My Kingdom for a Hot Shower

Here is a list of things that I could not work out how to operate when we first moved in:

1. The oven

2. The grill

3. The door locks

4. The upstairs windows

5. The downstairs windows (totally separate issue)

6. The upstairs shower

7. The downstairs shower

8. The bath

9. The kitchen light switch

10. The house alarm

11. The kitchen gas fire

12. The microwave

I should point out that when we moved in here I was on my own, grown-up-wise.  We dropped Josh at the airport in the morning and started moving into the house in the afternoon as he flew to Seattle to work for two weeks.  I could also point out that on his return he wasn’t much help as he couldn’t solve many of these riddles any better than I could.

When I say, for example, that I couldn’t work the kitchen light switch I literally mean that I knew where it was and what it was for and still could not figure out how to use it to make light happen.  And the upstairs windows: for the first few weeks I looked at them and came to the conclusion that there was no possible way that they could open.  I still have not got to grips with the gas fire but I only tried once or twice because we don’t need it.  And to be fair, the microwave did turn out to really be dead.  Even the magical handyman, Tom, could not heat up my spaghetti in it.

Tom was the saviour of everything in those first two weeks.  He works for the rental agent and was around a lot to start with doing handyman things.  There was also a plumber, Gerry, and there was always one or both here for a while.  I did get sick of it because we had been living with other people or in serviced apartments with other people looking over our shoulders for many weeks and I was ready for some privacy.  There was a relocation company on our case and they did certainly make my life much easier over that time.  They booked everything, organised everything, sorted out problems and even covered details like bringing groceries when we first moved into the house and providing us with a really excellent road map book of Dublin which was my security blanket for a long time.  I couldn’t have done it without them but by the time we’d moved in and had the rental agent around, the relocation agent spending almost a full day photographing every square centimetre of the property, the rental furniture men spending a day putting up beds and filling the cupboards with Ikea crockery, the census woman and a few others it was beginning to feel like a railway station and if I’d known how to work the door locks I probably would have gone into hiding.

On the morning that we moved in I noticed that there was water pouring out of the side of the house in between the first and second stories.  You could see by the state of the concrete path underneath that it had been going for a while so I thought perhaps that’s just what Irish houses do.  The relocation agent was still there so I pointed it out to her and she said oh, that’s just the overflow from the something something something, but she’d mention it to the rental agent.  Thus began the many weeks (well, two or three.  It felt like more) of Tom and Gerry more or less living here while they tried to sort it out.

I had quite some difficulty in grasping the issue because I can’t understand a word that Gerry says.  Tom has a beautiful melodic way of talking and I can follow it just nicely but Gerry – not so much.  On the phone there’s no hope at all.  My first contact with him was when he kept trying to call me to make a time to come over but it took about three goes before I even got the gist of who he was and what he wanted.  Even then the only thing I could do was listen and hope that I could pick out a time and a day from the general torrent of words.  Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t and I ended every (completely one-sided) phone call by saying ‘Yes, that’s fine thanks, we’ll be in all day’ and then never being able to go out because I had no idea what I’d agreed to.

I persevered, however, because I was quite interested in why our house had water pouring out the side of it.  The neighbours were also interested; they’d complained about it to the rental agent too.  Probably the sound was making their kids wet their beds at night.  Well, Gerry said (and I’m paraphrasing here so you don’t have to nod and smile then stay in all day because you have no idea what you’ve agreed to) that the ball cock was worn out in the water tank in the ceiling so all the water was running out the overflow pipe.

‘But the hot water cylinder’s right here in this cupboard’, I said, wondering if he’d got his plumbering certificate over the Internet.  ‘Not in the ceiling.’

‘Ah yes’, says he, ‘but I mean the cold water tank.  There’s a cold water tank up there in the ceiling.’

‘There’s a what?’ I replied. ‘Why?  We live in the middle of the biggest city in Ireland.  We have mains water.  Why would they store it in a tank in the attic?’

The explanation, as is so often the case, is that broadly speaking it’s the fault of the English.  More specifically it’s something to do with water pressure.

Anyway, the older-than-God English cold-water tank required many visits from both Gerry and Tom who had to cut a manhole in the ceiling of the girls’ room so that Tom could get to the ball cock which was obviously installed not long after World War Two and ignored ever since.

The up-side of having Tom turning up every morning for a while was that he could solve all the problems that I’d accumulated overnight, and it’s lucky that he’s such a nice man because most of them were, well, not rocket science.  Do you know how embarrassing it is to say to someone that the kitchen light doesn’t work and could he please fix it, and watch while he turns it on by pressing the switch?  In my defence, neither the relocation agent nor Josh could do it either so it’s not just that I’m reaching the stage of befuddlement where I shouldn’t be left alone with complicated equipment like windows and ovens.  It was really not obvious.

So thanks to Tom I am now am expert in turning lights on and off, cooking with both the oven and the grill, opening and also closing windows and getting in and out of my own front door (don’t judge, yo.  The handles go up for the lock to work.  Who ever heard of door handles that go up?).  I ignore the existence of the house alarm like a boss most of the time and I can totally shut it up when there’s a power cut and it spits the dummy (more often than you’d think for a big city).  I can run a bath with the best of them.  I’ve used the downstairs shower at least three times with great success although I think that might just be good luck.  But the hot water system in general, and the upstairs shower in particular, that is my nemesis.

Perhaps my problem was over-confidence.  I will admit that I sauntered into the bathroom that first morning fully expecting to be able to master the shower without difficulty.  I had, after all, been showering successfully for the best part of forty years and considered myself at least as competent as the next person.

As they say, pride goes before a fall.

So I casually draped my towel over the radiator (towel racks haven’t made it here yet, or at least not to this house), stripped off and stepped in.  And looked at a whole collection of knobs and switches.  Most showers in my experience have one knob, helpfully labelled ‘hot’ and one end and ‘cold’ at the other, and it’s all pretty fool-proof, so why does this one need the dashboard of a 747?

I spotted a switch named ‘on/off’ and this did, as advertised, make water come out.  I worked out the temperature dial (which also has a button on it, not content to just be a dial) and all was well.  There was another dial there but it didn’t seem important so I didn’t try it.  I lathered up my hair then all hell broke loose.

All these buttons and dials are not stuck to the shower wall, they’re stuck to a big box thing that’s stuck to the shower wall.  And, as the water suddenly went icy cold then stopped altogether, this box thing started making a noise that I can only compare to a three-piece band composed of a chainsaw, a jackhammer and a guy starting up a vee-dub Beetle that hasn’t been serviced since 1966.  I was terrified.

I pressed ‘off’ and it all stopped.  I mean seriously, you guys, it was like the four horsemen of the apocalypse stampeding through my bathroom except louder.  I thought it was going to explode.  It took years off my life.  Having the noise gone didn’t fix everything though, because I still had shampoo everywhere.  In trepidation I turned it back on and got much noise and a bare trickle of freezing water, so I turned it straight back off.

Right, so, I thought, I’ll go and rinse off in the downstairs bathroom and wait until Tom arrives (but with my clothes on) and ask him, what the heck?  Why doesn’t the shower, shower?  This was a great plan except that the downstairs shower turned out to be still more complicated and inexplicable.  A completely different set-up, this time it was just mocking me because it did indeed have a knob with ‘hot’ at one end and ‘cold’ at the other but no way at all that I could find to make water come out of it at any temperature.  Eventually I managed to make a tepid dribble happen (probably the water that had been sitting stagnant in the pipes since the last tenant left) and got most of the shampoo out of my hair and settled in to wait for Tom so that I could once again have the fun experience of admitting that I couldn’t find my way around a piece of basic household hardware.  As I say, lucky he’s a patient and kind man.

(I did manage to find his limit though, the day we failed to fully appreciate how limiting it is to have a really antiquated sewerage system.  We’ll just draw a veil over that one.)

It turns out it’s not me that’s completely thick, it’s the design of the plumbing system.  I still don’t really get it but here’s what I understand so far: we have the cold water tank in the attic as previously mentioned and a hot-water tank in the hot-water cupboard (‘hot press’ if you’re Irish).  The water in the tank is heated by the gas central heating system.  There’s a boiler in the garage and a few miles’ worth of pipe running all around the house in the walls, circulating water past the boiler and through the radiators, and somehow some of it ends up in the tank.  It’s really noisy, too.  It creaks and clanks and gurgles and ticks.  Poor Noah, sleeping in a room alone for the first time in his life, took months to get over being terrified and huddling under his blankets until driven out by the threat of hyperthermia.

The knob in the upstairs shower that I’d ignored was the water pressure, and it was turned up to full.  The box thingy that it and the other knobs are attached to is some sort of electrical pump motor.  In my short time in the shower I had used up all the water in the tank and the motor just, I don’t know, went off the reservation.  Which explained why the downstairs one hadn’t worked either; there was no water left in the tank.

Well, okay, sez I to Tom.  Well and good, but there are six of us here, and if the tank can’t even cope with one shower without going all bunny-boiler, what are we to do?

So he showed me The Immersion.  It gets a capital letter because of its significance as a feature of Irish family life.  Immersions seem to come up a lot.  You go to the hot water cupboard and look inside and there’s a timer, an on/off switch, and a switch that says ‘sink/bath’.  The Immersion, Tom explained, is a heating element that heats the water up lickety-split if you’re in dire need and can’t be waiting for the central heating to do the job.  You can choose a small amount (‘sink’) or a larger amount (‘bath’).  It’s still not instant; you’d want to give it half an hour.  Because of its nuclear-capable wondrousness at heating the tank up in express time it’s very expensive to use and you mustn’t accidentally leave it on or your power bill will be through the roof, so it will.  The gas is cheaper so once the weather warms up you’d want to leave the central heating on the timer but turn the radiators off.

Then Josh came home and failed to accomplish a shower so I had to try to explain it all to him:  You press ‘on’.  You make sure the temperature dial is at 5 because at least 50% of the time the shower won’t start if it’s on any other number.  You have the pressure turned right down or the water’ll be gone so quick you’ll have to wash individual limbs on separate days.  And you needed to turn the heating on a good hour ago.  Sometimes it still doesn’t go.  I don’t know.

My explanation of how to use The Immersion didn’t satisfy him (big surprise) so he Googled it and was amazed that anyone would ever think to design a system so convoluted.  The ‘sink’ and ‘bath’ settings actually operate two different elements, one at the top of the tank and one at the bottom.  They somehow know to heat different amounts of water.  There is no thermostat anywhere about the place with this system so when The Immersion is left on it just keeps heating, and heating, and heating which is why it becomes a disaster of the kind that leads to recriminations years later.  Why have a ‘sink’ setting when it doesn’t know to stop after heating a certain amount?  I don’t know.  Why design a water heating system with two separate elements but zero thermostats?  No idea.

So here’s the shower scenario now: totally, completely hit-and-miss.  Earlier on we sometimes just couldn’t get them to work at will but at least if the shower gods were smiling and water did happen it was usually hot.  Now that it’s late spring we barely use the central heating any more and as a result there’s nothing heating the water.  Sometimes we turn the heating on and the radiators off, but we do still need a wee bit of heat downstairs in the early morning so then someone has to remember to go around twice a day and fiddle with the radiators.  Sometimes we gingerly dabble with The Immersion but only after setting about five alarms to remind us to turn it off.  More often than not I try to snatch a quick shower at some random time in the day and end up standing there watching the pitiful cold dribble and swearing like a sailor.  Or having to boil the kettle to wash the dishes.  Or telling a small naked child they’ll just have to deal with the head-to-toe mud/ice cream/felt pen body art with a face cloth.  Whoever designed this system was clearly an obsessive compulsive scheduler whose mission in life was to force the rest of us into an iron-clad daily routine which, like the Hotel California, we can never leave.

I blame the English.






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