Follow These Simple Steps to Turn Your $10 DIY Home Repair Into a $360 Emergency Plumbing Bill

Our upstairs hall toilet sprung a leak recently, emitting a steady hiss punctuated by frequent whooshes of the pump refilling the tank -- a bit like having Darth Vader lurking in the hall. We don't use it much, so I just turned off the water to the toilet and silenced the evil Jedi. But with visitors arriving shortly from the UK, it occurred to me that access to a loo that didn't involve traipsing through our bedroom might be preferred by all parties.

I was ready to call a plumber, but my dad scoffed on the phone. "An easy fix. Just needs a new fill valve," he assured me. So off I went to Home Depot where yes indeed, Mr. Orange Apron fixed me up with a replacement fill valve for about $10. (something my dad continues to call a 'ball cock' even though they no longer have balls and don't cock. It's been replaced by something that's more like a 'shank donut' but honestly, that doesn't sound any less dirty.) The Force was strong in me. I imagined my light saber emerging from the end of the fill valve and beheading a plumber. Take that!

Back home, faced with the reality of the "instructions" (or what might more accurately be called 'destructions') the Force leaked out faster than water from a cracked tank.

The type was smaller microscopic ant droppings so they didn't need a sheet of paper larger than my actual bathroom. The illustrations were mostly unlabeled. There were "only" six steps, but if you believe that I have some cash in Nigeria you can help me retrieve. Each of the six "steps" has at least three sub steps. Step three alone has NINE sub-steps and several warnings.


Here are a few selected excerpts:

"Push the cone washer out with your thumb or with scissors cut the four connections between the shank & cone washers."

Push it out with my thumb or with scissors? Cut it with my thumb? What the fuck does this mean?

"Push the float up with right hand. Twist cap and lever counterclockwise 1/8th of a turn to unlock. Let cap assembly hang on float cup."

What happens if I use my left hand? What part is the float cup? There's nothing here that looks like a cup.

"Align fill valve nipple to face right & parallel with back wall of tank. Press down on shank while tightening locknut."

Few parts are labeled in the illustrations, so I hope you know your shank from your locknut. Did they teach that in high school? Do names of plumbing parts all sound dirty or is it just me?

...I reached into his float cup and fondled his locknuts and shank as he fitted the clamps onto my valve nipples. "Oh baby," I hissed, leaking profusely, "You have such a huge ballcock."

In any case, at last I finished the job and the moment of truth was at hand. I turned on the water... and a steady stream cascaded onto the floor.

I turned off the water.

I could still hear a little hiss, like it wasn't all the way off, but it looked like it was off. I turned the handle a little harder. No change. Harder. The water started coming out of the hose faster. I turned it the other way. No change. Turned it back. The stream became a torrent.

Suddenly, a fill valve was the least of my problems. I had no idea where the main water cutoff for the house was. I emptied the linen closet onto the floor, ran to the phone and called the first plumber in the yellow pages that said 24×7 emergency service, grabbed a couple of bowls and raced back upstairs. Where I sat for over an hour, bailing water into the tub at the rate of one bowl every 30 seconds or so. I believe that counts as a workout.

The plumber finally arrived, assessed the damage, informed me that I had broken the cutoff and that it would be $300 to fix. Plus tax. $300? What was he going to do? Replace it with his own personal ballcock? But when your universe has contracted to two Tupperware bowls, cramped arms and enough soggy towels to construct your own Wookie, you're in no position to tell him you'll keep looking. They know this.

In no time, he had the water off and was busy doing plumberly things. A period of time so short as to make me wonder why I didn't go into plumbing as a career passed and he called me in to view the ritual of The Turning on of the Water. The bathroom was once again a bathroom and not a tsunami zone. OK, maybe it was worth it.

He turned on the water... and a steady stream cascaded onto the floor.

He turned off the water.

After a little fiddling, he decided that the overflow assembly had a bad gasket. What are the chances? "You might as well go get a new toilet." he said.

"A new toilet?"

"Well my labor to fix the overflow assembly will be about $100 and you can get a whole new toilet for $80″

"I just bought that overflow assembly and it was ten bucks."


"Well, you can try it yourself if you want to."

"Just leave it. I'll do it." (After all, I'd done so well last time.)

He shuffled his feet a bit. "I'll take the tank off for you."

"Thank you."

He hemmed and hawed and fiddled a bit. "I'll take out the old assembly so you only have to put in the new one."

"Thank you."

More fidgeting. The sight of the disassembled toilet was clearly bugging him. I will give him credit for that much professional pride.

He finally sighed, unable to make himself walk out and leave it, "Oh hell, I'll just put a new assembly in already. I'll only charge you for the part."

How kind of him not to add another $100 onto my $300 bill for the 20 minutes he'd spent here.

"Thank you," I said.

A few minutes later, it was all done, the check written ($360.80 with tax and the extra part) and half a day gone. But Lord Vader has left the building. I'm not sure if I want my guests using it, though. I might turn it into a shrine.