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Coronavirus Diaries: I’m Staring Into People’s Toilets on Zoom All Day

A computer screen shows a Zoom call between a plumber and a view of a toilet bowl and plunger.
Zoom is versatile. Photo by visuals on Unsplash, joebelanger/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Image Source/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay from Patrick Garner, a plumber at Next Plumbing in Cape Coral, Florida, has been edited and condensed for clarity from an interview with Heather Schwedel.

The owner of the company I work for is one of those people who prepares for every scenario possible. If you can think of it, he’s got some kind of game plan for it. I’d say he came up with the virtual plumbers’ visits over Zoom probably early to mid-March. I had never heard of anything like it in my life. He called me at about 9 p.m. with this “super exciting idea.” That’s how he put it. He and I sat down together over the course of a weekend and put a game plan together.

A large portion of our demographic down here consists of elderly people. So we wanted to find something that was accessible to everybody. I ran several tests with the Zoom and found it to be very easy.

The average person doesn’t have the specialized tools that we have. At first we said, “OK, we’ll give them a list of what they need so they can go purchase it.” And then we thought that defeats the whole purpose. So we created a series of boxes: ones for shower cartridges, shower valves, water heater elements, these kinds of things. We put the tools that they’re going to need in those boxes. We put those boxes in our back office for at least three days. We just ask the customer to give us a check or a credit card number so we know that we can get our tools back.

I’d say 80 percent of the people are able to get it done. Generally, how it works is they call us, and myself, the owner, or one of the other master plumbers would watch on Zoom. We try to diagnose it, and then we prepare a box for them. Once they’re ready, they can come and pick it up, and then we have them do another video conference with us as they’re trying to fix these things themselves.

The problems that I’ve been seeing most are small clogs. As everybody knows, during this time, toilet paper has run incredibly short, and customers, out of desperation, are using baby wipes, using paper towels, using things that really should not be flushed down. I tell everybody, even when you’re in the store and you look at wipes and they say “flushable,” trust me, they are not flushable. They will wreak havoc on your system.

As we go through the conference call on the Zoom, people start to relax about it a little bit, and I see them cracking jokes. People like getting their own hands dirty, sometimes.

It started off as just a local service. But it really took off. I had no idea that this was going to be like that. I remember the first day we got one from New York City. I was kind of dumbfounded. He just searched, and he said, “You guys are one of the first people that pop up.” I’d say we now do probably upward of about 20 Zoom appointments a day.

A man sits in front of a desktop computer monitor, and in a Zoom window on screen, some pipes can be seen.
Master plumber George Garner doing a virtual plumbing visit. Patrick Garner

The other day I had a call from a gentleman in Austin, Texas. He called in a panic. He said he had a leak somewhere upstairs. He showed us on his first floor the ceiling, and you could see quite a bit of water damage forming. We asked him to go upstairs. He had a large Jacuzzi bathtub. We showed him how to take an access panel off and then basically grab a flashlight and move his phone in there so we could see where the standing water was coming from. Once this started, the owner actually purchased three very, very, very big TVs so we could get a really good picture of what’s going on.

We’re not charging anything for this. We hope the local people will continue using our services in person when things are back to normal and actually pay for that service. We all know what’s going on right now. Everybody’s stressed out; half the country isn’t working. It just didn’t sit right with the owner to say, “Look, I know you haven’t worked in three weeks and you’re stressed about paying your mortgage, and now on top of that, you can’t use your shower. You can’t use your toilet.”

We haven’t stopped going to customers’ houses entirely. We do still continue to take emergency service calls 24/7. An emergency would be a burst pipe in the home. If your water heater is leaking heavily or is no longer working, that’s an emergency. We just have gone to great, great, great lengths to prepare for it. Before our team goes out into any job, each technician comes here, we personally temperature-check every single person. We also give them basically two big goody bags, if you want to call it that, one for the plumber, and that’s with surgical masks, gloves, shoe protectors, and homemade hand sanitizer. And we give each customer that bag, or a portion of that bag, for their own use.

We tend to like to create a relationship with the customers, get to know them, shake their hands. Now when we arrive to the house, obviously there still has to be some interaction between the customer and ourselves, but we try to limit that as much as humanly possible. A lot of customers really, really like to be hands-on, be right there in the bathroom or the garage, the attic, wherever we’re working. They love to be right there with us, watching it, having a conversation. And we’ve had to explain to them, “For your safety and our safety, we do have to ask you to leave.”

A couple of days ago, a single mother in Arizona called in and she was just super, super upset. I can understand this lady, she’s got two of them in this house and only one bathroom. Her late husband had left some tools there, but she had no idea what to do. So we basically just walked her through step by step, and it was pretty surreal. She brought us out to the garage and showed us where her late husband’s tools were. I helped her select a couple of things, and it ended up being not that difficult of a fix: It was just her flush valves, basically her toilet components were no longer working properly. It was just very cool helping somebody out across the country, whom we otherwise would never have had any communication with.