Saving Etta: Chapter 18: The Plumber

Saving Etta - One Woman's Journey to Save a House Built in 1900 | Pretty Handy Girl

Saving Etta: Chapter 18 – Good Neighbors

This is the true story about a house built in 1900 that is in serious disrepair. It’s also the story about my journey toward becoming a general contractor and my attempt to save a home from being bulldozed. I hope you’ll follow along as I embark on a journey into the unknown perils and rewards of flipping a home in downtown Raleigh, NC.

If you are just joining the story, you may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters for more of the back story.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Instagram as I share live updates about this project I’m calling Saving Etta.

A special thank you to all the brands that are helping to save Etta!

Driving down the road, I turned the corner and spotted a CVS minute clinic sign. I strode straight to the clinic and entered my name into the computer, then waited my turn. A smiling nurse finally called my name and I headed into her office. She took my information and then asked why I needed a tetanus shot. Here it was, the same question, and probably the same reason why she couldn’t give me one. As I explained to her the deep cut on my finger, she frowned and asked to take a look.

“Okay, let me just get some more information and I’ll draw up your vaccine,” she said.

I exhaled and was glad I could stop worrying about getting tetanus in the middle of my first flip adventure.

By the next day, the cut on my finger had already sealed itself. I cleaned it again and put a big bandage on it. Then I headed back downtown to put in some more sweat equity on Etta.

To save money, I decided to tackle as much of the internal demolition as I could. Today I wanted to get the water heater taken out. I knew water had been leaking into the exterior vent for the heater for some time, so I suspected I’d find more mold in the closet around the heater. From my truck bed, I pulled out eye goggles, a respirator, and gloves. I wasn’t taking any chances after reading about the health issues caused by black mold.

I grabbed a sledgehammer, locked up my truck, and walked into the house. The air inside the house was as humid as it was outside. Because of the presence of mold in the other room, I had shut off the air conditioning to prevent spores from spreading through the house.

I  began to punch holes into the small closet housing the water heater. While I swung the sledge, I prayed aloud, “Please no mold, please no mold.” At least if I discovered more, it would be better to find out now before the mold remediation started.

Within minutes my goggles fogged. Luckily, I knew an old trick from my lap swimming days. Squeeze a drop of dish soap on the inside of the lens and smear it around. The soap acts as a barrier to prevent goggles from fogging.

With clearer vision, I continued to punch holes into the wall. The small fist-sized holes started to connect and the wall began to open up, giving me a better view of the water heater.

Reaching my gloved hand inside the closet, I yanked large chunks of drywall out. With each new piece removed, I inspected the back side for mold spores. So far they were clear.

Before long, I had removed all the drywall from the water heater closet and was down to the studs. Remarkably, I hadn’t discovered any mold. But, I knew there may still be some under the heater.

I ran outside to the truck to grab some more tools. Ripping the respirator and the goggles off my face, I sucked in lungfuls of fresh air. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man walking briskly toward me. I felt for my pepper spray, but relaxed my hand as I saw Kevin’s big smile.

“Need any water today?” he asked.

I laughed and pointed to my thermos in the truck. “Nope, I’m good.”

Kevin and I chatted briefly about the weather, how demolition was going, and his family that lives in Virginia. By now, he was used to my disheveled appearance. Today I had a deep circle around my mouth and nose (where the respirator had been), and a deep groove in my forehead (where the goggles were pulled tight). My hair was plastered to my head from the humidity and sweat. I definitely wouldn’t win any glamour awards.

After Kevin left, I grabbed my tools and headed back inside the house. Reluctantly I replaced the goggles and respirator. Taking a brief break had given me some more energy to disconnect the water heater. The plumbing connections were rusted tight, so I sprayed some WD-40 onto all the joints and waited a few minutes.

Outside I heard the distinct sound of a large truck backing up: Meep, meep, meep, meep, meep. Peeking out the back door, I watched the dumpster delivery man hook up to the front of the dumpster. He lifted it to a forty-five degree angle and dragged the dumpster forward 10 feet, then set it down with a large metal clang. Walking outside, I thanked him for moving the dumpster so I could open the back. He nodded and left as quickly as he had arrived.

Walking back into the kitchen, I grabbed a pair of pliers and tried to loosen the gas connection from the heater. It wouldn’t budge, so I tapped it with a hammer a few times. Still it resisted my efforts. Then I remembered a trick my plumber, Anthony, had showed me.

“If you have a stuck connection, try tightening it first,” I remembered Anthony explaining.

Although it seems counter-productive, sometimes it’s enough to break the seal and then you can loosen a tight connections.

I grabbed the pliers and turned them to the right. The nut moved a fraction of an inch. When I turned it to the left it began to loosen. Once again, Anthony’s tip had paid off. After another 20 minutes of struggling with the pipes, I freed the water heater from the gas and water hookups. It was time to drain this bad boy. From outside, I removed the hose from the spigot and brought it inside. Next I connected the hose to the base of the water heater and snaked the hose into the bathroom. I put the open end of the hose into the tub, then walked back to the water heater.

The valve opened easily and I was thankful for one thing not giving me a struggle. After a minute, I realized I wasn’t hearing the water draining. Walking back to the bathroom, I confirmed nothing was happening at the other end of the hose.

“Hmmm, wonder why it won’t drain,” I thought to myself.

I tried to rock the heater, but it didn’t budge. There was definitely water in it. Frustrated to be so close to getting the water heater out, I broke down and called Anthony, the plumber.

He answered on the second ring, “ALM Plumbing.”

“Anthony, it’s Brittany. I’m trying to remove the water heater from a flip house I’m working on and I can’t get it to drain.” I spoke into the phone.

He listened briefly and told me he was in the area and could stop by after he finished up with another repair call.

While I waited for Anthony, I took advantage of the newly located dumpster. I tried to open the tail gate, but it also wasn’t in the mood to move for me today. A few taps of the sledge hammer and the latch released allowing the tailgate to swing wide open. Putting my gloves back on, I slowly dragged each cabinet across the lawn and heaved them into the front end of the dumpster. Normally I would have donated the cabinets to our local Habitat ReStore, but the boxes were bulging from water damage and most had mouse feces in the back of the cabinets. I’m fairly confident they would not be welcomed donations.

As I picked up the last cabinet, I was surprised that it felt lighter than the others. When I looked down, I realized the bottom half had separated and was still sitting on the ground. Nope, these cabinets were definitely not fit for donation. I tossed the fragments of the cabinet into the dumpster. Looking toward the open crawlspace door, I decided to try to clear a path through the vines and under the house for Anthony.

As I struggled to pull an old lawn mower out from beneath the house, I heard a familiar baritone voice.

“Having fun under there?” Anthony said.

He crouched outside the crawlspace door, his body blocking most of the daylight. Anthony is a big guy with an imposing figure, but he’s incredibly kind and has helped me with many plumbing emergencies.  Consequently, he’s no longer surprised to find me on all fours. Still, I felt the need to explain I was trying to clear a path for him to look under the house. I wanted him to assess the condition of the plumbing pipes to determine if we could use any of them and help me locate the water shut off.

“Let’s take a look at the water heater first, then I’ll check out the crawlspace,” he said.

“What? Are you too chicken to come under here?” I joked with him, knowing full well that Anthony spent most of his day in crawlspaces. I have a lot of respect for him. Being a plumber is not a glamorous job.

Anthony shook his head and laughed at my teasing.

I crawled out from under the house and showed Anthony inside. I lead him to the water heater and then went back outside to pull more junk out from under the house.

After 20 minutes, Anthony came out of the house. I could see he was winded, red-faced, and dripping with sweat.

“Oh my gosh, what happened?” I asked.

“I couldn’t get it to drain either, so I dragged the damn thing out of the house,” he said.

Shocked by his feat, I said, “That water heater easily weighed 200 pounds.”

Anthony’s breathing started to slow down.

“Probably more. Water weighs 8 lbs. per gallon and that was a fifty gallon tank,” he stated.

“Anthony, that tank weighed four hundred pounds then!” I said. “What were you in high school, a line backer?”

He and I laughed, but I was so thankful he came by to help me. There was no way I could have removed the tank myself. We walked to the backyard where he showed me why it wouldn’t drain. The water dribbled out of the bottom, and a pile of white gooey curds pooled underneath.

“What is that, fish eggs?” I asked.

“Nope, it’s a bacteria. I see it all the time especially in water heaters that aren’t set hot enough,” he explained.

(Educate Yourself: If you want to learn how to prevent your own water heater from growing a dangerous bacteria, read this article.)

“Ewww! I’m completely grossed out now,” I told him.

With the water heater taken care of, we crawled under the crawlspace together and looked around. The ground sloped up toward the back of the house at which point it was only accessible by belly crawling at the half way point. Beyond that even a belly crawling seemed impossible.

“I think your best bet would be to run all new plumbing,” Anthony said. “I don’t see a shut off, so during demo I can turn off the water at the street.”

Anthony swung his flashlight to the right and suddenly shrieked.

…to be continued

If you are just joining the story, you may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.

Are you enjoying the Saving Etta chapters? I’d love to hear from you! What are you enjoying the most?

14 replies
  1. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I got a chuckle of the picture with you all geared up. You are the woman!!! I love Saving Etta and don’t worry about keeping up we will be here waiting.
    I learn so much from you. Thank you

  2. Tammara
    Tammara says:

    Yuck, thanks for the tip about the water heater. Yikes, critter….maybe….looking forward to reading the next segment!

  3. Velda
    Velda says:

    Are you going to put a tankless water heater in there? We have 3 of them, one in garage that will do whole house is Propane. One under kitchen sink and one under bathrooms. I shut off the whole house one and only use it when we have power outage. Love them all.

  4. Judy Anbro
    Judy Anbro says:

    I Love Love Love your Saving Etta series!! I pop in and out of your blog checking and double checking for new post in case I accidentally missed the email announcing a new post arrival! I am from just south of Charlotte NC and can totally relate to all the humidity comments! Thank you for sharing your story and you are doing a fantastic job on your blog and the Saving Etta Series!!

  5. Tallulah
    Tallulah says:

    Acwk! I can’t stand the suspense much longer. Thanks for the loosening, tightening, and bacteria info. Your experiences are educating us all.

  6. Frances Willis
    Frances Willis says:

    Thoroughly enjoying “Saving Etta”! Just wish it wasn’t so long between chapters, especially since you always leave us hanging!!! Please hurry up with next chapter. ♥

  7. suryasmiles
    suryasmiles says:

    Oh gawd, suspense again! Belly crawling in a crawl space, you’re better than me, I don’t know if I could ever do that, bugs, cobwebs, spiders galore, gawd knows what you’ll find! Obviously we’ll have to wait to see what Anthony did!


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