Lifelong Mt. Airy resident Rich McIlhenny is living proof that when you have a plumbing problem, you should call an actual plumber who has real training in fixing plumbing things.

by Rich McIlhenny

(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared in a 2007 edition of the Chestnut Hill Local.)

Today I attended a home inspection for my cousin Kevin and his new bride Natalie. As their real estate agent, I was there to see if any issues came up and to see first hand what repairs we might be negotiating as part of the purchase of their first home.

Brian Connelly, a home inspector I grew up with (he wasn’t a home inspector as a kid), told us that the boiler of the house was in fine condition but that the radiators on the second floor were cold. He explained that they most likely needed to be bled of excess air to allow water into them, and for that they could head over to Kilian’s for a radiator key, which would cost them less than the Sunday Inquirer.

There were some more serious issues that arose, and Brian entered them into his laptop and told us that his company, Safe and Sound Home Inspections, would have a report emailed to us that evening explaining all of his findings.

Heading home from the inspection, I thought of some of the problems that came up and the specialists I would need to call the next day to get estimates. I then realized that I had not yet bled my radiators for the season and decided to take care of this manageable home maintenance issue, which my father had trained me how to do, some years after our Pine Wood Derby fiasco.

As soon as I walked in the door, I went to the basement and filled the heating system with water, raising it to the 15-18 PPI, as recommended by my heating contractor. I felt rather manly as I turned the nozzle and watched the gauge rise ever so slowly to the proper level. Looking around, I found a bucket to place under the radiators to catch the drips that might come out after the air was bled out of them. I grabbed my trusty radiator key that I proudly carry on my key chain, partly so I wouldn’t lose it and mostly so that people might notice it and think I was the kind of guy who knew his way around a radiator, in case that was important to them.

I also found my adjustable pliers, remembering that a couple of the radiator valves were painted shut and might require a little more muscle to loosen them up. My wife, Marissa, eyed me suspiciously as I emerged from the cellar with these items and a testosterone-filled look in my eye.

“I have to bleed the radiators,” I announced in my deepest voice, wondering if this might increase the slim chance of her wandering over to my side of the bed later that night.

I remembered Brian saying to start with the radiator closest to the system, so I headed for the one in the living room. I placed the plastic bucket underneath the nozzle as I put the key in. Turning the key, I heard a hissing sound very briefly and then water started trickling out. I quickly tightened it to stop the flow and headed for the one in the foyer. This one had no air in it, and I thought to myself “this will be easy,” as I made my way to the dining room.

I put the key into the valve and it wouldn’t loosen. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself and I tried it again. It was stripped. Noticing the rest of the contraption was painted over, I remembered hearing someone once say that you could take a wrench or pliers to them to help open them in this type of situation. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the large adjustable pliers I had brought along for that very reason, and clamped down on the valve and gave it a nudge. Nothing. I cranked it up a notch.

Time stood still as a little piece of white painted metal flew up and to the left over my shoulder and onto the dining room floor. I watched its flight, wondering its significance for a millisecond as my question was quickly answered by the strongest and straightest stream of liquid I have seen since a trip to Yellowstone back in the early 70s.

“Marissa!” I screamed at the top of my lungs as I frantically grabbed my little green plastic bucket, and it quickly filled up with an unpleasant smelling liquid that was supposed to be water. Now God love her, my wife is beautiful and a fantastic cook. And what a great mom she is to Jesse James and Daniel Boone, but she has three speeds: slow, Tai Chi Master and sleeping. And slow is the fastest.

Marissa, Daniel, Jesse and Rich at Sacre’ Coeur in Paris shortly before the radiator incident. (Photo courtesy of Rich McIlhenney)

“Yeah,” she murmured half-heartedly from the kitchen as she chewed a carrot while watching Oprah talk about how to get rid of clutter. As the water neared the top of the bucket, I yelled, “Marissa! Get a pot, quickly!”

“Why do you need a pot?” she replied calmly, doing her best three-toed sloth imitation on her way toward me, as our three dogs Matty, Moses and Nicky started to bark and howl.

“Just hurry and get me a pot now!” I yelled, as Jesse and Daniel and their friend Adin started running down from the second floor to see what was going on. This was not anything that two 5-year-olds and a 3-year-old were going to miss out on.

Marissa finally reached me at about the same time as the kids and three dogs, who were all extremely curious about the commotion by the radiator. Only our rabbit, Chopper, stuck in her cage in the kitchen, was unable to join in on the fun. I had Marissa step in with the pot as I raced to empty the bucket into the toilet near the kitchen. I hurried back to relieve her and she did the same for me after a few minutes.

She screamed at me several times, “Call the plumber!” and three times I screamed back, “Why should I call the plumber?”

The water was gushing out at about 100 miles an hour, and I decided to try and screw the valve back on. I stuck it into the stream and the water was spraying all over my face, my hair, my shirt, the drapes, the bookcase and the laptop and the extension cord, with about three things plugged into it, at my feet. We took turns with the pot and the bucket and I kept trying to screw the broken piece back in, to no avail. This process repeats literally a dozen times.

The kids were screaming, the dogs were barking and just then Adin’s mother, Tema, rang the bell to pick him up from the play date. Marissa ran to open the door, and I said hello to Tema, with radiator liquid streaming from my hair in my drenched maroon dress shirt while standing in a puddle of water, which was possibly about to electrocute me from the wires nearby.

As Marissa rushed back to me with the pot, I ran the bucket to the bathroom and then thought that I needed something bigger. Waving goodbye to Tema, who I sincerely doubt will ever bring her son back to our house, I grabbed our tall kitchen trash can and headed in to relieve Marissa.

This larger vessel gave me time to call Brian to ask his advice. He proceeded to explain to me that each of house’s radiators will be draining all of their water out of this one that I broke, and that I really should have broken one on the third floor for reasons that can be explained by physics and plumbing. I told him I would make sure to do that next time, and he offered me a very interesting and lengthy explanation on how my whole heating system works and that I should turn it off to reduce the pressure. He then recommended that I call Tony Sweeney, a plumber who we both grew up with as kids. (He wasn’t a plumber as a kid.) Thanking Brian, I emptied the trash can which was now full, while Marissa relieved me with the pot.

I then called Tony, who finally came up with a temporary solution to my problem – a pencil. He told me to get a pencil and jam it into the valve to stop the water. I rushed into the kitchen to grab one and as always, couldn’t find one. I searched in the cubby hole near the basement, and all I could find were pens.

“Why can I never find a pencil in this house?” I screamed as my eyes scanned the living room, and there on the floor glistening in the light of the ceiling fan, a shape appeared to my reptilian brain that I was certain was a No. 2 pencil that Jesse was using that morning. I dove for it like Brian Dawkins going for a fumble, and in one cat-like move I scooped it up,  raced back to the dining room and jammed it into the stream. Sure enough, it was a perfect fit and the geyser stopped.

The kids and Marissa cheered, the dogs howled and I took a long deep breath. I then got a hammer and tapped the back of it to make sure it was in there nice and tight, and looked around at the gigantic mess that I had made.

As I write this, my wife and boys are shivering under the covers since we cannot turn the heat on, and we have a pencil holding the rest of our heating system’s water in place, while we wait for Tony to come by first thing in the morning. As I thought back on the night’s events, I came to realize that what I heard years ago was that you can use the wrench or pliars to change a valve when there is no water in the system.

So make sure you bleed your valves this season to maximize your heating efficiency. Keep all pliars and wrenches as far from the radiators as you can, and have a No. 2 handy, just in case.

Rich McIlhenny is a realtor with Re/Max Services and lives in Mt. Airy with his soaking wet, shivering family and pets. If you are looking to buy or sell a home or have your radiators bled, he can be reached at or 215-275- 6303.