“I heard my phone ringing a bunch so I got up and checked my voicemail. Luke says the pipes burst in our house and it flooded.. you probably have to go back.”
These are the words with which Mrs. Money Mustache awakened me from my otherwise-beautiful Hawaiian sleep this morning. She had actually said “call him back”, but through my earplugs I heard “go back”, which I interpreted as, “you’ll have to get the next flight back to the mainland to go deal with our destroyed house”.
This accelerated my heart rate a little, and I went into a calm crisis planning mode as my mind started to race. I knew that Colorado had just come out of one of the coldest winter blasts in history, with evening lows below -20F. I learned that the furnace in our house had happened to fail right during the intersection of our long vacation and the cold weather, and thus the interior temperature had dropped below freezing in places, damaging some plumbing.
Given this turn of events, was I still happy that I have a $10,000 deductible on the house insurance? Yes, no big deal there, although obviously a $500 deductible would be preferable in such a situation. Was I upset that an undetermined amount of my last 5 years of projects might be destroyed? No thoughts on that yet but I had a feeling I would be pretty bummed. I dialed my friend’s number and got through on the second try.
The seriousness of the situation was immediately taken down a notch when I heard my friend’s calm voice on the line. This guy never worries about anything, and thus it is hard to worry when you are talking to him.
I learned that no, the house had not actually flooded.. only one room had flooded, and only partially. Two of the faucets in the master bathroom had popped their cartridges and started spraying – one into the bathtub, which was harmless, and one into a sink, where it had been overflowing onto the bathroom floor (tile) and out into the master bedroom (carpet). He had found the main water valve and shut it off, so the flow had stopped. He had even vacuumed up the water from the bathroom floor, and his fine wife had spent an hour or more vacuuming water out of the carpet, extracting several gallons – all before even reaching us on the phone.
Fortunately, that bedroom happens to sit over top of the garage, so the water had been soaking through the carpet and the plywood floor beneath, and draining through the drywall of the garage ceiling, then squeezing under the garage door and safely outside. Not my first choice of things to happen during a vacation, but also far from the 32-foot-deep-fishtank-with-floating-couches image that I had awakened to a few minutes earlier. It occured to me that we were infinitely grateful to to have these particular friends on our side, as we have been for years.
But the crisis was still far from resolved. The reason all this had happened is that the furnace had died, and it was still dead. The house interior was at 30 degrees F right now, and only the most sensitive things in the coldest room had been damaged so far. That meant the temperature could continue to drop, and more serious things like the copper pipes inside the walls could soon start cracking. Luke and I talked through some options over the phone, and he decided to try replacing the igniter/flame sensor unit in the furnace while I put in a call to my usual furnace contractor*.
A few hours passed. I spent them cutting out a section of a brick wall and framing an exterior doorway into our vacation suite – the last of the difficult tasks on my work plan. It was a beautiful day in Hawaii and I performed my work in flip-flops and shorts as usual. I was reminded that no matter what happens, life in general will remain wonderful. My worry subsided.
My friend called back. His replacement part did not fix the problem. Shit. The furnace guy called back. He might be able to make it this afternoon, or if not, tomorrow morning. Good.
We activated a contingency plan, where a 1500 watt space heater was placed in the kitchen, so its heat could dissipate throughout the house’s relatively open 2-level floorplan. Calculations indicated that would be enough to keep the house well above freezing (1500 watts is 5118 BTU/hr, so running it constantly is roughly equal to running the 100,000 BTU furnace for about 74 minutes per day. Plenty of heat to maintain 50F or more in my place, or much more if the sun shines).
I went back to work, hanging the door and the trim around it. I added the nice Schlage programmable deadbolt (which I do in all houses – especially rentals) allowing all future guests to have keyless access to the suite. It’s the same simple technology that allowed my friend and my furnace guy to get into my own house without having to share keys – I just gave them the “guest” front door code over the phone.
The furnace guy called back. He had fixed the furnace! It wasn’t the igniter or the flame sensor. It was a little rubber hose that measures the vacuum created by the fume exhaust fan. It had become clogged, so all he had to do was clear it out. My furnace was running, the house was warming up, the remaining water was evaporating rapidly in the ultra-dry Colorado winter air, and the whole episode was on the road to being forgotten. To top it all off, he said his whole bill would only be the minimum service charge – $80.
I am incredibly thankful that this bit of bad luck didn’t turn out all that badly. I can fix or replace my dead faucets once we get home, and repair any drywall or other damage that cropped up at my leisure. But even in this little tale, it seems there were a few hidden life lessons:
Home maintenance skills trump low insurance deductibles:
The typical hands-off homeowner might have said “Ohmygod! A FLOOD!”, and called a flood and disaster recovery contractor. These companies vacuum out the water from your carpets and use blowers and dehumidifiers to dry the house. They will even subcontract out to a plumber and a drywall repair company, and a furnace fixer too. I’ve hired one of these companies for a customer in the past and boy, do they charge a premium for their services. A job like this could be $3000-$5000 or more. The homeowner would then thank goodness for the low $500 deductible on their home insurance plan (for which they pay $500 per year over a $10k plan), and the whole repair would cost them only $500, (plus a $100/year increase in insurance premiums due to the loss of “no-claim discount”).
Friends are worth their weight in gold:
Our friends have helped us out of more binds than we can count, and I hope they feel the same way about us. I have built portions of their last three houses and repaired most of the rest. We pick up each other’s kids from school, and we drive each other to and from the airport when the bus or shuttle schedule doesn’t work out. We share garden tools and meals and many ‘a’ box of wine. Without good reliable friends, life is less fun and more difficult. Do whatever it takes to earn and keep them!
Do the math when taking risks:
I left for this vacation before Mrs. and Junior ‘Stash came. So I gave her a list of house preparations to make before she left: turn down the furnace and water heater, close the insulated shutters, lock the tool shed, and other such things. I debated whether or not to ask her to shut off the main water valve, but decided it wouldn’t be worth the trouble since it’s in an awkward corner of the basement. After all, how likely is the furnace to fail right while we are away and cause a flood?
What I should have said is, “Okay. A furnace usually fails once every 10 years on average. Mine has been trouble-free for at least the six I have lived there, meaning there is a good chance of a part going out in the next 48 months. The house will be empty for one month, meaning there might be a 1-in-48 chance of furnace problems while we are away – and every night falls below freezing during this time of year, so freeze risk without furnace is nearly 100%. I have toured enough houses with winter water damage while shopping for foreclosures that I know that if your house freezes, you almost certainly get a water leak. The cost of a water leak due to frozen pipes is very high ($200 to $20,000), so you could estimate it as a $2000 expected value.
So the expected savings from turning off the water pressure is somewhere around 1/48 * $2000, or $42.00, conservatively speaking. Plus the extra dividend from peace of mind. Since it is far less than $42.00 of effort to shut off that valve, I should have asked her to do that before leaving as well. And you should do it when you take trips and leave your house empty too. An internet-enabled thermostat is also now looking like a better investment, even while I had dismissed it as an unnecessary gadget in the past. Since we spend at least two months traveling away from the house each year, it makes sense to have a way to monitor it without leaning too heavily on the aforementioned friends.
So, it looks like we squeaked through this bit of bad luck without too much damage. But lesson learned!
*Furnace Guy – hats off to Bob at Circulating Air, who I have long considered the most kickass HVAC contractor in the Longmont and Boulder area. Again he has saved me from trouble.
I’m sure it’s out there somewhere: A space heater with an auto-start at 40F/5C and on a timer that you could just plug in as insurance when you leave the house for extended periods of time…
Or better yet, a little unit with the above features that you could plug a space heater into..