Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mystery of the Steamy Basement

In the classic movie, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot finds himself traveling on—you guessed it—the Orient Express. One of the passengers, Mr. Ratchett, asks Poirot to act as his bodyguard due to recent death threats. Poirot declines and Ratchett is found stabbed to death the next morning. Woops. Bad call. Poirot sets about trying to solve the mystery of who murdered the man, questioning the dozen or so passengers on the train.

We have an equally impenetrable mystery in our home. There is a sinister puddle lurking around our shiny, new boiler. One night, I saw drips coming down from the ceiling and landing on the tank of our new boiler. So our first suspect was the bathtub overhead. We called a local plumber who came by, checked the piping thoroughly and concluded there was no drip from the tub. He suggested another suspect: groundwater running into the basement after a rain. This did not solve the mystery of where the drip I had seen originated. Nor did it explain why the mysterious puddle persisted, even on days when there was no rain.

We were baffled. What was the diabolical source of this foul puddle? Then, yesterday at 2 a.m., my husband came running up from the basement—he’s a night person—excitedly wanting to drag me out of bed to see something important in the depths of our home. I staggered down the stairs after him and we both stood aghast. The discharge pipe on our shiny, new boiler was trickling a few cups of steaming hot water onto our basement floor. My husband felt an exhilarating mix of triumph and rage as only an Italian can.

Peerless WBV: our new espresso machine.
I sent an email to the master plumber who had installed the boiler and early the next morning he replied, promising he would come by to look at it later in the day. He said it was highly unusual for that pipe to discharge water (despite the fact that it was called... a discharge pipe… hmmmm). That may well have been the case, but my husband and I both saw it pour a few cups of steamy brew onto our basement floor in the early morn.

The plumber came by, rechecked all the settings on the boiler, established that all the settings were correct, then placed a high-tech plastic pail under the offending pipe. “If that fills up again,” he instructed me, “Then call and I’ll come out again.” The directions were complex, but I felt strangely up to the task. (Actually our boiler plumber is a very conscientious man, so he, too, was genuinely troubled by this damp mystery.)

(SPOILER ALERT: if you intend to see Murder on the Orient Express, read no further.) In the aforementioned movie, the murderer turned out to be EVERY PASSENGER ON THE TRAIN. (The victim was a very unpopular guy.) Here’s my neurotic fear as a homeowner. What if… the leak... is from the bathtub, groundwater AND the boiler? 


It turns out we had two leaks. The boiler leak was eventually solved by draining excess air from the water tank. Another leak, which we discovered when it burst into a gushing fountain in our livingroom, came from an old, rusted steam valve on a radiator.

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