Friday night I was awakened early in the morning to my water pump starting up; something that’s highly unusual. I tossed and turned for maybe an hour or so waiting for it to turn itself off before getting up to see just what in the hell was going on.
The pump is located in the stairwell between the first and second floor and it makes a tremendous racket when it runs. The noise is amplified up through the concrete stairwell and the hard surfaces serve to transmit the noise bottom to top through the whole house.
I killed the circuit breaker which shut the pump down. The pump was hot to the touch and I could smell heated metal and oil so I knew there was a serious problem in the making.
I checked the water tank on top of the fifth floor roof to listen if there was water over spilling the top but there was nothing. I checked the other rooms in the house to see if there was a water leak or anything else that would cause the pump to turn on to demand more water from the underground cistern in the middle of the night. But there was nothing.
Mexican water systems are really quite simple. Each house or building has an underground cistern that holds maybe ten thousand liters of water. It is fed by the municipal water line that is typically a one and a half inch diameter galvanized pipe that may or may not be buried underground. The house has a pump that transports the water from the underground cistern to an eleven hundred liter tank that sits at the highest point of the house and gravity does the rest, distributing the water via hydrostatic pressure to all the various stations: laundry, baths, basins, and water spigots.
When morning finally rolled around I turned the breaker on firing up the pump and let it run for another 30 minutes wanting to see if it would auto shutdown when the rooftop tank filled but it didn’t so once again I killed the breaker.
I repeated the same exercise Sunday morning and then again Monday morning, all to no avail. I have learned from experience that it normally takes 30 minutes to fill the rooftop tank and for the flotation device in the tank to send a signal back to the pump that it’s full and to shut itself down.
I would have checked the water level in the tank itself but unfortunately the tank sits on top of the laundry building on the 5th floor and is accessible only with a ladder. To use anything other than a safety ladder would be potentially life threatening as the rooftop and laundry building sits at least three stories above its nearest neighbors meaning a lost handhold or a stumble would create an irrevocable 30-40 foot plunge down to corrugated metal roof of the adjacent building.
So Monday morning I finally ran out of water. It sucked but it was an eventuality that I was more or less prepared for. And the event told me two things: one, either the cistern was empty (which can happen as the city has a less than impeccable record for uptime in their water distribution system) or there was a problem with the pump. Past experience at my last house here in town taught me that when a pump runs really loud chances are it’s very old and on its last legs.
So I called my landlord who dropped by later in the day to take a look and agreed to send a plumber the next morning. While waiting on him I confabbed with the ladies who run the boutique on the first floor only to learn that they lost electricity to their business on Sunday. They had been scrambling around all Monday morning trying to enlist the local electric utility to help them get there business back online but weren’t getting anywhere.
The plumbers showed up about two hours late Tuesday morning and as they were troubleshooting my problem – doing among other things like clicking the breaker on and off to start up the pump – someone noticed during one of the pump’s on periods that the lights came back on in the boutique.
Surely that wasn’t a coincidence because it made absolutely no sense that their business was wired to the same 30 amp breaker/meter that supposedly ran just my water pump.
Note: This skinny five story building has five metered circuits (20 amp to 40 amp) and are located in the stairwell that leads up to my second floor office, and then on to my third-fourth floor living areas. The boutique occupies the first floor but doesn’t share use of the stairwell.
So Monday/Tuesday had me and my very nice boutique operating neighbors talking to each commiserating over the building’s double curse; them not having electricity and me not having water. Then only to find out that our seemingly impossibly related problems were actually related.
So it appears that some bonehead of a short-cutting idiot bastard of an electrician had somewhere in the past put the entire first floor boutique business on the living dwelling’s 30 amp pump circuit. Unfreaking believable.
And so in effect I have been paying the boutique’s electric bill for the 8 months I’ve been living above them. So why didn’t I catch that? Simply because my two electric bills – one for the office and one for the house – don’t amount to anything. Both cost me on average all of $10/month with the government here subsidizing the lion’s share of residential electricity.
So why didn’t the boutique owners catch the discrepancy? Well maybe for the same reason. They get an electric bill because one of the meters in the stairwell feeds something in their shop. What and how much. Who knows? They probably thought they were getting correctly billed for everything just like me.
So what was explained to me when I took possession of this place last July turned out to be patently untrue. First, my two electric bills were – not as explained – neatly divided meter/circuit/cost wise between the second floor office and third/fourth floor living space. No. Oh no.
The truth is one meter carried a single 30 amp circuit that powered the office and the entirety of the house while the second 30 amp circuit carried my water pump with most of the boutique grafted into it.
Yes, this would have been caught in the US or Europe or anywhere else they have actual building codes and building inspectors but not here in Mexico. This was another poor implementation of the great promise, ‘In Mexico you are free.’ So living here you take the good with the bad.
Yes, the plumber/electrician/handyman rectified the situation but still, here the next day I am still amazed.
And now I am thinking about strictly from a problem solving exercise. As in just maybe if some of my lights would have gone off when I killed the pump circuit maybe then I would have suspected a relationship to their problem. But probably not, as their business and my house – while sharing a common space – are still distinct and bounded (or at least theoretically).
Or perhaps maybe if I had gotten more immediate feedback from my boutique neighbors regarding their outage then that speculation could have easily been tested. But even so with a bad pump inline that was subject to overheating and catching fire the reality was that my water problem had to be fixed first.
But still it was rather serendipitous when someone finally observed that when the pump circuit was hot then my neighbor’s lights went hot too.
Life can be really complicated sometimes, can’t it?