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A broken water pipe gets me thinking…
What sort of things might cause a disaster in my ham radio shack? I started thinking about this recently after dealing with a minor disaster caused by a leaking water pipe in the ceiling of the basement. As usual, I was sitting in my home office, which also serves as my ham shack, when I heard a faint drip, drip, drip. Since I spend an awful lot of time in my office, I know and recognize all of the usual sounds of the house around me. In fact, I don’t really notice if the compressor in the freezer comes on and my brain rarely even registers sound of the washing machine or dryer in the adjacent laundry room. The furnace or air conditioner can come on and go off without interrupting me. Jasper, my dog, wanders the house and occasionally growls at a squirrel that he sees through the window. None of this stuff bothers me or particularly gets my attention. But the brain is a marvelous thing; it can ignore the common and expected while immediately picking up on something unusual.
The sound of dripping water, even though barely audible, got my attention!
Sure enough, an inspection of the recreation room around the corner from my office revealed a drip from the ceiling. Several of the tiles in the suspended ceiling had gotten waterlogged and collapsed onto the floor, and I hadn’t heard that sound because I had only just a few minutes before come into the office to sit down and do some more work. The leak must have occurred in the afternoon shortly after I had finished my usual office day and had taken the dog out for a walk. When I returned to the office after dinner, that’s when I heard the dripping sound that was so out of place. It turns out that a 90° copper connecting joint in the cold water pipe going to the outdoor irrigation system developed a tiny pinhole leak on the inside of the bend. The tiny, almost invisible spray was enough to create quite a mess given a few hours. The soaked ceiling tiles collapsed onto an easy chair, soaking it and ruining the cushion. The carpet on the floor was soaked in an area of about a yard square. A few other items stored in the room got wet on the outside, but were not ruined because I heard the drip and responded in time to shut off the water. Fortunately, we have a carpet cleaning machine that vacuums up water and we had a spare cushion for the chair. I haven’t replaced the ceiling tiles yet, but they are standard 2′ x 2′ squares that are commonly available at any big box building store. As we are so fond of saying in Minnesota, “it could’ve been worse!”
Of course I called the plumber, and he was able to fix the problem the next day. Fortunately, we have a shut off valve for that particular leg of the water system in our house, so there was no need to keep the main valve turned off. It’s heck to be without water when you need to wash, cook, and flush! But what got me to thinking about the ham shack in relation to this broken pipe was that the shutoff valve is located directly above the ceiling in my office. In fact, several water pipes converge in the ceiling above the ham shack and it is sobering to think that the copper pipe carrying all of that water is exactly the same age as the pipe fitting that failed in the next room, which is about 20 years old. So, as I sit here talking into the microphone and enjoying a nice session on my radio, will I one day feel a drip, drip, drip on my head? I guess it could happen, and I have to admit that when I finished the basement and built the ham shack I never gave a second thought to the water pipes running through the ceiling joists overhead. I had grown up with copper water pipe in my parents’ house, and I cannot remember a single time that there had ever been a leak. I guess I would not have been too surprised if a leak had occurred where pipes were joined in the soldered connection, but to have a piece of copper simply spring a leak in the body of the pipe? It did seem pretty unlikely, but like all such things it is not something to worry about unless it happens to you – and it happened to me!
So I am forced to assess the probability of another leak, perhaps occurring over the critical electronic and computing equipment I have in the ham shack. Some of this equipment runs for hours or days at a time without being turned off. One can only imagine the damage that would be caused by water pouring onto the energized equipment. When I wired the ham shack, everything was put on ground fault interrupters. Given a good soaking, the equipment would probably short and trip the interrupters, but by then of course the station and computers would be ruined. This is not something I care to think about, but it is nonetheless a possibility. I had considered the possibility of a leak like the one we had to be extremely remote, and perhaps I was right. Nonetheless, had the leak occurred over the ham shack it would’ve meant many thousands of dollars of damage instead of a soaked chair cushion and a few feet of wet carpet.
What to do? Well, moving the ham shack and home office would be a major undertaking and a huge disruption in my work schedule. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be expensive and difficult. For now, the best I can do is to turn the main water valve for the entire house to the “off” position whenever we leave on vacation or for any kind of extended multi-day trip. This is something I have always done anyway, and while it is not a perfect solution, it does prevent damage from leaks that might occur when no one is home and when damage can be severe due to the fact that no one is around to discover the leak. Long ago, when I worked in an appliance store, we recommended that our customers who were leaving on vacation turn off the water supply to their washing machines because the hoses that fed the washing machine might burst and cause flooding in the basement. Turning off the whole house valve takes care of that problem. Keeping equipment off the floor is another good idea.
We are used to thinking about protecting our amateur radio equipment and its associated computer equipment from lightning damage, but we cannot ignore the threat posed by water!
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