Third Time Is Not a Charm

At 11:30 on a Saturday night, I took a sip of decaf and thought about going to bed. Pittsburgh had experienced two nights of temperatures well below zero, so it felt good just to be inside and warm. 


Then the security company called. A motion detector at our office had set off an alarm, though none of the exterior alarms had been tripped. My heart fell. The last time that had happened, it had not been a thief but a cascade of water from a broken pipe that had set off the alarm. Given the stacks of books stored at our office, fire and water are more fearsome enemies than thieves. This week’s weather was ideal for frozen pipes.


I rushed to the office and arrived as the police were pulling up. They checked the building periphery–no tracks on the freshly fallen snow. As we neared the door, we heard that odd sound. It was a sound you might hear at a public fountain or at the base of a waterfall–quite unfitting for a frigid night in winter. I opened the door and walked through rivulets of warm water–yes, warm. The hot-water pipe had frozen on the second floor, sending water into a first floor office, where it soaked the carpet and seeped onto the stacks of books in the basement.


This was the third time a pipe had broken in the same shaft. The first time we were told by the plumber that an interior pipe breaking like this was a fluke, a rare experience of below-zero temperatures and other factors. The second time, a couple years later, we insulated the pipes and the shaft and provided a way for cold air to escape from the shaft. But now, 10 years after that last episode, we were back to square one.


We took some other precautions after the first “flood,” protecting many of our book stacks from water that might seep from above in a catastrophe. The early detection and the preventive measures made this third flood relatively minor. We’re very, very thankful that is was not worse. And we’re working harder than ever to find a permanent fix. We prefer our fountains out-of-doors.

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