At least that's what my in-laws tell me. Thirty years ago, when they bought their first home (in the same village in which we now live), the lead pan in their only full bathroom was the first thing to go. As the story goes, my father-in-law was standing in the shower when the floor beneath him gave way and he almost fell through the living room ceiling. The lead pan supporting the tub was completely rotted and needed to be replaced. This repair reportedly cost thousands of dollars and took two weeks to complete.
So when, in May, the wall in the living room of the house we had just spent five figures to paint started to show signs of water damage, I assumed the worst: I assumed it was the lead pan. Directly above the leak in the living room is our master bathroom. It didn't matter that we hadn't showered in the master bathroom, or even moved in yet. When our painter walked me through the house the day before our move and pointed out the quarter-sized bubbles forming under my Navajo White walls, I panicked.
"I fix this three times," our painter explained in broken English. "But it come back."
"It's the lead pan!" I exclaimed. "I know it."
Days after our move I called the plumber my in-laws had used thirty years ago, and he came to survey the leak. After taking a walk through the master bathroom and the living room, he determined that the leak was not due to a crumbling lead pan because, as he astutely observed, the leak was not directly below where the shower is located upstairs. He did, however, discover that the shower in the master bathroom had been built over an existing shower (which makes total sense because the previous homeowners had a penchant for layering; see post on wallpaper ), and, therefore the distance between the floor of the shower and the threshold is almost two inches shorter than what is permitted by code. (Yawn, I know. It's all so technical. Skip ahead if I'm losing you.) Because we also had a clog in the shower, the plumber concluded that the water damage to the living room wall was being caused by water spilling over the threshold and leaking through the bathroom floor. He cleared the drain and told us it was safe to use the shower again.
So we paid to have the wall repainted and resumed using the shower.
You know that moment when your house is utterly placid because your toddler is finally napping, you've just settled onto the living room sofa with a two-month-old issue of The New Yorker, and you happen to glance up and see an unmistakeable bubble forming on the wall you just had repainted? Yeah, so that happened ten days after the plumber left and, I'll admit it, at first I was in denial. I told myself that my pregnant eyes were deceiving me. I didn't tell my husband, who gets home from work too late at night to notice such things in an unlit room.
But the bubble spread like an ominous finger. And then more fingers formed, until a gnarled witch's hand was raking across the paint. My husband noticed, and he was miffed.
I called the plumber. He did not return my calls. For eight weeks I called the plumber. I had a baby. That baby grew. The leak grew. The plumber did not return my calls.
I later learned that the plumber my in-laws had recommended had spoken with my mother-in-law after working on our house and remarked, "I hope your son got a good deal on that house."
These are not comforting words to hear second-hand from the plumber who won't call you back.
Luckily, there is no shortage of plumbers in our village (an omen?) so I called a new plumber who came by the house the very next day. After viewing the wall, touring the master bathroom, and tinkering in the basement, he found several pinhole leaks in the water line feeding from the basement to the master bathroom. His plan was to open up the damaged wall and replace the entire length of old copper pipe with PVC. This seemed logical, so I consented. The next morning he arrived on my doorstep with two other men and a sledge hammer.
Unfortunately, our home, as we've come to learn, is not logical. So when the plumber opened up the water-damaged wall and found nothing but wood studs, I shouldn't have been surprised.
"Where's the leaking pipe?" I asked.
The plumber swung the sledge hammer in the direction of the wall perpendicular to it- the one with the original bead board and dentil moldings. "I think the leak is spraying from a pipe behind that wall," he said.
"You do?" I cried. "Then why did we just open this wall?"
"Investigation," he replied.
"Well you can't open that wall," I said. "That bead board is what sold me on this house."
The three men looked at me quizzically. I knew I was being irrational. Fixing the leaking pipe was imperative to prevent further damage and the growth of mold, but if we had to open up that wall, I wanted to do it with a pen knife, not a sledge hammer. I called our painter, who agreed to come the next morning and slice, from the bottom of the dentil molding to the top of the baseboard, only the section of bead board concealing the leaking pipe. The plumber would then break through the plaster, locate the copper pipe, and replace it with hardier PVC. When the repair was complete the painter would return and fit the cut bead board back into the wall, like a puzzle piece.
In the meantime, the plumber decided to install an emergency shut-off valve to the water pipe leading to the master bath, to block more water from leaking into the wall. To do so, he first had to locate the water main in the basement.
"Here it is," I said, pointing to a pipe in our basement with a rusted wrench attached to it in lieu of a shut-off valve. The plumber laughed out loud.
"Yeah, I'm going to have to replace that, too."
The day the painter removed the bead board, another surprise awaited us: Horsehair plaster walls. Basically, it's plaster mixed with horsehair (I cannot make this stuff up- Google it) that was often used in the construction of pre-war homes. Not only is it creepy; it's also super-absorbant. The entire plaster wall behind the bead board was soaked.
"This pipe has been leaking for a long time," the plumber observed.
"Like months?" I asked.
"No. Years. Many years."
I never wanted more to shake those previous homeowners, though doing so would likely cause harm to their fragile eighty-year-old bodies. Seriously? How do you allow a leak to continue for years?
Thankfully, and here is the silver lining folks, by the grace of God there was no mold in the wall. Just lengths of corroded piping, lots of water, and damp horse hair. The plumber replaced the leaking pipe and our painter installed new insulation and dry wall before fitting the bead board into place and closing up the wall. Our painter is a magician.
It's like the leak never happened, and we're back to using our master bathroom. We've adverted disaster for now, but I just know it: The lead pan is the next thing to go.