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The Guy Zone

I am generally fearless when it comes to home remodeling and repairs. I'm a monumentally messy painter, but that doesn't keep me away from ladders and paintbrushes. I do not wince when picking up skillsaw, drill or other small electrical tool. In the course of more than 30 years of home ownership, I have built bookcases, refinished furniture, mudded and taped sheetrock, laid linoleum and carpet, installed floor tile. I've installed fiberglass and foamboard in walls, ceilings, and crevices. I've caulked everything from decks to bathtubs. I've studded out walls and reinsulated them. I am a dab hand with vapor barriers: just hand me that staple gun and plastic sheeting. I've even done some framing carpentry of the rough-hewn sort.

But I draw the line at electricity and plumbing. Rather like my rule about cooking with wild mushrooms ("never poison friends or family"), I avoid doing things that might burn down my house or flood it. This has the unfortunate result of forcing me occasionally to enter what I call "the guy zone": I have to call some strange guy and negotiate with him about that most private of locations, my home.

Nothing against men; I love men. Individually, at least; in groups, they can tramp dangerously close to patriarchy. Guys are a different story. These usually ill-attired individuals call me "little lady" while heaving occasional sighs about the impossible work I demand of them. Whatever their skills, they presume that something dangling between their legs makes them naturally good with tools, and that lack of dangle makes me biologically unable to understand hardware and pipe.

This is not a whimsical Under the Tuscan Sun complaint about how hard it is to get good help. This is about sexism as it impacts the woman homeowner. I would prefer to hire women, but there are direly few women in the building trades. By contrast, there are plenty of guys out there to overcharge, talk your ear off about personal matters, refuse to do the work contracted for ("little lady, that just won't work"), or do half the job and leave (always with cooing promises to return). And that's just the beginning of the list of possible aggravations a woman can encounter in the guy zone.

Oh, the tales I could tell. In Alaska, most of the men I knew were in the trades and could refer me to allegedly non-guy friends. This system of referrals worked well most of the time, although there were exceptions. There was the friend's son, 18 and unemployed, whom I hired to put up bookshelves in the living room; it took him three months, during which time books littered the floor and I found daily evidence that the lad was reading through my library (joint in hand) instead of working. handymanThere was the furnace installer who presented a bill for twice the estimate and, when I objected, pointed out that another woman had refused to pay him, and her house had burned down that very night; this caused me to instantly write a check for the agreed-upon fee plus protection money.

Then there was the lowered roof beam. I was putting on an addition for a new kitchen, a few steps up from the living room due to a slight incline in the lot. The framing guy, a friend-of-a-friend, looked over my plans and seemed to understand the project. The first day went well, but the second day I came home to find a beam had been installed so that no one over four feet tall could enter the kitchen without ducking. I told him to fix the problem, to which he replied, "the house will fall down without this beam." A memorable argument ensued before he agreed to raise and brace the beam. The house is still standing.

When I moved to Chicago, I lost my connections with the building trades. This has brought no end of adventures, as I have had to rely upon advertising rather than referrals. Not long after arriving, I found a leak under the kitchen sink and called a plumber from the phone book. He came, bringing along his young assistant. While the man was down the basement doing whatever, the assistant kept me upstairs chatting. I guess the young man's conscience got the better of him, because after about a half hour, he suggested that I go down to the basement, where, he shamefacedly admitted, his boss was making small holes in pipes so that I would call him back later. I went downstairs to find the sabotage in progress and demanded that the guy fix everything before leaving. I hope that plumber didn't realize where the warning came from.

Then there was the strange dude who advertised as a handyman and appeared at the door dressed in handyman clothes — bright orange shirt, overalls, a tool belt, cute little billed cap — but who was utterly un-handy. This guy had retired with a pile from trading stocks and thought fixing up houses would be fun. He was supposed to repair some deteriorated areas of the foundation, but he started painting things and otherwise doing what he enjoyed, rather than what I wanted. I fired him and learned how to do cement work myself.

So it has been: I learn to do things myself because I don't want to enter the guy zone. But plumbing and electrical work run into that problem of not wanting to cause fire or flood. I don't think I'm likely to learn either skill in this lifetime, so I will have to deal with guys on occasion. Luckily a friend recently married an electrician willing to do small jobs. Plumbing, however, remains an issue.

As I embarked upon my energy-rehab project, I knew that one of the first priorities was to get rid of the hot water heater. Whenever I travel I think, at least daily, of the money my hot water heater is wasting. (Pretty strange travel thoughts, I know, but I loathe such waste.) I lust for an on-demand tankless hot water heater. I had one in Alaska, a Paloma ( The design of the unit was different back then. Today it's a neat square box, but then it was a cylinder capped by a half-sphere. Installed in a closet off the kitchen, the old Paloma evoked the occasional gasp from a visitor; I called it my "penis in a cupboard." Weird shape and all, it was fantastically cost-effective; we typically paid $4 a month to heat water for our family of four.

I know I spend much more than that now, keeping water hot while I'm at work, at conferences, walking around the block, even sitting here typing. The biggest and fastest single change I can make in my energy budget is to install a tankless hot water heater.

Which is where the guy factor comes in. A few months ago, I started calling plumbers and explaining what I wanted. Several agreed to come out and look things over. But even the nice Irish ones with company names like Shamrock and Emerald said the same thing: "Can't be done." The excuses varied. My favorite: "It's against the law in Chicago." (That just before he said he could get me a deal on a conventional system from a friend.) Other guys said our hot-water demand (for two adults) was too extreme for the system. Or that there was not sufficient electricity in the house's system to install one. (Say what? A tankless water heater runs on gas and a tiny electric spark.)

The guys' objections boiled down to this: These systems aren't standard and so require new learning to install. And the special deals these guys had worked out (friends who provide systems at discount, while the customer is billed at full cost) wouldn't work. There was nothing in it for these guys; they weren't interested.

tankless water heater installation photo courtesy of Green VentureI began to despair of getting my tankless heater. So I resorted to a tried-and-true method for making human connections: I complained to everyone I knew. After a few months I discovered that Robert, with whom I share joint custody of an Irish cell phone, knew a guy who knew a guy. The first guy did green engineering, and the guy he knew was a plumber who had installed tankless heaters — in Chicago.

With some trepidation, I called the plumber. If he gave me any "little lady" lip, all was lost. But he was polite and professional, and yes, he had installed many tankless heaters in Chicago, despite the reputed law against them. He could fit me in anytime within two weeks. He could even provide the system. Seven plumbers on, I finally found my man. Stay tuned for installation details!

Graphics Credits

  • carpenter's apron, courtesy of Ronnie Bergeron.
  • handyman, courtesy of Emily Roesly.
  • tankless water heater installation, courtesy of Green Venture. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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