Liberty House: Getting To Know You

I’ve been living at the Liberty House for almost a month now, and like newlyweds just back from a honeymoon all of the rainbows and roses have started fading from our relationship and shit is getting real. Like when I wake up in the morning and instead of bringing be breakfast in bed my house is all, “Morning Sunshine! Hope you didn’t want to take a shower today cause there’s no hot water, and when you get out of bed– Surprise!– it’s only 55 degrees in here! Have a great day!” And then flounces out the door to rack up thousands of dollars worth of charges for designer handbags on my credit card. Except instead of designer handbags we’re talking about miscellaneous boiler parts.

I don’t know if this has to do with the fact that the Liberty House is 150 years old, or if we’re still working out all of the kinks from being improperly winterized, or if it has wicked sense of humor and is just screwing with me. Probably all three. What I do know is that this house has given me more fits in the last month than my other two houses did in the combined seven years I owned them.

Before I moved in there were a few things that I knew had to be taken care of:

  • Fixing the broken radiator pipes throughout the house
  • Replacing the leaking faucet and shower trim in the kitchen and downstairs bath
  • Replacing the element in the hot water heater
  • Having the softener and iron filter checked out and installed

That was a fairly manageable list and I was all over those items almost immediately after closing, but instead of giving me a chance to catch my breath, the house has been throwing me a curve ball every few days, just to keep me on my toes. Here’s a little bit of the fun I’ve been having.

#1 Drainage (Or Lack Thereof)

 Shortly after I moved into the house I noticed an odd gurgling noise coming from the kitchen sink whenever I would take a shower, which, on those rare occasions when I’m doing laundry and the dishes at the same time, has escalated into a fully backed up sink. It does drain eventually but it’s clearly not happy about it. I am by no means a plumbing expert, but I know enough about the water flow in houses to have guessed that the problem is either caused by:

  1. A full or backed up septic tank
  2. A clog in the waste line somewhere beyond the juncture of the sink, laundry, and shower lines
  3. A blockage in or improperly installed vent stacks

Crossing the first one off the list was easy since I had to pay to have both 1000 gallon septic tanks pumped before I even owned the house (to have the system checked and certified by the county before the title could be transferred.)

Then I spent a little more time under the sink (my favorite place) with a 20 foot drain snake to see if I could address any clogs that might be in the interior lines.

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I snaked the drain as far as it would go but still noticed the slow drain, which means I didn’t hit the problem area, if there is one.

Then I considered that something could be clogging the vent (aka “stink stack”) so I headed up to the roof for a little look-see.

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Vents are clear as far as I can tell, and yep, that’s still a bigass barn in my back yard. I also found a couple of other disturbing things (see item #4) up there, but nothing to solve the drainage mystery.

So, I feel like I’ve exhausted all reasonable DIY efforts and have called in the big guns to clear out the pipe that runs from the house to the septic tank about 250 feet away. I’m hoping it’s just a couple of tree roots or something blocking the pipe and not anything more serious.

#2 Hot Water

About two weeks after I moved in I got up one morning, turned the water in the shower on, waited a reasonable amount of time for it to heat up, jumped in without testing it, and then basically got in a fist fight with the shower curtain trying to get back out again posthaste. Apparently my capacity for rational thought and/or wrestling with inanimate objects is severely limited when doused with ice-cold water.

I started my investigation to this problem by doing can best be described as “ignorantly poking around in things I don’t understand.” The water was on and running through the tank, but not being heated. It’s an electric tank, so the pilot couldn’t be out. I checked the main electrical panel (nothing was tripped) and then happened to see two separate breakers that looked to be about 80 years old next to the main panel labeled “water heater” that were off. Not tripped, but straight-up in the off position. So I turned them on and voila! Hot water.

The perplexing thing was how they got switched off in the first place… the best I can figure is that when the guys came to install the water softener a week earlier they switched them off for some reason and never switched them back on. The tank must have just held the heat so well (or I shower so infrequently) that it took me a really long time to notice. That, or between the house and the cat, someone is just plain screwing with me… and I wouldn’t put it past either of them.

#3 Electrical Mysteries

For the first week or so that I lived here (and before when I would come by to visit) I would plug my laptop into a certain outlet by the peninsula in the kitchen. One day that outlet stopped working and no breakers were tripped, so I moved my laptop to the kitchen table and continued about my business.

After that I noticed the roofers using one of the exterior outlets on the outside of the laundry-room wall (no word on whether or not it worked for them, but I’m assuming it did) but recently I tried to use that outlet and it didn’t work for me. I’ve now identified 4 outlets between the kitchen and laundry room that either have no power or intermittently have power.

This does not bode well for the house not randomly burning down due to electrical fire, probably. I’m assuming they’re all on one GFI protected circuit that’s on the fritz, but that’s as much thought as I’ve put into it. I’m lamenting the fact that I lost my Chief Electrician back when I lost the Memorial House and have the feeling there will be a lot of Googling of electrical issues in my near future. Or I’m just going to restrict my dating to guys who are best friends with an electrician.

#4 Holes

Luckily, my drainage issue (#1) led to a short escapade on the roof, otherwise I never would have found this…
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Yes, those are missing shingles on my recently re-shingled roof. I sent this picture to my roofer (who’s about used to smartass texts from me by now) with the note “Something ain’t right…” He agreed and came back to fix the problem, but I’ll be doing periodic spot-checks on the roof now since I’m losing faith in the quality of workmanship.

And then there was this…
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That’s actually the inside of one of my bathroom walls, where there is clearly no insulation. I’m assuming there used to be some kind of vent here, and now it’s just easy access for birds and bugs to make their way into the house. So I’ll be patching that with spray foam and some kind of metal cover, uh, immediately.

#5 Water Pressure

While I’ve been having a ton of fun “touching” my kitchen faucet on and off ever since I installed this baby I also have been noticing the water pressure to that sink slowly decreasing each day until this weekend when I was left with a poor trickle of water dripping into the basin and decided to do something about it.

I had a sneaking suspicion this could be due to the black residue I keep seeing in the sinks and shower getting caught up in a filter on this fancy faucet. So it was back under the sink for me, to pull apart the solenoid and see what I could find.
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What I found was a little bit of this:
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And then when I removed the filter:
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Um, yeah. I think I identified the problem.
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This is what it should look like:
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Good news is I’ve got way more than seven drips per minute of water coming out of the faucet now. Bad news is that either the softener (which is supposed to act as a filter) isn’t doing its job or the black plague is coming from somewhere in the pipes. Either way I’m going to have to deal with it eventually, or continue to clean the faucet filters every couple of weeks and hope that residue isn’t something toxic.

#6 Heat

Having a boiler and baseboard radiators is new for me, and I admit to being less than savvy about how it all works. For the first few days after the pipes were fixed I couldn’t figure out why the kitchen was getting up to temp but the rest of the house was freezing… turns out there are five zones and five thermostats in this house and– ha ha– you have to set all of them to a higher temp if you want it warmer in the whole house.

That bit of brilliance aside, I haven’t had to worry much about heat because it’s been unseasonably warm. Until two days ago when I woke up and the temp in the house was hovering around 55 degrees. Then I knew we had a problem.

I went with the “ignorantly poking around in things I don’t understand” method again, which started by poking a long stick down into the fuel tank to make sure I hadn’t run dry. Everything checked out there so I started poking at things on the boiler, like the big red button on the front of it that wasn’t labeled “self destruct” or anything similarly worrisome.

Turns out that’s a reset button for when a boiler “locks out”. What I’ve learned is that fuel gets injected into the boiler to keep feeding the flame so-to-speak, but if for some reason the flame goes out the unit will automatically lock out to prevent fuel from going everywhere. (Indicated by a little red light on the panel.) This seemed like something I could literally blow up the house poking at, so I called in the professionals, but as it turns out my boiler’s erratic behavior is pretty unheard of– sometimes it will run for 15 minutes, sometimes it will run the whole day– but eventually it will lock out again, with no clear reason why. Other than it’s just messing with me, of course.

So the best thing we can do is to just start replacing parts on the pump and see if one of them fixes the problem, which I have a feeling is going to be just fantastic on my wallet.

#7 Bugs

I’m not sure if I ever shared this, but if you saw this video with the plague of flies in the garage? Yeah, when I first moved into the house that scene was pretty much repeated in every single window in the house.

It was all very Amityville and I handled it by speaking in my do-not-panic voice at all times,  sealing off rooms wherever possible and chasing hundreds of flies around with the shopvac each night. Either that insanity worked or the natural end to their life-cycle came about a week after I moved in, because the flies eventually disappeared. Only to be replaced by hundreds of Japanese beetles. Oh, and ants.

So I still run around like a crazy woman shopvacing things out of the air every night. The cat finds it entertaining. (A beetle literally just divebombed my head as I was writing that sentence. So awesome.) I’m hoping to seal up any exterior cracks when I repaint the wood siding, but the truth is a 150 year old farm house is never going to be air-tight, so I’m going to manage where I can and try to keep a sense of humor about the rest.

People often ask how things are going with the new house, and my standard response is “it’s going”, except it’s more like “just barely keeping up” than really going anywhere. I’ve made a little progress here and there but most of the hours I have to dedicate to working on the house are divided between dealing with the Crisis of the Day and continuing to move sporadic loads of stuff out of the rental house (and, yes, Memorial.) I’ve got my fingers crossed that as the Liberty House and I get to know each other a little better there will be fewer surprises and more time for fun stuff like tearing out walls.  If not, we may need to consider couples counseling. (I hear the first year is the hardest.)

17 Responses

  1. I can deeply sympathize with the whole improper winterization thing. My house was victim of the same, and then stood empty not one, but two winters and all seasons in between. The first two weeks in the joint was pure chaos, and I’m still waiting for other little things to just, you know, spring a leak when I least have time or cash to deal with them. In my mind I’ve come to terms with the idea that “this shit just goes on forever,” and made good friends with my plumber neighbor across the street.

  2. Oh yeah – That beautiful OLD house. It will probably be never-ending surprises for awhile. In the end though, you’ll get stuff figured out and hopefully they crisis-of-the-day will slow down to once a week or so. Still the most awsome of houses ever girl! Here’s my experiences with much of the same:

    Sink Drain – Had a similar problem and when the wall got torn out behind the sink during the kitchen remodel it revealed that the vent WAS NOT EVEN CONNECTED to the sink… So you might check into that again. Another consistently clogged kitchen drain in my rental took about 4 months to clear. Finally after snaking it about 8 times with a really LONG commerical snake we finally found a drain clean out above the ceiling in the downstairs apartment and had to tear the ceiling out to get to it. That was fun! Telling ya -Clearing it was beyond gross.

    Outlets on the Blink – Had another similar problem and it turned out to be a tripped GFCI in my utility room that was kind of hidden behind a freestanding cabinet. I had blamed it on “my electrical guy” who had put a switch and back porch light in about the time my outside and sewing room outlets stopped working. So he just got sick of being blamed and bought some new fangled tool that beeped a lot and tracked it back to the GFCI. Then I got A LOT of shit (for a couple of years) for putting the cabinet in front of the GFCI.

    Bugs – Again I have a similar problem. I get these little beetles in my basement all summer, and the outside of the house is just spider city (really spooky ones sometimes). I have never been able to figure out where the beetles are coming from but this year I’ve decided to do a full-on onslaught on the bugs. So I have sprayed my entire foundation with Home Defense or something and let off a bug bomb in each room and left for a few days last week. I plan to do this about once a month all summer and see if it helps. If you keep repeating the bug bombs they should eventually get all the hatched and unhatched eggs or whatever. Once you turned the heat on whatever was hybernating probably hatched. That happens when I go to my cabin in winter, once the woodstove gets everything warmed up all the flies hatch.

    Roof – THAT should NOT be happening on a new roof!!! GEEZ! REALLY? I think you should get them to roof your little barn for free or something if they can be trusted to do a better job.

    Hope you have a few nice spring days where you can just enjoy the wonder of the new place.

  3. Baby steps.. Baby steps! And on a bright note: It is almost summer! Maybe you can pretend you don’t need heat or hot water for a few months! 🙂

  4. I haven’t been happy with our plumbing the past few months (completely clogged sink drain, backed up tub and catastrophic dishwasher failure since the beginning of the year) but it sounds like a walk in the park next to your problems. We also had to snake multiple times to get through the clogs, and we tried every chemical and home remedy we could find. The snaking is what finally fixed it, though. One thing I would recommend is this enzymatic drain cleaner–I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s blue liquid and we got ours at Home Depot. Once you take care of the clog it cleans any leftover pipe buildup; it got our old cast iron pipes good as new.

    I hope you get a break soon. Especially from the bugs. Yuck.

  5. Yup, old house stuff. When I moved into mine years ago the first few months were one thing after another. The good news is eventually enough stuff is fixed or replaced and things settle down. Also you learn a lot about your house in the process.

    The roof is scary in terms of the quality of work. Maybe they just had one bad guy instead of it being the whole roof.

    Can you get the water including the black stuff tested?

    Maybe time to replace the boiler with a more energy efficient one? Might be cost effective.

  6. “ignorantly poking around in things I don’t understand” is definitely the mantra of all DIY. You can do it and I know you’ll inspire me along the way.

  7. the black gunk is probably coming from the water heater. happens all the time when you work on it, replace it, etc. they must have done something with it when dealing with the water softener, though i’m not sure why. usually it’s best practice to take off the aerators and run the hot water for a little while after servicing a hot water heater to clear the lines of gunk that has been released. they didn’t do that.
    get a piece of aluminum counterflashing into that chimney or wall on what looks like the roof. spray foam in the hole. then grind out the mortar on the bed joint, clean it, put some geocel 2300 in the gap and then put the flashing in there. caulk the sides of it and call it a day. that, or you could persuade your roofer to do it for you to make up for the shingling problem. tell him to caulk all those nails on the ridge shingles while he’s at it.
    electrical problem could be a loose connection or bad outlet on the 4th from the last outlet in the circuit. that’s what i would check first.
    probably best to deal with the heater issue in the summer when they’re less busy and (hopefully) charging less. 55 isn’t so bad.

    1. Just as I read “55 isn’t so bad” I was wondering if it would be weird to just set the space heater on my lap and hug it for a while. lol. And it’s 59 in here now, but my fingernails are still blue. Clearly I’m not a cold tolerant person and I don’t like to be bundled up in my house so THAT fix is happening today and is going to be worth every penny.

  8. We had a similar problem with our boiler – ours turned out to be both old valves (the ones that open automatically to let water through) and the ignition source. Good luck!

    P.S. I love the shot of your jeans – I have several pairs of the same!

  9. Backed up drains are a pita. We had some work done (almost 100 yr. old house) that included gutting and redoing the bathroom and adding washer/dryer connections in the room next to the bath. First time using the washer had water backing up into the tub and almost filling it up! Called the plumber that did the work and he came and checked everything out. Turns out it was tree roots in the line outside. He cleaned those out and we use a root cleaner in the toilet every yearish (his suggestion)and haven’t had a problem simce.

    We get the ladybugs and flies too, although not as bad lately. And certainly not as bad as you had in the video. Yikes! I think once you start eliminating them the numbers start to go down each year.

    Aren’t old houses a joy?!?

  10. I am so sorry the honeymoon had to end so chillingly 🙂 One thing I think (underline “think”) I’ve learned about you through your blog is that you were the kid that if someone dared you, you took the dare and won…you still do! You have talent, skills and an ability to laugh at the toughest of things. Hang in there, Winner; all will work out and you will maintain your sanity!

  11. Oh that totally sucks about the roofing job! Lazy workers. They must have ran out of the ridge shingles and not bothered to get more. I agree make sure they tar every exposed nail when they are finished and have them patch that old vent hole for you. If you do DIY though stick some steel wool in with the spray foam to keep any mice out of there if they ever get under the flashing.

    Envisioning you shop vacing the air made me laugh. Old homes have bugs. Like you said try to seal what you can and keep them down to manageable levels. Flying bugs get in through windows and doors so check the seals on those. Crawling bugs can be stopped with a spray or dry mixture around the perimeter of the house. You can buy them or make a homemade concoction.

  12. The black gunk in your water looks very similar to the stuff in my H2O last year — which turned out to be from a pinhole-sized leak in my well pump which was churning up sediment that ended up in my bathtub/sinks/etc.

    I’m hoping it’s your H2O heater — much cheaper!

  13. Your one lucky girl. Sounds like the perfect house. I just wanted to let you know about a circuit breaker that is perfect for older homes. It is called a Arc-fault breaker. It will trip when it detects the wires arcing as well as a short. Arcing wires cause more house fires than a shorts.

    Best wishes on your fixing things.

  14. Our house was built in 1851, and the first spring we lived in it I was surprised and more than a little horrified by the onslaught of cluster flies. The infestation came every spring, and included them covering the lawn, dining themselves on the sunny side of the house and accumulating indoors in all the windows. Vacuuming them from inside the windows was the only thing I did that helped. UNTIL we built a coop and got a few chickens. Now they range happily abbot our property ridding it off the spring fly hatch. They also take the edge off our mosquito and tick population. And or eggs are delicious – I sell some but also hand the extra out as acts of goodwill to the neighbors, local librarians, postal carrier, etc. I can’t recommend chickens enough for cluster fly control!

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