Warm Feet & Magical Thinking: Q&A with Plumber Chris Ernst

Warm Feet & Magical Thinking: Q&A with Plumber Chris Ernst

  • high efficiency condensing boiler installed by Pipelines

Pipelines owner Chris Ernst has 30 years in the plumbing business under her tool belt. A long-time Byggmeister subcontractor, Chris runs her all-women plumbing business with a "tell it like it is" personality and "get it done right the first time" approach. She sat down with us to share her thoughts on how homeowners can avoid common plumbing pitfalls, undo past evils, and even keep toilets from rocking.

Is there a plumbing mistake you see repeatedly in renovations?
The big one is cold kitchens. The old New England kitchens used big stoves for heat, so there often aren't any radiators. When people go to renovate, they want to use all the wall space for cabinetry, so maybe they put a small blower at foot level by the sink and think the adjacent family room heating system will do the rest. It ends up being freezing in there. Who wants to hang out, do homework, or eat in a cold space like that?

So, what's the solution if you don't have space for radiators or baseboard?
Radiant floor heating is a great solution if you are redoing the floors. But, if you can't do that, then panel heating can go in surprising places, like the end of an island or bank of cabinets. The units are low profile, only a couple of inches thick, and you can get them tall and narrow, square or rectangle. It's very a flexible solution, nice looking — kind of low key. You almost don't notice they are there. I really like radiant floor, though. There's nothing like that nice warm foot feeling.

What is your biggest plumbing pet peeve?
I saw this just the other day: a G.C. who thought it was a good idea to put a screen between a bathroom wall and the big radiator in the hall as the way to heat the bathroom. It's like having an open window into the bathroom! The other thing contractors will do if they don't have a plumber working for them, they will put a new floor in a bathroom over the old one without moving the toilet flange. Now the flange is seated inches below floor level, and their answer is to just stuff the gap with wax. It's unbelievable! The flange has to be reseated when you redo the floor, otherwise you'll have rocking and leaking and God knows what else. I mean, come on — it only takes a few minutes to do it right the first time.

How can homeowners get out in front of potential plumbing issues when renovating?
You can't know everything as a homeowner. It's like getting your car fixed or going to the dentist — you need to trust the people doing the work. My best advice is to think ahead. Don't just focus on that renovation space. Think 'What's above this?' While the walls are open, is there anything you are planning in the future that you could prepare for now, like are you thinking about a master suite on the third floor? What about waterlines and drains? Is there heat up there? Run the water lines and the thermostat wire now. People often think 'Well, we're done with our first floor, so now we'll do the third floor.' Do you really want to open up those walls again? Yikes!

What about architects? Is there something you wish they'd consider more?
Think about the fact that we are going to bury the plumbing and heating pipes beneath many layers for the end product. The plumbing and electrical are the hardest things to change, so why not talk to your client about putting in something that is very good quality and recommend they cut back elsewhere, like waiting on the new drapes. And, don't put electric heaters with blowers in bathrooms. People do not want air blowing on them when they are wet and naked.

Have there been significant plumbing advancements homeowners should know about?
Definitely. There's still sort of that ancestral dread of the low-flow toilets from back in the early days of mandates for them. But there are some really good water-saving toilets now and the difference between one-point-six and three-point-six gallons is huge. And if you have one of the old eight-gallon ones, oh my God, that adds up quickly. You're getting charged for the water and the sewer, remember. It's an easy replacement and makes a big difference.

On the heating side, there are always advances. Now a days there are some excellent, energy-efficient boilers that can replace your oil-burning system and there are rebates to offset the cost. There's lots of fun stuff we can offer people that saves energy and are excellent for the environment. Good heating systems are really worth it in New England because you're going to use it a good amount of the year versus air conditioning, which you'll only use for a few weeks a year.

What kind of ROI can owners expect from a new heating system?
There are so many individual things influencing that. We can't answer that question really. I can tell you that condensing boilers are the most efficient thing we're offering. Depending on what you have for radiators or baseboard will affect how well it works because the colder the water is when it returns to the boiler the more efficient it is. The larger the radiators and the longer the baseboard, the more efficient the system because you can actually turn your water temperature down. What's important to know is that they have to be installed with a proper drainage system. The condensate is very acidic, so it has to be neutralized by running it through pellets as it drains and those pellets need to be checked and refreshed as part of an annual servicing. If it goes straight into a drainage system without neutralization, it will eat away the drainpipes.

Sounds like plumbers need chemistry degrees now.
Plumbers have to be aware of this stuff. It is always so frustrating to go into someone's house and see that a plumber has put a steel section of pipe attached to copper or brass. That steel gets eaten away by the electrolysis [reaction between the two metals]. It's such a short-term attitude. Those guys are long gone, leaving the problem. You have to understand how these things work and do the proper training. Just because the boiler didn't blow up the minute you light it doesn't mean you did it right.

Plumbing was not exactly a typical career choice for women in the 1970s. What attracted you to it?
I wanted to do a trade. The plumbing union had an apprenticeship, so I signed up and went from there. Thirty years later, I still think, 'Look at that! And, they said it wouldn't last!'

And, just because every plumber should answer this question: What is the strangest thing you've ever seen stuck in a toilet?
It's not so much the strange things we find stuck in toilets and drains, it's the magical thinking behind the act of either putting things down a kitchen sink, or dropping them into a toilet and flushing instead of throwing them out. For instance, how do the laws of physics get suspended so a cell phone measuring 2 1/2 inches by 4 inches can pass through a toilet bowl trap? Or our favorite: the 'Magical Bug Annihilation Ritual', during which vast quantities of dry goods infested with meal worms are dumped into the garbage disposal, ground to a fine powder, mixed with water and left in the pipes to set into impenetrable cement.

While these behaviors do bring us income, we'd rather educate our customers against them, so they can save their money for projects we'd all find more enjoyable.