Unforeseen Consequences: My lavatory made a funny noise

Now, every in my office has already heard this story, but it deserves a wider audience.

Six months ago, I bought a house.  One of the lavatories made a funny noise when it flushed.  Actually, not so much funny as extremely loud.  This noise would go on for about a minute.  It actually sounded like the house was shaking apart.  I ignored this for months and worked around the problem.  Being a geek, I figured out that running the bath at the same time stopped the noise, so I knew I was dealing with a resonance problem.  I’m not, however, a plumber, and had no idea what was starting the whole thing off.

There are a couple of weird things about the house.  One is that the lower bathroom had a shower head, but no shower rail.  Not particularly wanting to soak my new house every time I used the shower, I used the shower upstairs.  Finally, I (or should I say, my significantly more organised wife) got the plumber ’round.  He installed a shower rail, took one look at the loo and determined it had the wrong washer on it.  Replacing the washer for a fiver, he managed to fix a problem that I’d assumed was going to cost me thousands.

I then went away for a couple of days, and came back to a leak in my kitchen.  Water was seeping through from the ceiling.  I went nuts, thinking the house was about to fall down.  I phoned up the plumber and he agreed to come back on the Sunday morning.  (Our plumber, you will appreciate, is an absolute brick.  Couldn’t praise him more highly.)  In the morning, we started discussing the problem.  Maurice (really) first wanted to check that he hadn’t drilled through a pipe.  He was quite happy to admit that he had done so before, but he doubted this was the problem since we’d have a lot more water leaking.  We then started on a relatively serious discussion on whether it was better to rip up the floorboards or break through the plaster.  Another difficulty was working out from where exactly it was leaking.  Finally, I asked him if it was possible that fixing the washer had affected something else.  Maurice said “No, that can’t happen.  Let me explain why.”.  He lifted off the cover of the lavatory tank, stared at it and said “There’s no overflow”.

For those of you who don’t know, the overflow is a pipe out of the back of your loo that goes outside.  In the event of a minor problem, you end up with water being dumped outside your property.  Since the property can handle rain, it’s not an urgent problem and is easily fixed.  What my loo did, was drop the water from the overflow onto the floor, and eventually through the kitchen ceiling.  Basically, the guy who’d installed it in the first place had done a dreadful, incompetent job.  So now I have a bucket where the overflow should be and another date with Maurice where he’s going to install some overflows.

The reason I mention this is, the experience was nigh on identical to conversations I have with my manager about some legacy systems I deal with:

  • Problems sometimes aren’t as serious as their symptoms suggest.
  • Fixing one thing may highlight a problem somewhere else.
  • Always explain to someone else why something can’t possibly happen.
  • An audit won’t find every problem.
  • You’re always going to get these problems when you’re taking over a badly done job.

And sadly, sometimes you won’t get lucky and will have to rip up the floorboards to figure out what’s going wrong.

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Julian Birch

Full time dad, does a bit of coding on the side.

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