John Phipps: Do It Yourself, but Don't Look Back

November 6, 2017 01:02 PM
 
John Phipps

Timing is everything. And nowhere is this truism more truistic than comedy, or as it is sometimes known, home repair. As long-time readers will know, I am an enthusiastic, if not particularly effective, do-it-yourselfer. My home is my fixable castle.

Over the years, I have noticed a trend in odd-job outcomes. Not only are the jobs getting odder, but the minute I resolve a long-standing daily irritation, cleverer minds in the home improvement industry announce an easier, neater, cheaper and faster solution.

Perhaps the most insidious example of this technology sucker punching is plumbing. The eternal problem of containing, controlling and disposing of water has occupied a sizable portion of my time on earth. Ironically, much of it was literally in the earth as I fought in a muddy trench to teach H2O its place. This campaign has been fought with multiple weapons, beginning with iron pipe.

Anything with “iron” in the name assumes a mystical quality of power and endurance. But for water, iron is simply a food source.

Especially under concrete, steel piping corrodes like the batteries in the only flashlight you can find during a power outage. Another sad feature is threaded connections. No amateur expects any piping run with more than two connections to be watertight on the first test. In fact, lack of leaks is unsettling, as it hints of a hydraulic setup, waiting to pounce after backfilling or drywall finishing.

I was unfairly disqualified from copper plumbing due to one tiny in-wall inferno while soldering joints. (The fumes were barely toxic.) So when PVC piping arrived, I rejoiced. Sure, there were still connection leaks, but I could cut-and-paste them. Plus, instead of trying to measure and find pipe lengths to fit, I could trial-and-error the route, even bending a little where needed.

Then I saw PEX tubing on “This Old House” and realized I was born 50 years too soon. Armed with a sharp knife (and Band-Aids, of course), I could make water go boldly where it had never gone before. Best of all, if there was a mistake I could dismantle the system with my fingers and correct it. The people who invented PEX should do farm accounting, in my opinion.

PEX is the round baler of home improvement—an invention that abruptly devalued hard-won skills. Talking about plumbing back in the day, I sound like my Dad bragging about his skill in shocking oats. I was never sure whether he was making it up. Or what kind of cattle prod he used.

In addition, if I have learned nothing else, and Jan would suggest that estimate might be high, it is this: never expend more than 10 minutes trying to fix any computer-related headache. Above all, do not plunk down real money for any comprehensive, up-to-the-minute overhaul. My rule is the state of the art is almost never Illinois. For example, the minute I installed Ethernet, vendors rolled out wireless systems that cost less than the tools I bought to snake cable through walls. Also, any app I buy will inevitably be included free in a system upgrade the next week.

Home Depot and Amazon don’t care if my feelings are hurt, as long as my credit card works. As technology continues to banish problems 20 minutes after I’ve battled them, I pretend it’s a strategic victory. My wasted time and money make it easier for those who follow. Clearly, the people ahead of me were totally goofing off, however.

The moral is clear. If you’re contemplating a major repair or upgrade to your domestic world, check with me to see if I’ve tried it. If I have managed some meager improvement, rest assured it’s about to get much easier.

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