Monday, May 09, 2011

In Hot Water

Some people need Jacuzzis. Some people need gold-plated taps. Some people need antique bathtubs. Some people need ‘shower temples’ which can direct water at the body from a million different angles. For me, bathing luxury is just hot water. Even if it is in a plastic bucket. And since irony double underlines my life all the time, I’ve landed in a country obsessed with bathrooms, yet, they have heating systems that go berserk often.

It was in our first residence in UK, which was actually a matchbox disguised as a house, that I came face-to-face with The Boiler. A monstrous metal box, about five-feet high, with all kinds of counters and pressure valves, sat in a closet. I was told that all the settings have been made, and there’s really no need to even peek into this closet. Of course, on one cold, rainy day, no hot water came out of the taps. The pressure cooker and other ‘large’ pots and pans meant for the occasional pulav-when-guests-come were promptly employed to heat water on the stove. The maintenance team of the agent was contacted, and 8 hours later, a plumber walked in. He set it right in 10 seconds. He said there is a ‘slight’ problem with the boiler. But all I had to do was to keep an eye on the pressure gauge and ensure that it remained at a certain level. If the pressure fell, then I would not get hot water. I had the magic wand to control the beast now. But the beast could not be tamed so easily. Once, it just stopped working, even though the pressure was okay. The agent appointed plumber did not turn up for 48 hours. I finally did a google search and called the first plumber available. It was a Friday evening, and I did not have much hopes of anyone turning up. A plumber did walk in at 8:30 PM.

He opened the boiler room and looked at the metallic hulk from top to bottom. He looked at me. He looked around. He looked at me again. “You have about five to six bedrooms I presume; all ensuite?” 

I laughed hysterically. “Did you mistake me for some Asian cousin of the Windsors? This is it. This cubby hole. Why do you ask?”

“You mean...just this one room and that’s the kitchen I presume.”


“Then why the fuck...sorry ma’am...why have they installed this monster? This is more like a commercial boiler.”

“Can you get it working?” I was not interested in his amazement.

With grim determination he did what I had been doing for 48 hours. Resetting the pressure. But the beast recognised a professional’s touch. Finally it sputtered alive, and the hum was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.

“It’s out of hours on a Friday night ma’am. I’m afraid that will cost you £75. Even though I don’t know what is wrong with this, and how I set it right.”

I like honesty. But I did ask him if I can do a 10-year payout.

Then, we moved out of the hole-in-the-hole-in-the-wall to a decent sized place where we could stretch our legs and hands without punching into the ceiling or the next flat’s wall. This place is on ‘electric’ heating. I opened the boiler room. I met the new beast. This one had no counters and tickers on it. It is shiny, solid and smooth. There is just the one panel where a red light keeps blinking. A small chit of paper was glued on with succinct instructions – ‘Blinking red light – normal operation. No red light – hot water available for immediate use. Rapidly blinking red light – problem’. Of course, I’ve used too many words. It is even briefer on the 1 cm by 2 cm chit of paper.

Then we realized this is a glorified Indian geyser. It has additional parts and mechanisms to pump hot water through-out the house, is all. And as usual, in the midst of a shower, the water went tepid. I fumed. I mean this is one thing that can make me absolutely livid. Cursing darkly I spoke to the letting agent of my angst. A plumber was dispatched.

He came in all genial and jovial and looked at the boiler and patted it affectionately. “What’s the problem, eh?”

“Even though the red light keeps blinking, I get only lukewarm water. And whenever I need a good amount of hot water, I have to push that black button and wait for HALF AN HOUR.”

“Yeah. That’s the way this works.”

“What? Really?”

“Yeah. Let me top up the thermal tank for you.”

The thermal tank is a tub which sits on top of the boiler on another shelf. Apparently, this where hot water is stored and it is the circulation centre.

“But you know,” the plumber continued, “I don’t know why they have installed it this way. See, one should be able to look into the tank and see the level of water and then decide if more water needs to be poured into the this tank.”

“You mean, poured in manually?”

“Yeah. People use a bucket. But you don’t worry. See this tap here, on this pipe. You just have to turn it.” You see, the morons had installed the tank in such a way that the ceiling is right over it. If I tried really hard, I could probably insert a hair.

“Okay, but how do I know how much water is needed? Why have they not put any level indicator?” I demanded.

“Because,” the plumber gave a dramatic pause, “they did not have you designing it.” Apparently, whether work gets done or not, everyone attempts to be James Bond in Britain.

“In the absence of common-sense design, we’ll just go by the noise of the water,” the plumber declared.

He turned on the tap and we both listened, as if we were trapped in some cave, and the sound of a distant waterfall is the way out. This was stupid.

“Let me give you a thread with a small nail tied to the end of it. You can insert it into the tank and pull it out. At least going by the wet mark, we can assess how much water is there,” I suggested.

The plumber looked at me with new admiration. I blushed, even under the grim circumstances. But seriously, is this the same country which built all those glorious bridges and buildings and railway tracks all over the ‘colonies’?

Anyway, since it was established that the boiler was working as it should, I did not give it another thought. But never to be outdone, I had done a massive research on this brand. As it turned out, it is most unpopular second only to Tony Blair. The entire apartment block has been installed with this baby. It runs on two different electricity rates. It runs on a very unique design. It is also designed to be as cryptic as Unix when it came to user interface. But I poured over the discussion forums, filing away symptoms and causes. I listened to every gurgle and sputter with utmost attention. Winter sailed through without any problems. But just as the daffodils and tulips bloomed, I heard an angry murmur from the boiler room. It then turned into a hissing static. The hot water came in a trickle.

I immediately went to my notes. Aha! Noise followed by low pressure. The heat plate exchanger must have scaled up. The plumber came, a different one. A more professional, sensible one. But I had the power of knowledge now. I waited for his verdict. If he hummed and hawed, I could unnerve him with a lot of technical questions. One turn of the tap and he gave his answer, ‘Heat plate exchanger needs to be replaced.’ At last! Someone who is a subject matter expert. But, as with everything in this country, nothing ever happens ‘immediately’. The parts had to be ordered, and it would come after a couple of days. That meant a weekend of heating water in pots and pans.

But that’s okay. Back in Malleswaram, I’ve woken up every single day of my childhood to the sound of the ‘pump stove’. As was the case in all the houses, we had two ‘Handes’ or large copper pots. One ‘hande’ was set in a cement kiln, under which there was space to light the fire, be it a stove or wood. The other ‘hande’ stored cold water. Wood or ‘soudhe’ produced too much of soot and smoke due to the poor quality, so we had to use a kerosene stove. Some of my friends, who had access to coconut shells, used that as fuel.

Kerosene was rationed – so every Tuesday, I would accompany my Mom to the ration shop – a 15-20 minute walk. We would carry two empty kerosene cans. The quota was four litres or six litres I think. It was exactly enough for a week for a family of four adults and two kids. These ‘ration’ days were always tense. We had to reach there early to beat the queue. Because of course, some of the kerosene quota was sold in black; and that meant if we went late, we had to pay double the amount. And that meant delaying school fees. There were times we were turned away, all of us. The ration guy would simply say the tanker has not come. And I would be sent every day to find out if it has come.

I don’t remember how my parents managed on the days we ran out of kerosene. But not a single day did we kids shower in cold water. I suppose the adults managed in cold water on such days. So yes, when I think of those days, I realize I have no right to complain.

In fact, all these boiler experts are hot property here. I’m seriously contemplating a profession in that line, if my literary hobbies die down. Meanwhile, I wait for the plumber eagerly. Incidentally, this time around, his name IS James.

© Sumana Khan - 2011


  1. I understand why Sri's colleague is doing a plumbing course now :-)Seems quite useful in UK

  2. I undetsand now why Sri's cooleague in UK is doing a plumbing course during his free time. Seems more useful than JAVA or .net or analog devices :-)

  3. Sounds like you have a new career option that you can pursue and be very successfull at that. :-)

    ah those handes in the good old days. i remember those. but hande snana in our house was only on Sundays since it was 1 hour yenne snana on sundays.

    Very nicely written.


  4. HI There Moombeam,
    I chanced upon your writing as I was searching for Yenne Snana (I see it was more in the comment section of your posts) still. Very interesting.
    I too am an PIO currently in the US for over 20+yrs
    Understand the obsessions and otherwise of the bathrooms and more :)

  5. @AbFab...thanks for dropping by! What other search results did you find for 'yenne snaana'? :)

  6. Addictive reading.. Can i just comment in one giant response at the end ? Am lazy like that

  7. All I need is a balti and a mug for a bath. No tub, no fancy fittings etc.

    An immersion rod is enough for me when I am alone.

    Any way, I had a solar heater installed in my house in JP Nagar in 1985.
    Cost me less than 8000 those days.
    I got back the full cost in savings in electricity bills over the next few years.

    I now live in an apartment. The bathroom has a simple Raccold water heater.
    15 minutes of keeping it switched on is enough for both of us. None of these complications you described every troubled us.

    Just imagine how much energy is consumed in Europe just to heat water and to heat the building!
    We in India are saved all this trouble. Nature has been kinder to us.
    Life is simpler in India.


    1. true...a lot of energy goes in heating. life is definitely simpler in India.