South of the Border Plumbing 101

South of the Border Plumbing 101                 

Tara A. Spears

Never in wildest dreams- or worst nightmares- did I image a point in my life where I would have five plumbers on speed dial. But it’s happened. I admit that I was smug about my homeowner skills when I first became an expat fifteen years ago; after all, hadn’t I successfully rehabbed and flipped ten properties? I was a gal who knew her way around wrenches, who knew plumbing basics, or so I thought. Then I had the year of the plumber!

I think of it as the re-education of Tara: all of my life experience and DIY training is out the window. (I was always first in line for every Lowe’s and Home Depot Saturday how to sessions.) It might look like a typical pipe and faucet, but it ain’t the same, friends. My year started off with a simple little drip at the shower head after it was turned off. No biggie, I think to myself, it just needs a new washer. I tripped off to the hardware store (ferretería) for a frustrating Spanglish encounter. Armed with a diagram and what I thought was the Spanish term for the part, only to be told “no senora.” By the time I arrived at the third hardware store, the owner took pity on me and explained, “You must buy a new shower; can’t get only that piece.” What? A two cent part is not available but I can fix this minor problem with a $1,500 new unit? I was choking on this information when the man said, “Senora, you are in Mexico now.” Little did I know that phrase would become my plumbing mantra throughout the next year.

I was trying to keep an open mind about the situation and not throw a hissy fit in the store, so I purchased the new unit. I thought, well, I’ll just take the washer out of the box for now and save the rest for later when I need to change out the shower. Huh! I opened the box at home and the plumbing guts didn’t make sense to me. I sucked it up and called plumber number 1.

Plumber 1 arrives to survey the situation. He looks at the tiny drip, shrugs. I tell him to fix it and show the new shower unit. He says, si, he can do it, just let him get the concrete saw and other tools. SAW?!! WHAT?! The explanation is to cut through the perfect tile, cut down to the perfectly functioning pipes in oder to add the new unit. Pfft, no way I tell him.

I contacted plumber number 2 who speaks English. Surely it was a language misunderstanding with plumber 1. Plumber 2 says that the wall must be cut and all new pipes fittings before the new shower goes in. Nope, nope, nope I said. It is just such a small drip! Plumber leaves and I try to recover from the shock. But, being a fastidious person, I cannot live with a drip! My green conscience is telling me to respect our limited resources and just fix the damn leak.

The next day I contact plumber 3 who is highly recommended by one of the ferretería owners. I don’t even try to explain the situation, just point to the drip and the box with the new shower. “¿cuanto cue

sta?” How much to fix it, I ask with clenched jaw. Plumber 3 whips out paper and pencil to jot down numbers.  OMG, I can’t believe it.   It’s crazy expensive and I tell him no, unuh, forget it. I just can’t wrap my mind around the idea of destroying functioning things to fix a small problem. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.

One last resort: I ask Plumber 4 to come. By this point, which is after several days of aggravating myself with this situation, as soon as I take him into the bathroom, I cry. Plumber 4 is older than the previous guys, so maybe he understands women better, but he says he can fix it right now. He whips out a plumber guy tool and removes a valve at the cold handle. “You don’t have to cut the tile?” I say as I hug him. He goes to the hardware store and for about $20 no more drip- and my pretty tile is intact! I still have nightmares about drips, though, and now I’m taking high blood pressure meds.

Another interesting twist on SOTB plumbing is the unique rural system required to have water at the tap forceful enough to be useful, say for a washing machine or a quick shower. There are three main (expensive) components: the pressure pump, tinaco (roof top water tank), and aljibe (Cistern). While it is a creative solution, it cannot compare with getting water delivered to your house via pressurized pipes, as is common in large Mexican cities and most countries. This multi-piece system is a plumbers dream: just think of the potential for repair! The wealth to be gained repairing all the interconnecting pipes! Add the effects of the tropical climate and extreme hard water, yep, this set up is a disaster waiting to happen.

Visualize this: jump in the shower, soap up, water stops. Slog out of the bathroom to check kitchen- no water there either. Hum, drip on out (in a towel) to check the aljibe- plenty of water in the tank. Look at the pressure pump, which is minimum $5,500 a pop PLUS labor. Place hand on pump, hot but not running, sigh. Telephone the plumber to come today. Jump into pool to rinse off soap and shampoo before getting dressed, wondering all the while, how many plumbers will it take this time? In the eight years at this house, I am on the 4th pressure pump so I know aaaalll about them now.

Another lesson in SOTB plumbing is what garantía/warrantee really means: [email protected]# out of luck. I have had bizarre plumbing malfunctions that even the plumbers say can’t happen, but they did. A hot water heater caught on fire –no replacement even though it was only 6 months old; or the new kitchen faucet that shot water out the back of the neck after only three weeks. My personal fav of high stress, high aggravation is that eight hours after a new pressure pump was installed, every factory seal came out of the pump housing so all the water from the cistern is spewing everywhere but into the pipes- no replacement because “you used it. “ As crazy as it seems, I have been told this for every defective plumbing device from six different stores!!

It was the first time dealing with replacing a pressure pump with plumber number 5. I had a very stressful week learning the process for keeping the water coming out of the faucet: I mean, is that asking too much in the 21st century? What amazes me, is that ALL of the plumbers say the same thing: Do not use municipal water, it’s bad. I tell the plumbers, “Look I didn’t retire to have to haul buckets from the river!” To which plumber 1, plumber 2, 3, 4, and 5 respond, “But senora, you are in Mexico!”  


I refuse to be deterred by the quirks of SOTB plumbing. After all, I am getting to be good friends with these workers: I know their children’s names and their favorite drink. I so enjoy every day with sunshine and when I can turn a facet on and get water. “ que será sera” What will be will be but I go to sleep each night praying, “Please lord, let me have a day with no plumbers and running water.” And I keep plumbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 on speed dial.