Wonderbread… a plumber’s best friend

My mom had her right knee replaced two days ago, so naturally I drove to Ohio and replaced her toilet.

On Tuesday, my mom, at age 70, had a partial knee replacement on her right leg. Thinking she would be essentially immobile for several days, I made plans to drive up and help out — make dinners, walk the dogs, etc.

It turns out my mom threw aside her walker two weeks ahead of schedule (and just two days after surgery — the very night she got home), and decided the prohibition against stairs and showers was for the birds. Meanwhile, her friends were bringing complete and delicious meals.

What was I to do? I scolded her for walking unaided and offered to get her groceries, prescriptions and the like.

Then my dad mentioned he needed to call a plumber to replace a corroded shut-off valve to the basement toilet in preparation for replacing the toilet itself. “Oh, don’t call the plumber,” I said. “I can fix that!”

We took off for the hardware store and picked up a pipe cutter, some extra pipe, a coupler, pipe bond, and a new shut-off valve.

With the items in hand, we returned to the basement ready to showcase our plumbing skills. We turned the main water line off and waited for the pipe to drain. And waited. And waited.

Finally, when the pipe was just dripping the tiniest bit, we started. We cleaned the pipes, wiped on the bond, got out my mom’s butane creme brûlée torch and got to work.

Nothing worked. The bond didn’t melt. The pipes didn’t adhere to each other. Confused, I looked at my dad and said, “but this worked perfectly the last time I did it!”

We decided the pipe bond wasn’t right and returned to the hardware store to get flux and solder.

Back home, we tried again. Nothing. Drops of solder fell to the ground. Water boiled and dripped out of the pipe.

“Mom’s kitchen torch isn’t strong enough,” I said. By now, Ohio winter had set in and the roads were covered in snow and ice. “We need a bigger torch.”

After trip number three, we lit the giant torch and got the pipe smoking‘ hot.


After exhausting our supply of swear words, I remembered something. There can’t be any water in the pipe. Problem was, the water had been off for hours, other faucets had been opened and still water was dripping. Ah, but of course, We’re in the lowest part of the house. The entire plumbing system is still, slowly, draining through this pipe.

But what to do? “Maybe we can get a pressure-based coupler, instead of one that uses solder.

Trip number four.

As we searched the aisles for the right device, the plumbing manager walked past. “Excuse me,” I said. “We’re having this problem…” and proceeded to explain the above situation.

“You need white bread,” he told us. “Stick a little in the pipe and it’ll absorb the water and buy you about two or three minutes. It’s an old plumber’s trick.” As if reading my mind, he added, “Don’t worry. It’ll dissolve with the water. No problem.”

Sure enough, the trick worked perfectly. We picked up some hamburger buns on the way home, stuffed some into the pipe. Pulled out the solder, flux and torch. Everything worked just as it should.

Gleeful, I turned the water back on and went to inspect my work, and prepared to use the valve to complete the toilet replacement.

Drip. Drip. Drip.


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