Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

Things that go pump in the night



By G.D. Maxwell

I once indulged in fantasies about living off the grid, life unplugged so to speak. I’d met some people doing just that and the way they described their lives, their cozy mountain cabin, their live-at-your-own-pace freedom, seemed peaceful if not entirely idyllic through the tie-dyed hues of my pharmaceutical-addled glasses.

Then I noticed their clothes weren’t exactly clean and their eyes glazed over maniacally as they consumed television and popular culture on their foray into civilization the way refugees consume humanitarian gruel after a long trek out of disaster.

And while there lives a man just up the hill from Smilin’ Dog Manor who assures me he could cut my umbilical to B.C. Hydro for just a few thousand dollars worth of high-tech, German solar engineering and let me harness the power of the sun to light my world, he’s been uncharacteristically quiet about it this year. Maybe his batteries are low in The Summer of No Sunshine.

But perhaps my biggest impediment to living off the grid has less to do with the technology necessary to turn night into day and keep my computer wheezing along at yesterday’s speed than it does with the skills needed to keep all the balls in the air when the whole Rube Goldberg contraption stops working the way the manuals say it should work, which it inevitably does. Mechanically, I fall somewhere between klutz and remedial. I struggle enough with two off the grid systems I currently have to maintain: water and sewage.

Each summer, the Dog as I like to call it when I’m too lazy to spell out its entire name, throws me some curve or another to sorely test my do-it-yourself skills, be they mechanical or construction. Being a Guy, I usually fall back on the first Guy rule of DIYdom: When something appears to be broken or in imminent danger of breaking, ignore it and trust it to fix itself. It should be noted the first rule seldom works but, if you’re lucky, gives you enough time to launch the second DIY Guy rule: Call someone who knows what the hell they’re doing to fix it.

The second rule works well in many, if not all, urban settings and small towns. The second rule works not at all in the far-flung reaches of the Cariboo. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of people around here who know how to fix things and, arguably, even consider themselves in the fixing things line of work. It’s just that rule number two falls victim to Einstein’s theory of relativity around these parts, which is to say it falls into the vortex of Cariboo Time.

Cariboo Time is a bit like Caribbean Time except that nobody around here says mañana and a cold Molson or twelve is preferred to cute rum drinks with slices of fruit and colourful umbrellas. If a qualified Cariboo fix it guy says he’ll be at your place on Tuesday at 9 a.m., you can set your clock by it. And then you can watch your clock zoom right past it without a sign of the guy for, very likely, several days, after which time he’ll call you up and tell you "something" came up. He may or may not choose to reschedule but by then Guy DIY rule three has probably kicked in which reads, in part: Things left unattended go from bad to worse, requiring a whole new set of skills you can’t hire for love or money to fix.

I have, therefore, become reluctantly more skilled and knowledgeable about my septic system over the past few summers than I ever dreamed I would, or had any desire to, become. It is not by accident the word septic itself means "to make putrid."

However, you’ll be extremely happy, especially if you’re eating right now, to read my septic system is working quite nicely these days. My current descent into DIY hell involves the supply side: water.

The domestic water supply at Smilin’ Dog Manor comes straight from the sparkling waters of Sulfuric Lake, a fact generally greeted by guests with an uncomfortable smile and a search for signs of bottled water. The contraption by which water goes from lake to tap resembles nothing so much as a still put together by a bootlegger with no working knowledge of plumbing. Pipes of black plastic, clear reinforced rubber, painted metal of unknown pedigree, copper and, if I’m not mistaken, stainless steel, crisscross each other in a design reminiscent of the screensaver that comes with Windows, the one where tubes start running amok across your screen, bending and twisting every which way until they fill it up entirely only to start over again.

And those are just the ones I can see.

Other pipes disappear through the basement floor, run somewhere under the well-tended flower beds between house and lake, emerge from the mud some 20 feet from shore, run another 70 feet or so through aquatic weeds and end in a contraption tethered to a float and suspended halfway between lakebed and surface. When all goes well, a pump – I immediately recognized this device – fires up, sucks water from the lake, serpentines it through all the crisscrossing pipes, fills a bladder in a pressurized metal tank and then shuts itself off until the pressure drops below a certain minimum, at which point it starts the entire cycle again.

By design, the pressure is supposed to drop when you, for example, open a faucet or flush the toilet. It is not supposed to drop simply because it wants to… which is what it’s been doing more or less for the last month and a half.

"Why is the pump running?" asked my Perfect Partner some time in July.

"Because it feels like it," I answered.

We both knew the real reason was because something was broken. I suspected it wasn’t the device at the end of the pipe – something called a jet and foot valve for reasons that escape me since neither look like their namesakes – because I replaced them last fall when they were leaking. That pretty much left the pipes in the lake or the pipes underground as the source of the leak. The pipes in the lake are a pain in the ass to replace; the pipes underground are close enough to impossible to replace that the difference really doesn’t matter. I prayed it was the lake pipes because if it was the ground pipes, Smilin’ Dog was going to be up for sale.

After much fooling around in cold water, dropping tools to the silty bottom, cursing and busting knuckles, I have definitive proof the leak is in the lake pipes. I also have new pipe I’ll install to the accompaniment of several more choruses of swearing later today.

I’m overjoyed I won’t have to sell the Dog but I’ll kind of miss having the pump wake me up in the middle of the night. At least until the next thing breaks.