or Our Cohabitation with An Italian Plumber and his Tile Laying Brother
We never intended to run a B&B but they moved in and took over the house. We just wanted a new bathroom but that seemed to come with a temporary residential lease.
When we bought the house 19 years ago, we loved it. It was over 50 years old and had “character”, but along with character came a few oddities and some inconveniences. For example, it had only one small bathroom – complete with pink ceramic tile, burgundy accents and a toilet placed so that your knees were under the sink that hung on the wall. They had to do it that way because if the toilet faced the other way your knees would bump into the tub. We solved our immediate problems by pointing the toilet at 45 degrees and putting in a new sink with a cabinet underneath for some storage. A couple years later we remodeled a pantry off the kitchen into a second bathroom off the master bedroom by removing a door from one wall and moving it to the bedroom wall. We added a shower/tub, cabinet with double sinks and a toilet that was perpendicular to the wall. But we never solved the problem of the pink tile.
After living with the pink tile and the 45 degree angled toilet for all these years we finally decided to remodel the original bathroom. Jan was having a lot of aches in her legs and we thought that a spa tub (a “jacuzzi” ) might be nice and new tile (maybe a nice textured earth tone rather than shiny pink with burgundy accent pieces). We did some planning on paper and figured out how to shoehorn it all into the small space (the toilet was going to have to stay at a 45 degree angle). We interviewed a few potential remodelers and finally settled on two Italian gentlemen that had done some work for a friend of Jan’s, because they were cheap and Jan’s friend said they did nice work. They were retired after a career in construction – doing a few jobs for supplemental income.
They really were more like B&B guests than renters; they tended to come and go on their own schedule – coming late, leaving early and then disappearing for days. Some times they would show up when we didn’t expect it, but mostly they would not show up when we did expect it. Or, maybe they were more like teenaged children, leaving their stuff everywhere – a drill here, a box of nails there, a few pieces of pipe in the hallway. Other times they were more like the proverbial neighbor – borrowing tools and forgetting to return them. They discovered my shop in the basement and found that some of my tools were nicer than theirs. My four-foot level would get used, then disappear (presumably taking a break in their truck) and then magically reappear decorated with a random array of paint spots mysteriously matching the paint on the bathroom’s fresh west wall. I could swear I once had three hammers (of course I only have two hands so maybe I didn’t need three). Before they came I had two tape measures. While they were here, I sometimes had one; other times three; once none. A few tools I decided to hide.
I assume that they were once efficient at plumbing and tiling but now they were “retired” and that redefined their pace: slow. In fact at times I thought that they had renewed their retirement vows and quit working all together. Three or four hours appeared to be a long work day for them – maybe even overtime.
They came cheaper than the other bids we’d gotten – we assumed because they were retired. They came highly recommended by the friend of Jan’s for whom they’d remodeled a bathroom – but she forgot to mention the months that less extensive job had taken.
We thought that with an entire career of experience, they’d be skilled (and efficient) but the tiler seemed excessively challenged by some of our design features and the plumber wanted to replace half the pipes in the house but seemed reluctant to cut into the first pipe or understand how I wanted the hot water pipes routed. We did have unusual plumbing in our 70-year-old house. We have oil-fired, steam heat and the hot water pipes were routed through a coil in the boiler, giving us cheap hot water in the winter – really hot! We had no other hot water heater so the furnace had to be kept active even in the summer to come on occasionally and heat water. After a few minutes in the shower the water that had been in the coils of the boiler would run out and the water would turn cold but the furnace would kick in and if you waited two or three minutes it would be hot again and then you would have all of the hot water you wanted. It would remain hot even if you stayed in the shower until you turned into a prune, but only at a flow rate of a gallon per minute or so. With a modern flow-restricting shower head it worked fine, but the new spa tub was a problem. It held 45 gallons of water. If you set the drain-plug immediately you ended up with that two or three minutes of cold water in with the hot, giving a lukewarm tub. You could wait until after the second hot period started but if you filled it fast the coils could not keep it hot, again a lukewarm tub. If you filled it at the maximum rate that kept the water hot, then it took 45 minutes to fill. None of these options were satisfactory.
Our Italian plumber recommended a more conventional solution using something called a “hot water heater.” But I (not wanting to waste the free heat from the boiler) wanted the hot water pipes to route through the boiler on the way to the hot water heater so that it would take less electricity for our hot water (at least in winter). But then in summer, I wanted to turn off the furnace and route the water around the boiler coil. I drew out diagrams with detailed routing of the pipes to achieve this. He looked at them but seemed to have no idea what I wanted. I hadn’t realized that schematic drawings in Italian were different from those in English. I described what I wanted and he drew them his way and after discussing a few issues, he started. I came home from work to find a maze of copper with valves everywhere. There was a complete loop around the basement, with two ways that hot water could get to the new bathroom. I could route water through the boiler coils on the way to the water heater or route around it in at least two other paths – and another valve or two that I can understand no use for. But now we can fill the new tub with nice hot water (and take showers without the 3 minute gap in hot water).
The plumber recommended increasing the sewer vent to the roof – the current pipe is too small for modern code. But Katherine’s bedroom is directly over the bathroom and the current pipe routes through a narrow space near the eaves that is virtually unreachable without removing part of the roof. Since we just had a new roof put one a couple of years ago, we really didn’t want to remove part of it. But since our new tile was exposing the interior of the walls, he recommended adding additional vent pipe in the wall. So we now have a lovely three-inch pipe from the basement to the attic in the wall but not connected to anything at either end.
The Italian pair agreed to do the remodel job but stated at the outset that they did not do electrical work. I’d have to find someone else to do any changes we wanted in lighting and to connect up the pumps in the spa tub. Well, I’ve done a lot of electrical work before in all of our houses. I learned from my dad, remodeling the basement of our house when I was in eighth grade. So I agreed to do all of the electrical work.
Of course the first step in this remodel job was to gut the old bathroom – remove all the old tile (it was so “sad” to see that lovely pink tile go!), a lot of plaster and lathe, and, of course, the old cast iron and porcelain tub. The tub was built in and there was no way it could have come through the door (even if two or three or four people could have lifted it). Their solution was to break it up in place. They brought in sledge hammers and battered on it until it broke into pieces about one foot in size – small enough to get through the door but still amazingly heavy.
We had to first remove anything from the bathroom we wanted to keep. The toilet was old and stained so we weren’t planning to keep it, but the new sink and cabinet we’d put in when we did the first remodel were still nice, so we planned to keep them as well as a wall cabinet and some lights. Of course, with the lights gone it was too dark to work. I left a couple of outlets live after removing the lights so that they could plug in work lights. But somehow in their destruction phase they cut into one of the wires, popping the circuit breaker. They left for the day, and declared that they could not continue until an electrician was called. I disconnected all wiring in the room and let them run extension cords from the basement through a hole in the floor.
At times they seemed like B&B guests from hell – breaking things. Jan had laid down a cardboard path from the kitchen over the carpet to the bathroom to try to keep the carpet clean, but they still seemed to bump into everything near their path. First it was the glass front of a bookcase we foolishly left too close to their path. And I had not removed the lights from the bathroom until they had broken two of the four globes (we had planned to keep it but settled on a new lighting solution). Then there were light bulbs. They seemed to go through one or two a day. If they were in an enclosed work light, it would be dropped, shattering the light. I found my photo flood lights had been drafted into service as work lights but found the bulbs inside the reflector broken. Fortunately they had replaced my expensive color-corrected bulbs with standard white. I thought at first that they had broken my bulbs before switching to normal bulbs, but a week later I found my bulbs hidden under other stuff. For awhile we wondered if their net impact on the house was positive or negative.
We picked out the tile we wanted for the walls and floor. It included a nice contrasting stripe to run a little below shoulder level. Unfortunately what we wanted for the strip was not intended for that and Jan wanted the little squares rotated into the diamond position. This required cutting half of them. The tiler wasn’t very happy about that choice but gave it a try, but he could not find any way to cut the small tile without the backing coming off and several of the tile sailing across the room. We took that choice back and choose a different contrasting tile pattern that was intended for a stripe.
They were supposed to start in the fall. October came to an end without much word. We finally got them to commit to a January start. They estimated that the job would take just a few weeks. Ground Hog Day seemed a little presumptuous. A nice relaxing Jacuzzi bath for Valentine’s Day would have been great but probably too much to expect, but President’s Day seemed realistic. When the Ides of March, St Patrick’s Day, the first day of Spring, and Easter had all past and we still had no hot water running to the room, we began to wonder if we were April Fools. We began to recall painter on Murphy Brown, hired to do one ceiling but became a permanent employee. But by Earth Day and Passover things looked good and Jan was able to take a nice relaxing bath by Mother’s Day.
There were some reasons job seemed endless – in addition to the leisurely pace, the short hours, the days when they didn’t show up, there was the period when the plumber brother went into the hospital with pneumonia that evolved into kidney failure. Unfortunately he was the organized one, although I use that term only in the relative sense. And since the tiling was done by then, little happened even on the days the other brother showed up. We were afraid that if the hospitalized brother didn’t get better we might have to carry water for the Jacuzzi from the kitchen using buckets and do without the lights that he was supposed to mount in the ceiling (to replace the ones that had hung on the wall prior to the breakage). Fortunately, he did recover and the project was only delayed by a month or so.
But now looking back at it with a bit of temporal distance, with muscles relaxed by pulsing jets of water and bubbles, all the pain was worth it. As I sit on the toilet at a 45 degree angle, I can gaze at the gorgeous new tile (none of it pink), my magazine illuminated by the bright spotlights recessed into the ceiling, listening to the mellow hum of Jacuzzi jets and with all the clouds of steam being drawn up and out by the new exhaust fan. Yes, it was worth three months of chaos.
Of course we did have a few other experiences during the past year besides defending our house against Italian invasion. We were able to get out to our “west coast annex” on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound several times (three for Terry and four for Jan) including spending this Christmas there with Katherine and her boyfriend Bill joining us. We enjoyed the time with all our friends who have settled nearby on the island. Jan got in a bit of antiquing, I got in a bit of kayaking and we both worked on the house – Jan doing most of the work on refinishing the deck.
Katherine finished her one-year teaching job in New Hampshire before spending the summer in Santa Fe. She considered teaching in Santa Fe this fall but eventually decided move to Wilmington, NC where Bill is in grad school. She was able to get a job teaching in the school system there and is enjoying the year.
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year
Terry & Jan Anderson