Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 30, 2023

Cats, couplers and corrosion create confusion

Few things are more disquieting than having your doorbell ring in the wee hours ... particularly so when no one was at the door! Sleep didn't return quickly.

Then, weeks later, it happened again ... and we got lucky. The neighbor's cat was so startled when Art opened the door that I'm sure several of his nine lives were expended. It had perched on the ledge near the knob, sometimes leaning on the doorbell button. Art's appearance apparently left a lasting impression as there were no follow-up performances.

But seemingly unexplainable happenings such as this prompt the mind to stretch looking for answers.

Friend Deb recently had one of those, but hers turned out to be far less amusing and more expensive.

It began with small pieces of what seemed to be black electrical tape appearing in the water of her tub. Soon they were in a sink, clogging faucets and aerators.

Randy, the man who does her home maintenance work, couldn't explain what it was. It wasn't the kind of material typically found in home fixtures. So what was it, where did it come from and how did it get into the system?

Deb had some extensive plumbing done a number of years before, prompting suspicion to fall on the company's work. I alerted husband Art to Deb's quandary. He suggested a plumber may have finished work one day and placed electrical tape over open pipes to keep bugs and dirt out of the system until the next work day. But he said it seemed far-fetched the workers would have forgotten to remove it. Even if this had been so, why did it take years to show up? Later, after getting images from Randy, Art rejected even his own unlikely theory. The amount was far too much to be from a few pieces used to cover open pipes.

One of the plumbing company's owners looked at it, but dismissed any suggestion they may have been responsible. However, the particular plumber was no longer employed by the company. That somehow seemed to bolster the idea that the firm was at fault, despite the fact that no one could imagine what he might have done to create the problem.

Regardless of the cause, faucets had to be cleared of the obstructing material and that took time - and time is money.

Much as with our cat encounter, time passed with no further incidents, but then returned. Deb mentioned it to her son who spoke with a plumber he knew. The plumber had heard of a few such cases, suggesting the wrong types of couplers had been used on the water heater.

Art then did some internet searching and discovered that while uncommon, several eerily-similar cases were reported by other home owners and they too were initially perplexed.

Just as with the cat, while the situation was unusual, the explanation was simple. Water heaters have a 10- to 15-year life span, so plumbers routinely install flexible piping to make the replacement job easier. Some of these couplers have rubber liners to keep them leak-free. But being constantly in the hot water produced by the heater causes the rubber used by some manufacturers to shed. Because the problem develops over a long time, the manufacturer may have had no idea their product was flawed.

We currently have a new "mystery" and there are no cats involved. The heating and cooling system on Art's car had gone completely bonkers ... oscillating wildly between roasting and freezing. Over about 18 months, there have been repeated trips to the repair shop, but the"fixes" rarely lasted a day. Art has known the people at the garage for more than 40 years and they have always done good work, so he was suspicious the cause was something unusual.

Now he's even pretty certain he has sorted the problem out, despite not doing any work on it!

Since we seem to always have an old clunker available for daily use, he frequently allowed what became the problematic vehicle to sit in the garage, sometimes for a month or more - reserving it as a sort of "Sunday" car. Coincidentally, we have two other vehicles about the same age and by the same manufacturer and they, too, have experienced similar quirky problems. The truck's windshield wipers, which don't get much of a workout in dry Kansas, will frequently not work when rain finally arrives. But a few hours later, they'll work fine. On the van, the cruise control or the blower motor will randomly drop out. Sometimes in the morning, the starter won't crank, but after just being towed to the shop, it works like a champ.

Art noticed these problems frequently happened when the outdoor temperature changed greatly. He had seen similar problems with units he designed. The root cause was corrosion in electrical connectors, something facilitated by high moisture, temperature change, and time - particularly idle time.

So he was not surprised when he discovered that if he rocks a wiper-circuit relay in its socket of the truck, thereby cleaning the corrosion from its contacts, the wipers always spring to life. In the van, pulling the plug off the cruise module and then plugging it in again did the same. It has now worked without a problem for more than five years.

He's pretty certain it's the same problem with the car. The more he drives it, which would allow normal vibration to scrub the contacts, the better it works. Heating and cooling problems are rare now.

In his work, he uses connectors with gold contacts - a material that is very corrosion-resistant, but prohibitively expensive to use throughout a normal vehicle. Ours are now 20 or more years old, surpassing the manufacturer's design goals, so we are not blaming them.

However, there is a dilemma: what to do about the bill. The shop has labor invested, yet didn't produce a repair In fact, without replacing all of the connectors, "repair" may be impossible.

These cats, couplers and corrosion problems all involve unexpected circumstances that test our human capacity for logical thinking. Typically, we try to "fit" a more familiar answer to the situation. Who was that person at our door at 3 a.m.? Why did the plumber do a lousy job? Why doesn't the mechanic fix Art's car?

Ah, life ... if it would just stay simple!

Left: pointing to the doorbell button and the brick ledge the cat sat on. Top-middle: some of the rubber pieces that came from Deb's piping. Top-right: a flexible connector pipe in the local Menard's store. Bottom-middle: rubber liner in a pipe such as Deb's. This manufacturer changed to a different lining material in 2012. Bottom-right: second-hand controller inserted in Art's car in the unrewarded hope it would solve the temperature problem. (bottom-middle image from a screen capture by YouTube video creator ColoradoRMN.)

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