I have been predicting the end of winter for the last month. This year both the groundhog and I were dead wrong. But unless there's some freaky April snowstorm that we can all (except for Donald Trump) blame on global warming, I think it's in the rear-view mirror. As I watched the last clumps of snow melt, I wasn't thinking about the changing seasons or new beginnings or shit like that. All I saw were those leaves I didn't rake last fall. So spring is simply a reminder of my own sloth. Rather than write about my inherent laziness, I'll revisit winter and tell you the dead deer story of that season.
If you live off the grid, your household water is not supplied by the city but by the land. You have a well of some kind. Remember Dorothy fetching water from a dry well in the Wizard of Oz, before she's whisked away by a bad-dream tornado? It's nothing like that. It comes right into your house. The well can run dry, but you simply have to wait for rain again. Anyway, that didn't happen. What happened was the UV decontamination system broke down. A beeping noise that sounded like a truck backing up alerted me to this fact. I could hear the beeping more clearly in some rooms than other rooms, and I do recall thinking What the hell is that beeping noise? But I didn't investigate further, which I suppose is a bad sign for someone writing detective novels.
Then I got sick. Like Mexican-vacation sick. Maybe not that bad, but close. After about a week, I started to think about that beeping noise again. When I opened the door to the basement, the sound got louder, so I walked downstairs and saw the error code on my UV light system.
Quickly: For those unfamiliar with UV lights, they can kill bacteria on just about anything. Water goes through a fragile quartz tube around a UV light bulb and is pumped into the house, now purified and clean of at least bacteria. I drank the water, cooked with the water, and bathed in the water without any problem until the system went kaput.
I had replacement bulbs in my basement, but when I moved into the house six months earlier, my realtor repeatedly cautioned me against replacing those bulbs on my own. His exact words were, "Under no circumstances are you to change the UV bulb by yourself. Find a handyman to do it."
Unfortunately in the nine months that I had lived in this house, I hadn't yet established a solid relationship with a local handyman. Good help is indeed hard to find, and I resorted to handling simple jobs (drilling stuff, furniture assembly, installing window units in summer, changing out storm windows, drilling stuff) on my own or with the help of innocent visitors. This time, however, I heeded the warning and called a handyman my neighbor uses.
"Bob.1 I have a UV light system that decontaminates my water. I need to have the light changed. Do you know how to do that?"
"I'm gonna have to look at it first," Bob said.
I could hear it clear as day in Bob's voice: he had NO idea what I was talking about. Before I could tell him to forget it, he said he would drop by at two o'clock.
Meanwhile, I decided if Bob was unfamiliar with this contraption, then it might not be so easy to find a light-bulb changing expert in my hood. I returned to the basement, wrote down the make and model of my water purification system, went online and watched a YouTube video about how to change and clean the bulb. I decided this wasn't rocket science and I could handle this job on my own. I stopped the video midstream, returned to the basement, and began the proceedings.
It was a tricky and delicate operation that ended up being somewhat time-consuming, but totally possible. The only concern was breaking the bulb or the outside quartz tubing. Both things were incredibly fragile and would shatter into a million pieces (or so I was told). Bob showed up in the middle of my project, as I was delicately trying to extract the bulb. I decided that now that he knew what I was up to, I might as well enlist his help.
"Have you seen this before?" I asked.
"Nope," Bob said.
As I predicted.
"You don't need to stay," I said. "I watched a video."
"Well, I'll stay and see what you're up to," Bob said.
I didn't want Bob to stay, but I didn't really see how I could ask him to leave.
I changed the bulb and it would seem that I got the light working. But then the video said something about uncapping the top of the metal tube and cleaning some washer type thing (honestly, I don't remember). When I (un?)screwed it, water just started rushing out of the tube.
And Bob started narrating.
"You got a lot of water coming out of there."
"I can see that," I said.
It had occurred to me that this might happen. The problem was that the water shutoff valve was located along the pipes after the water pump and the purification system. I told Bob this. Then he started following the water pipes and telling me what I'd just told him.
"I know that, Bob," I said.
"You need a shutoff valve before the UV light."
"That would make this easier."
"A lot of water is coming out now," Bob said.
"I'm going to take care of this on my own," I said, marching up the basement stairs.
Bob took the hint and followed me. I opened the front door and he left.
I had the number of another handyman in my Rolodex, provided by my electrician. I decided to give him a call.
He took one look at the system, phoned his plumber friend and made arrangements for the plumber friend to drop by that evening.
Let's call the plumber Joe. Joe the plumber was not familiar with this particular brand of UV filtration systems, but was impressed that I had managed to change the bulb on my own.
"I watched a video," I said, lifting the lit bulb out of the metal casing to show him that it was powered up.
"Don't look directly at the light," Joe said.
"You're not supposed to look at the light?" I asked.
"Didn't the video tell you that?"
"I didn't watch the whole video."
To Joe's credit, he figured out that the metal box that talks to the UV bulb was faulty. Normally it counts down the days you have left of working decontamination. In this case, there was an error message and the UV light was blinking when it should have been holding steady to indicate the presence of the new, working UV bulb.
"Well, it looks like you got this mostly covered," Joe said. He then did the oddest thing. He told me to go online and find a replacement box and do the swapout myself.
Initially I was shocked that a tradesman would suggest that I handle this process myself. Later I realized that Joe didn't have an Internet connection, and that the job really only required screwing and unscrewing a few things and unplugging and plugging in a few things.
I called Joe a week or two later when the job was done and the box read 364 days, just to double-check that everything was kosher.
"Now we need to shock the well," Joe said.
"Shock the what?"
Apparently, once bacteria gets into your pipes, that's it. Your entire plumbing is contaminated and needs to be bleached for hours to remove the bacteria. Typically, bleach is poured into a well, and a few days later you can shower and wash clothes safely.
We couldn't do it that day because it was already dark out. (It's not like I have any street lights.) Scheduling conflicts meant we had to wait ten days until Joe could come back (don't ask) and so I continued to buy bottled water, boil water, and shower in contaminated water until Joe could return.
10 days later
Joe, carrying a giant container of powdered bleach, and I trekked through a foot of snow to the well, which looks like a doghouse. We lifted the lid and Joe said, "Nope, can't shock it."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Got water in it."
It's a well. Isn't it supposed to have water in it?
Apparently you're not supposed to see the water. With a drilled well, there's some cap where you can drop in the bleach and it can then reach the bottom and get into your pipes.
Once again, because of Joe's schedule, we had to wait another week for him to come back with a water pump and pump the well to access the opening of the well.
One week later
Joe returned with a pump. We stood out in the cold for ninety minutes pumping water out of my well. Joe told me about his motorcycle. He picked sticky things off my sweater. Then he asked me out. I started to think contaminated water wasn't so bad. They didn't have UV lights in the old days. I looked into the well. The water refilled, almost as fast as it was pumped. Finally Joe admitted defeat and suggested that we shock the pipes from inside the house. I paid him for his time and we made a plan for him to come back sometime at night during the week.
The next morning
I decided I needed a second opinion and got hold of the number of a professional "pump" service. I was thinking they must have a pump powerful enough to do the job. They came out that afternoon, opened the doghouse lid of the well, took one quick peek and said, "That's a hand-dug well. Why would you pump that?"
A quick explanation of hand dug wells: They're pretty much just a plain hole in the ground. And much more likely to have contaminants. And to shock it would require an outrageous amount of bleach, and you would not be able to shower or wash your clothes for a couple of weeks. Pumping a hand-dug well is just plain stupid and a giant waste of time.
I'm no plumber, so I don't know whether hand-dug and drilled wells are difficult to distinguish, but I promptly hired the pump guys to handle the inside job and called Joe to let him know that I would no longer be needing his services.
Once I was schooled in wells, I began retelling with story with a know-it-all's outrage. It sounded something like this: "He calls himself a plumber and can't tell the difference between a hand-dug and drilled well. Seriously!" But in my more generous moments, when I don't think about those extra weeks I was bathing in contaminated water, I can think of Joe as the guy who told me not to look into the blue light. The guy who kept me from going blind.
1. Names have been changed for plausible deniability.