

At least the heating system is simple: it's a hot water hydronic system with one zone, so we've a boiler with supply and return pipes that go to each radiator, of which there are about 11. Periodically, I have to go around and bleed the radiators, and every couple of years I have to replace the ignitor in the boiler, but other than that it's pretty solid and trouble-free.

This house has a nice neat breaker box in the kitchen... without anything being labeled. Sometime after Superstorm Sandy, I bought a circuit tracer; you connect a small tone generator to an outlet, socket, or what-have you, then run a detector wand over the row of breakers, zeroing in on which one is carrying the tone. I just have never managed to have both the time and a helper to go through the whole house and label every breaker. But there's at least one breaker that doesn't seem to control anything; when I turn it off, everything in the house still works.

Then there's the sub-panel upstairs; it's only got three breakers. One is for the furnace and its associated circulating pump, and one is for the laundry room, both of which are located on the second floor. The third breaker covers everything else - ALL the outlets, lights, etc, on the second floor. This includes the window air conditioners in the bedroom and the computer room... and, of course, all the computer equipment as well. If I try to run the A/C in both rooms at once, sooner or later both compressors will kick in at the same time, and trip the breaker. To re-set it, I have to crawl behind the furnace boiler with a flashlight in my teeth.

A.'s house has two fuse panels, both in the basement. One has three fuses, and they're pretty sure they know what each of those covers. But the other panel is in a section of the basement that the landlord keeps locked - and the landlord lives in Greece.

Edited at 2013-12-29 08:27 am (UTC)

Yep and let's hope the whole house shut off's work.

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