28 - The Leak

On arrival in Nanjing I had a disaster with water.

I had made my flat available to a colleague over the summer, while I was elsewhere; I returned to Nanjing late one evening, quite chuffed with myself for negotiating the journey from the airport on my own, so it was dark. I used the spare key to let myself in, since the usual one was wherever we had agreed to leave it. The flat was cleaner than when I’d left it and I hadn’t yet organised a cleaner, (see The Cleaner) so I was delighted at the state of the place.

There was water on the floor, as if the fridge had defrosted itself. I checked the circuits and everything was off except the fridge. I mopped up the water, which seemed to ooze from under the kitchen cupboards and went to bed, as it was already tomorrow.

The following morning I mopped the floor again before eating a brief breakfast with the same observation of sub-cupboard seepage and, after wandering around aimlessly seeing what had moved around and what needed to be done before term began, I found I needed to mop the floor again. So, having done that, I had a good look to see where the water was coming from; is it clean water or dirty water – is it failing to get out or is it coming in?

I rang one of the Girl Fridays on the staff to say I was going to need a conversation with my landlord about water leaks, and started to search out the underlying problem; I have re-plumbed a whole house before now and it doesn’t frighten me. But pride goeth... (I typed prode gieth)... It looked dirty water, so I cleaned the U bend – except there wasn’t one, just a short length of flexible tubing connecting sink to waste pipework. That wasn’t the problem, but as usual I poured waste water into the sink while it was disconnected, so it went back on the floor pretty quickly....

So either there is a pipe I can’t see, or this is incoming water.... well the pipe comes out of the wall just there..... and, the moment I touch that pipe, it falls off the wall. Completely, flush with the wall. The surprise, plus a rod of water of the same cross-section as the pipe, sends me straight across the room, bouncing off the far wall, rapidly onto my feet and scurrying for valves. That is when I discover that the only control valve is in the pipework that fell off the wall; there are no others. I dash into the corridor, where I know from frequent electrical problems that the fuse boxes and valves for the whole floor are to be found and the cupboard is conveniently open, but the valve is immovable by hand. I go back and start to bail out the kitchen, now about a centimetre deep in water. While doing that I ring Girl Friday and say the issue suddenly got urgent; having reduced the flow by opening taps everywhere (with a working sink, having fixed that back already), I dare to dash downstairs to tell the security guys I have a problem, which involves giving them my phone so Girl Friday can explain my big problems. I go back upstairs and bail like the ship is sinking, and three security guys follow less quickly, the intelligent one bringing wellies and a spanner, but not a torch. Between them they agree that the valve in the corridor, which should allow everything to be closed off, will not work—there’s a later comment to make on building maintenance and choices of materials—so the welly-wearer goes away and comes back with a threaded pipe connector. T’other two have left and I am still bailing, but the pressure has gone down as if the whole floor is now exhausted of water – which kind of suggests that the mains water isn’t mains at all, but tank-served. Let us put worries about Legionnaire’s Disease aside. Anyway, the source head is lower than at the start and the flow is down to a manageable level, well below any water pressure I’ve experienced in Britain.

My new best chum reappears with his threaded connector and, to my amazement, proceeds to screw the metal connector straight into the plastic pipe that ends flush with the plasterwork. He can hold the outside while the water rushes through. I am reminded of a similar escapade in Cornwall where an external pipe blew its connector off – the solution shown to me by the water authority engineer was the grab the pipe and bend it back on itself, killing the flow, and then going to find the right stopcock somewhere else on our land. The nice co-operative Chinese likes my helpful torch and is amused that I’ve taken many clothes off (there’s little point, I reckon, in getting good shoes and clothes wet;  besides, I’m getting hot & sweaty). He manages to complete the ‘repair’, reconnecting the complete rig by simply ignoring that things don’t fit – fine, it’s a temporary repair, so what do I care?

Except that I’m wrong, that is all of the repair. I eventually get a tiny bill (around £3) for parts and labour, so I give the security guys a bottle from the cellar as thanks. All over bar the shouting, as the phrase goes. An eventful morning. It takes me another hour to mop until the floor stays dry.

Later that weekend I am inspecting the joint, which stays dry. The marble floor of the kitchen is dry, but the cupboards are still leaking water from behind the foot-stopping (the bit that is inset so you can get closer to the worktop), so I carefully take that off, to discover just how wet the chipboard did get. I clean that up.

Over the next two weeks I realise that the marble floor isn’t what I thought. For a start, the water has gone through it, so it was in no sense sealed to the floor. Second, the riser by the kitchen door, that which I stub bare feet on with regularity, is also not sealed, so that water has spread from the kitchen into the rest of the flat. So the gorgeous wood-strip flooring develops speed-bumps over the next few weeks and, as the wet gets into the wood, so it expands with nowhere to go in the plane of the floor.

By the time my landlord comes to visit, the floor is beyond rescue and this meant, in turn, my spending several subsequent weeks with a missing stretch of floor, not unlike the traps Father sets in his (HIS, H Ian Scoins) house to test his ability to move (if he fails sufficiently, he falls and is no more; that’s the way he wants it). My missing patch was 4 metres long and a metre wide (floor, not hair). Indeed, as I left the flat permanently that summer there was still floor further away that was warped. I developed previously unknown learning skills to the point where I could visit the kitchen in the dead of night with no lights and still step accurately over the holes. When a very nice man came to fix the floor, he asked me not to step on the new flooring until the glue had dried; it was harder to step on it at all, having learned the dance-step patterns that avoided where the hole(s) had been.

Several points remain to explore:
• the standards of maintenance; the valves in the corridor should have worked. No-one cares that they do not work; one suspects they do not care about the reason for having such things (it being someone else’s responsibility).
• the successful choice of materials; when I went back to look at the valves, they were corroded into place, which says to me that the combination of materials was wrong for corrosion to occur at all. Valves in Britain are expensive because of the materials used, such as phosphor-bronze.
• the plastic pipe that held the incoming water finished flush with the wall; it should not do this. The fitting of any control valve must be such that the joint is reliable – this says to me that the
point of having a valve at all has been lost, along with any understanding of the objectives or purposes of plumbing.

Given the Chinese fascination with ‘new’ and the steady rejection of ‘old’, plus the observation that properties age very quickly here (it looks 15 when it is 5), this experience goes some way to illustrating causes. One wonders about building quality control (does anyone care?).

I wrote this belatedly, when it occurred on 20080821, give or take a day or two.

DJS 20100110
Edited extensively for typos. My apologies for the dreadful keyboard work. DJS 20100513 and a little more on 20100824, and then 201601130.




© David Scoins 2017