Friday, 25 January 2013

Water and a Wild Goose Chase

Living out here by choice, we oughtn't to gripe. But there are occasions when we'd kill for a B&Q Depot. Or maybe, if you're Stateside, a Home Depot store.

The water supply to our house is a rather convoluted affair, since the land on which these houses are built is a little higher (above sea level) than the local water cistern that feeds them (along with all the other homes and businesses in the area). This has necessitated the installation of a holding tank on the top of the hill above the houses, to which water is pumped from what we call the "spitaki" [little house], which is a small block-built shed down the valley a little way, near the pig farm. The "spitaki" is several metres lower then the cistern, which is located a little higher and a few hundred metres away over a couple of gentle hills, hence it receives water by gravity. From there an electric pump sends it a further 600 metres up the hill into the holding tank that supplies these houses.

We hadn't had the system installed very long some years ago when the pump burnt out and had to be replaced with a new one. This was due to the fact that it was August, high summer. All the local hotel guests and apartment dwellers nearby were busily showering away, having come back from the beach or poolside, in readiness for their evening out, thus creating a situation where demand exceeded supply and the local cistern dried up. Our holding tank atop the hill above us has a float-switch in it, which is designed to activate the pump when our tank needs its supply replenished. The float-switch activates a relay that, in turn, switches on the pump.

So, after having to fork out for a new pump, the builder decided to install a "slave" tank in the "spitaki", inside which was a regular ball-cock, which is attached to another float switch. If the "slave" tank were to become empty, the float switch would turn off the pump's electricity supply, thus avoiding another burn-out. usually, our tank at the hilltop has ample capacity to keep us hygienic for a few days, by which time the local water supply would be up and running again and we wouldn't even have noticed that there'd been a temporary "drought".

Now, I'm sure you're totally riveted by all the foregoing, but it's essential if you're to get what the story's about, honest. For the first time in years, our neighbour at the top of the hill, whose water pressure isn't as good as ours owing to her house not having such a "head" (height of water tank above house) rang me the other day to tell me that she had no water. Alarm bells rang and I asked her to check with Mac, who lives between us, since he's better clued up on such things than I am. Before long Mac rang me to tell me the bad news. Our holding tank up on the hill-top was almost empty. Something had gone wrong with the system.

To cut a long story ever-so slightly shorter (but not much), after chasing around finding out where to buy a new float switch and electrical relay, we thought we'd sorted out the problem. That is, until we noticed a Niagara-like torrent flowing out from the "spitaki" all over the lane, thus creating a lovely miry patch just after we'd had the "grader" up here to sort out the problems (see the post "Scraping By") caused by the heavy rains we'd enjoyed of late.

OK, OK, I'm getting there, really I am. Call me stupid, but (now, now, I wasn't being literal, ...please!) but at first I thought, "How on earth can the pump be running in reverse? It doesn't make sense".

Then it struck me. It wasn't the pump running backwards at all. It was the ball-cock in the slave tank not shutting off the incoming supply. Quickly assuming my Quasimodo stance, which is needed in order to enter the "spitaki", which was built, I'm sure, well and truly with Hobbits in mind, I crawled in there and unscrewed the large plastic lid of the tank, all the time feeling my feet growing wetter and wetter with the torrent which was flowing out of the tank's overflow. Sure enough, the plastic ball on the brass arm of the valve was submerged. Turning off the water supply at the tap outside I re-entered the hobbit-house, this time with the trusty better half in tow to hold a torch so I could see whilst I undid the grub screw which held the ball in place. After almost giving up in desperation, owing to the corroded nature of the screw head, I finally got it to budge with a pair of grips and drew the ball up out of the tank in much the same way as a gynaecologist holds up the newborn baby. Resisting the urge to slap the ball, I cried "YES!" triumphantly and gave it a vigorous shake. The sound which emanated from it left us in no doubt that it had been taking in water for a while and thus was the reason why the valve wasn't shutting off the flow of water, hence the flood. It was probably at least half-full with water.

Yea, that's the exact model (courtesy of

OK, so far so good. All that we now needed to do at around 2.30pm was to whip along to Despoina's, the nearest DIY store, which is, as luck would have it, within five minutes by car from the "spitaki". After all, something as simple as a plastic float ball for a brass ball-cock shouldn't be difficult to find, should it?

Entering the store the young and, it had to be said - very pretty, daughter of the usual incumbent (who is Despoina herself) looked up from the laptop screen to which she was almost superglued and gave me a helpful smile.

"Oriste," she said. I held up my faulty ball (now now, no need for that) and shook it. The sound of the ocean swishing around inside told her all she needed to know. "Aha!" She cried and, finishing off whatever it was she'd been doing with the PC, she arose and trotted off into the bowels of the store, whilst I waited hopefully by her desk. Sorely tempted as I was to take a peek at the PC, because I was fully expecting to see Facebook (yes, it's big among Greeks too) plastered all over it, I resisted. From somewhere behind a couple of displays laden with tubes of adhesive and boxes of screws of all shapes and sizes I heard the occasional "Hmmm" and "phwww" accompanied by the sound of various cardboard boxes being moved around and riffled through. The longer I waited, the more the doubts crept in. My worst fears were eventually realized when she trotted back into view empty-handed, shaking her head into the bargain. I knew what she was going to say...

"Sorry, I was sure we had one [ONE!] but it's not there. I can order one for you, though."

"I was rather hoping to fit it today and get the job done, since it affects the water supply to our house." She adopted an expression which indicated a deep understanding of my position. I continued, "I think I'll carry on down to Gennadi and see if Pandeli has one."

"Sure. No problem," she replied, "If he doesn't, drop in on your way back and we'll order one anyway."

To be honest, I'm in the habit of going to Pandeli first, but in this instance, because it was a fairly urgent need and promised to be a modest outlay, I'd chosen the apparently quicker option. Never mind, Pandeli's it would be anyway.

As is usual when I go in to Pandeli's store, he gave me a huge bear hug and asked how things were. Then he asked after Maria, my wife, and I had to explain that she was, in fact, in the car, but wasn't going to come in because she hadn't dressed for the occasion and didn't have her face on (Venus, Mars? You with me here fellas?).  Once again holding up my plastic ball and watching as a miniature shower of droplets came out whilst I shook it, I asked if he had one.

"Of course!" he replied, to my palpable signs of relief. "Hold on, it'll be downstairs." Off he went down the stairs to his Aladdin's cave of a stockroom. Once again I listened to a succession of crashes and bangs, various items being thrust this way and that, the occasional thing dropping on the floor to the accompaniment of the odd Greek expletive. Then there was the sound of footsteps on the concrete steps and soon my friend again came into view triumphantly brandishing a black plastic globe (exactly like the one in the photo above), with the correct fitting containing the required grub screw confirming that it would indeed fit. Slightly larger than the old grey one, which I was continually turning around to try and find a position that didn't result in it dropping water all over the place, I stared at it and exclaimed, "Thavma'sio!"

Ah, yes, but. As is usually the case in such situations, things weren't as they seemed. Just as Pandeli was going around his desk to his electronic cash register, he noticed, as did I simultaneously, a hole in the side of the ball, looking very suspiciously like it had been gnawed by a rat or something. The hole was surrounded by scrape [teeth?] marks and was probably a quarter of an inch in diameter. Mind you, quite why a rat should want to gnaw away at a plastic ball was a mystery to me. But the fact was, there was a hole - thus rendering the ball useless for the purpose to which I wanted to put it. Of course, this being Greece, Pandeli grimaced when I asked if he could just nip down and get me another one. He couldn't. This was the last one he had in the store. Oh joy!

Spotting the look of almost suicidal disappointment upon my visage, he perked up and said, "No worries!! Hold on, I can fix this!!" and scurried off toward the other end of the store and was soon invisible among the racks of DIY products on offer. He was back before you could say "Apogoee'tevsi [disappointment]", carrying two small tins of epoxy resin mix. Deftly flipping off each lid he spooned the appropriate amount from each tin with a small screwdriver and was soon cheerfully mixing the grey paste on a handy piece of corrugated cardboard. Once he was satisfied with the mix, he bade me hold the ball tight while he applied the paste to the hole. As he spatula-ed the stuff over the hole I was doubtful as to whether this would work, as the mix kept dipping in the middle and the hole reappeared a few times. Finally, though, he looked up at me with an air of a professional craftsman who'd just completed another perfect job and said: "Give it half an hour and then shove it in."

My reservations must have been evident. I asked, "Will it really be 'gone off' enough to put it in water within half an hour?"

"All right then, an hour." He smiled, doubtless hoping that his confidence would rub off on me. I asked him, "How much?" and he replied, "Don't worry about it now. See if it holds first. If it does, you can come back and pay me then."

Back in the car and driving toward home, my wife holding the balls one in each hand, trying still to stop the older grey one dropping rust-coloured water over the car seat, she remarked on how the resin on the "new" one was slowly dropping into the hole. I suggested she hold it the other way up, so that it would swell outwards again, which she did. But this had us both thinking seriously that it would be a bad idea to fit this ball this afternoon. So she suggested we drive up to Kalathos, where there's a fairly new electrical store selling all things water and hydraulic, plus a "homebase" DIY store. Not yer real Homebase of course, just a rather huge shed with lots of dusty stock inside, but at least they had a large range of stuff. They'd be bound to have a ballcock ball, wouldn't they?

Fifteen kilometres later, my wife still tutting about the advancing and retreating epoxy resin, we pulled up outside the first of the two Kalathos stores. I took the old ball from her and sprinted across the road, ever conscious of the fact that the afternoon was running out and we needed to get this sorted a.s.a.p. The man behind the counter was already tutting before I'd advanced further than the store door. "We only do electrical stuff here, sir. That's mechanical." OK, so that left us with "Homebase" then, a few hundred metres further up the road. Once again I pulled up, received the old ball and ran inside.

Now, this store is huge and the modest number of staff are in the habit of keeping the lights in each section out unless they need to go there for anything. Very thrifty, but not altogether conducive to browsing around, since it's essentially a windowless tin shed of quite large proportions. Plus, all the stock always seems to be covered in a layer of dust that suggests that very little of it is ever actually sold; yet the place has been there since before we moved out here seven years and more ago, so they must be selling something. Anyway, this afternoon the boss himself, a bearded, stocky man in his early sixties, appeared behind me in such a manner as to give me the heebeejeebees, lurking in the half-light as he was, and asked what he could do for me. Showing him my ball (OK, that's worn that one out by now, all right?) he took it from me, shook it and, doing a passable impression of the surgeon who has to explain to his patient the risks involved in his upcoming operation, nodded his head, but upward first. Now of course, this is the British equivalent of actually shaking it. If a Greek's head goes upwards first, usually accompanied by a "Tch", you know it's a "no".

"Don't have any in that size. Got a larger one though." A glimmer of hope was seeping through the symbolic clouds of this frustrating afternoon. I must have registered a very enthusiastic "yes" for he then tilted his head sideways, in a gesture of "follow me" and headed off into the bowels of the store, throwing light switches here and there as he went, thus illuminating all kinds of dusty DIY delights on Meccano-style shelving racks which were higher than my head. Eventually arriving at such a distant part of the store that I'd have been hopelessly lost trying to find my way out alone, he pulled out from a huge box a black float-ball which resembled the black one which Pandeli had "repaired" in every way except one. It was larger than a football. He must have known that it would be a lost cause, because no sooner had I clapped eyes on it, he secreted it away again in the box, shrugged his shoulders as if to say without words: "well, I did say it was larger, didn't I?"

Twenty minutes later, as we pulled once more into the yard out front of Despoina's DIY store near our home, I saw that Despoina herself, along with her husband Niko were now also present. I'd intended to simply ask their daughter to order me a new ball, but Nikos, ever the genial and helpful chap that he is, grabbed the faulty ball from me and, pushing his glasses further up his nose, proceeded to inspect it as a philatelist would a penny black. 

"Gianni, you can repair this," he declared, shaking it and holding it upside down, whilst yet more of its liquid contents seeped out and dripped on to the floor. I groaned inwardly. It was now a couple of hours since we'd set out from home to simply replace a ball for a brass ball cock. All both Y-Maria and I wanted to do at this stage was get home and have a nice cup of Earl Grey, but here I was, whilst my wife sat in the car studying a patch of epoxy resin as it "cured", having to wait while Nikos explained that I could re-install the old ball and cover it in silicone. 

"But Niko," I replied, "it'll take a couple of hours for the water that's in there to all come out, which means holding it in a certain position for the duration. Plus, you'll notice that the leak appears to be inside the slot where the brass rod slides. It wouldn't be easy to get silicone into that area. And this ball cock is in a very strategic place, if it goes wrong again it'll waste gallons of water and possibly result in another burnt-out pump. No, I'd rather you simply ordered me a new one. No, make that two. I'll keep a spare from now on."

Turning to Despoina, who was sitting in one of her 'customer' chairs, since her daughter was still in the chair behind the desk, with her face a milimetre away from the laptop's screen, I asked, with a note of desperation in my voice, "Can you order it for me please?"

"Sure," she replied, "I'll phone the order through first thing tomorrow. It'll be here at the latest by the day after."

The better half and I drove in the twilight up the lane to the "spitaki", where we stopped and I switched off the master switch for the pump. The water in the tank at the top of the hill would be more than enough to keep our three households going for a few days anyway. We'd gone out at around 2.30pm and been out - all told - for two and a half hours in the hunt for a simple plastic ball. 

Next morning at first light I inspected Pandeli's repaired ball. The resin appeared to have remained intact without a hole appearing again. So I strolled the couple of hundred metres down the lane and installed the thing, opened once more the tap allowing the water from the 'main' through to the valve and switched the pump back on. Tomorrow I'll drop by Despoina's for the new balls, always assuming that they'll have arrived that is. I shall not enjoy going in and asking, "Do you have my balls?"

Couldn't help thinking that, had we been in the UK, I'd have simply tootled along to the nearest B&Q, found a huge stock of the balls in question and been home in a jiff. Mind you, would it have enhanced my life experience in quite the way this particular wild goose chase had? Probably not I suppose.

Fancy playing ball anyone?


  1. Mmmm - not much help now, and hindsight re availability of balls is a wonderful thing, but you could have left the ball in situ and tied the arm off to a piece of wood placed across the top of the tank to keep the valve closed. You could then have cut a bigger hole in the ball to drain it and then filed it with some of that expanding spray foam that builders use (must be readily available because you see it everywhere over there!!).

    Don't you just love a smart arse!!


    1. You took the words...!

      No, but, previously I'd done the piece of wood and rope trick, but that wouldn't have stopped the pump running, possibly emptying the holding tank and going bang. Seems the float-switch in that tank is also dodgy!! Anyway, called in and got the new balls today, plus Pandeli's epoxy-fix is still working so far!!! We have a surfeit of watertight balls it seems!! Oh joy!

      Expanding foam? Hmm, maybe I'll buy a tin just in case.

    2. You can never have too many watertight balls! :-)

  2. Something that worked for me in a house i used to live in with dodgy plumbing, was to have a kids small football (the plasticky type)in a net bag with a cable clip. When the old ball failed or filled up with water, attach the net bag holding the ball to the arm with the cable clip/tie. You could even attach this as a backup whilst the "normal ball" is working.

    As for the rats chewing stuff, they have to as their teeth grow continuously. The gnawing wears them down to a tolerable length.
    Keep up the good work.

    1. Colin, You didn't used to present Blue Peter by any chance?