How to Protect Underground Water Pipe Valves by Stuffing a Round Bucket into a Square Box

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How to what? Okay, so the box is really oblong and the bucket is oval, not round, but protecting the underground valves for the pipe line supplying water to our washing machine…yeah, that did need to happen.

We live off grid, a mile north of the Mexican border in southern Cochise County, Arizona. It’s a long story, but when I built this place, our laundry facilities ended up in a separate shed. Out behind the pump shed, buried one inch PVC pipe lines run pressurized water in two different directions, one branch heading for the house and the other meandering off toward the laundry shed.

This is normally no problem whatsoever, though the washing machine has to do with cold water only, but there is one quirk. During the winter months, the laundry pipe line has to be shut down and drained after a day of washing clothes. Living “way far south” or not, we still see plenty of winter nights cold enough to burst an unprotected pipe. It’s sort of like having to winterize your camp trailer every time you use it. We’ve gotten the drill down pretty well by this time:

    1. Shut off the underground valve that isolates the pipe line to the laundry shed.
    2. Open certain valves to drain the line.
    3. Unscrew the water hoses connected to the washing machine and drain them.
    4. Turning one faucet off at the wall, disconnect the other hose at the washing machine end and blow through it to clear the line as totally as possible, then reconnect the hose to the machine.
    5. Turn off the outside drain valves.
    6. Drain the water from the bottom front (left side) of the washing machine if you don’t want a big freeze in that area to crack the washing machine pump.

It sounds like a lot when you put it that way, but it only takes us (meaning me or Allen, our part time hired hand who helps my disabled wife on the weekends) about ten minutes. It’s a bunch better than loading everything into a truck and spending all day in town at a Laundromat. We’ve had a version of this system up and running since July of 2012. The pressurized version came a bit later, in October of 2013. (Before then, all we had was gravity feed water.)

But Murphy’s Law is alive and well. On Saturday morning, Allen reached down into the “hole” to turn on the laundry water…and the ball valve handle broke into multiple pieces, just like that. He couldn’t even use Vice Grips to turn the valve because when he tried, water shot up through the valve stem. There’s an O-ring that normally keeps that from happening, but it’s part of the valve handle that holds the O-ring in place.

Two years and four months after installation, it was time to re-plumb that line.

I decided to improve the setup a bit. As it had been arranged, the only way to “operate” on the sick patient was to shut down the pressure booster pump and bleed off the pressure from the pressure tank, meaning the entire house would be effectively “waterless” for most of one full day. However, if I were to add a second ball valve in the line just a bit behind the on-off valve that gets turned back and forth every time we do a few winter loads of laundry, then that line could be isolated with a simple shutoff valve, leaving the Border Fort up and running water-wise without a hitch. The protective cover would still have to be “dug out” in most cases, but the inconvenience in the home would drop from noticeable to nil.

So that’s what I did on Sunday, as shown in the photo below.

New laundry line valve setup showing the "extra" shutoff valve (top of photo) which will isolate the line as needed in the future for replacement of the second valve.

New laundry line valve setup showing the “extra” shutoff valve (top of photo) which will isolate the line as needed in the future for replacement of the second valve.

So far, so good…but how to cover the valve arrangement in a workable manner? I plant these pipes a little deeper than the irrigation control valve covers from Home Depot can accommodate. The first and much shorter setup fit inside an orange Homer Bucket (from Home Depot) with the bottom cut out, and a “regular” round valve cover slid right down on top of that orange bucket-sheath as slick as you please. But those buckets are round, the longer “standard” valve covers are oblong, and voila! Ladies and gentlemen, we hereby present the need to stuff something oval into something oblong!

Figure this one out, Sherlock Holmes.

After thinking it over for a bit, I decided to cannibalize two Homer Buckets. They’re cheap, the plastic walls are thin enough to cut fairly easily, and so on and so forth. The buckets were sliced vertically with a handsaw, after which the bottoms were cut off. That produced a pair of curly pieces of plastic which could be bolted together. A smooth fit would be good, but the reinforcing ridges that encircled the upper portions of the buckets were in the way, so a combination of grinding and sawing got rid of the places where those would be a problem.

Grinding an edge.

Grinding an edge.


A ground edge.  This was only necessary where the two "bucket edges" would be overlapping each other.

A ground edge. This was only necessary where the two “bucket edges” would be overlapping each other.


Sawing the edges where the grinder couldn't reach because of the guards on the grinding wheel.

Sawing the edges where the grinder couldn’t reach because of the guards on the grinding wheel.

Once the “Curly Homer Panels” were sliced and ready, it was time to drill a few quarter inch holes and bolt them together to form one Super Tube. NOTE: Two bolts per edge, with no washers, would probably have been sufficient. Since I overbuild or I don’t build at all, I used three bolts per edge with huge flat washers. A bit wasteful, perhaps, but the investment in hardware was minimal and the edges will in no way separate from each other over time.

One Super Tube, fully assembled, complete with slots cut where the tube will need to fit down around the pipe.

One Super Tube, fully assembled, complete with slots cut where the tube will need to fit down around the pipe.


Overhead view.  The former bucket tops now serve as the tube's bottom, wider at the bottom and tapering upward.

Overhead view. The former bucket tops now serve as the tube’s bottom, wider at the bottom and tapering upward.

The hard work was now done. All that remained was to (a) place the Super Tube in the hole with the slots over the pipes, (b) fit the oblong irrigation control valve box over the top of the tube in order to force the tube into an oval shape, (c) shovel in some bedding sand and dirt, juggling the tube and box a bit to obtain a fairly level installation at a workable height.

Piece of cake…except for the setting sun, which turned the process into a bit of a race, but by the time light had begun to fail, the deed was done. The round (oval) bucket-tube was nicely stuffed into the square (oval) box and all’s well that ends well.

Super Tube in the hole.

Super Tube in the hole.


Oval Super Tube (cobbled together from two cannibalized Homer Buckets) stuffed into the oblong irrigation control valve cover box.

Oval Super Tube (cobbled together from two cannibalized Homer Buckets) stuffed into the oblong irrigation control valve cover box.


Completed installation.

Completed installation.

How long did it take to effect this valve replacement and installation upgrade? That had me curious before I started, especially because it’s unwise at this time of year to leave water pipes unprotected. It was essential (in my mind, anyway) to dig out the old irrigation control valve cover, rework the plumbing, create the Super Tube, and get the new installation buried before night fell. I never hurry these things, being responsible only to myself (in other words, not punching a clock for an employer) and preferring to avoid as many mistakes as possible. At my usual piddling-along pace, it took right at six and one half hours of actual labor from start to finish.

Most importantly, of course, Pam once again has a water supply for her washing machine and water pressure in the house for the kitchen sink and her toilet, not to mention the shower. If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

4 thoughts on “How to Protect Underground Water Pipe Valves by Stuffing a Round Bucket into a Square Box

  1. Looks good and works well. Those are the criteria for judging if a fix is done right. Looks like you made it.

  2. There you go, Becky. I never thought about “looks good and works well” being the criteria…yet I’ve always applied them. Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be a bad set of criteria for a husband, either. “He looks good and works well, Mom. I’m definitely marrying this one!”

  3. “Looks good and works well” reminds me of the ad for a spouse saying “Looking for spouse with a car. Send picture of the car”. LOL
    Seriously, though, I agree with Becky that the solution should look “good” as in “I understand and can use this”, and that you found a solution that is clean and easy to maintain. I never would have done it like this myself simply because in the tropics enclosures such as the one you built often harbor scorpions and such, which my wife and I are very careful with. Of course the adaptation of a water cooler does offer a firm, airtight, bug and snake proof cover that won’t rust… so I’m admiring your work and trying to get my brain to reset that old mindset… of course, I haven’t had to deal with homes subject to freezing their pipes, which is the big problem you are dealing with… 🙂
    Manny

  4. There you go, Manny. If we lived in the tropics (which by preference I hope I never do, quite frankly), I would not likely have done it like this, either. We do have scorpions here, too, but fortunately not many. An average of 3 centipedes per summer do slither in (presumably under the front door weatherproofing), get spotted most often by Gato, and terminated by me–five inch average length, common desert centipede–and we have black widow spiders in more places than I’d like.

    Then again, we only need to get pipes around here below surface level; we’ve never had anything freeze solid that wasn’t above surface. Farther north, such as in Montana where I grew up (and where they don’t have chiggers at all, thankfully), the standard practice is to bury pipes six feet below the surface. At college in Bozeman, Montana (married housing), we sometimes had to keep the doors open below the sink AND keep a dribble going from the faucet all night if we didn’t want a ruptured pipe.

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