If you’ve come to Barge Wanderlust expecting cheery tales of pleasant times on the inland waterways of France you might want to skip this installment. This segment focuses on the plumbing leaks and other problems Wanderlust has experienced. This unfortunate sequence of problems negatively colored our experiences in 2015. Indeed, this very upsetting course of events has colored our view on Piper Boats and on barging.
As we arrived in Toul it had come time to start to deal with the latest plumbing leak. We had deluded ourselves into tolerating many problems on board Wanderlust but the endless floods into the forward cabin bilge were just too much. With the identification of the likely source of the flood coming from the gray water drain system came the beginning of an extremely unpleasant interaction with Wanderlust’s builder. Simon Piper had once told us that he does not “fall out” with his customers. That is certainly not the case with us; we doubt we are the only ones.
First some background: As our 2014 cruising season ended we left Wanderlust with a leak in a central heating plumbing that prevented us from using our radiators in “frost mode” over the winter. The problem first became visible when antifreeze* made it’s way into our only point of significant bilge access, the “wine cellar” in the saloon. The problem was identified when we were on the Thames, less than a year after Wanderlust’s launch, before she crossed the Channel. As the weather cooled we made repeated attempts to get Piper Boats to do something about the problem. Eventually, just before we left Wanderlust for the winter, Piper Boats made an unsuccessful attempt to fix the problem while we were in Auxerre. Soon after Piper left the fluid was back in the bilge. The central heating was still out as we left France for the winter. It was only after we departed that the leak was repaired.
For a brief period after we returned to Wanderlust in 2015 things seemed to be good. The radiator problem appeared to have been fixed for good. But as soon as we started on our way down the Yonne antifreeze started appearing again in the bilge access in the saloon. Did we have another leak in our central heat? It certainly seemed that way.
But this time it was different. The liquid in the bilge appeared to be far more concentrated* than what was coming out of our radiator pipes. Where was this antifreeze coming from?
On our way to the Canal du Loing we contacted Piper Boats. Simon would soon be on his way to his boat on the Saône. He would drop by and look in on Wanderlust while we were in Sens.
Piper arrived when we were away for a short lunch. He could have called, texted, or emailed but instead he just entered Wanderlust using a key he retained. Before we returned from lunch a hole had been cut in the floor in the guestroom closet, at the stern of the living quarters just above the lowest point of the bilge. After taking out seven liters of liquid, heavy with antifreeze, from the bottom of the hole it was a certainty that Wanderlust did in fact have a plumbing leak of some sort. But there’d be no repair for now. In fact no repair was scheduled. Piper left not long after he arrived telling us to “monitor” the problem. This is the last direct contact we had with Piper Boats.
Monitor? What the hell were we supposed to monitor? There was a leak, clear as day. How else did well more than seven liters of antifreeze appear in the bottom of the bilge? Stunned and shocked, we acquiesced.
We continued on our route. A two days later, we stopped for the evening in Moret-sur-Loing. As often happens we met other barge owners. Soon they were on board for a tour. We opened the hatch to show our wine storage in the saloon and were shocked to see an inch and a half of water and now dilute antifreeze in the bilge. An annoying under floor flood a few days ago had turned into a serious problem.
The “monitoring” was over. The source of the water was now clear. We had flushed our black tank by pumping hot water through our toilets as we headed down the Seine. Given the location and the direction of the flood, the water in the bilge was clearly originating from the guest room toilet. The antifreeze was from the winterization of the sewer plumbing.
We called Piper; a few days later a French plumber was sent out. There were no apologies. Piper does not apologize.
Though we knew we had a sewer pipe problem finding the exact source of the water in the bilge was a complicated process. Indeed, identifying the guestroom toilet as the source of the under floor water didn’t really make the repairs easier.
A big part of the problem was the lack of inspection access. It is something we had anticipated. Before signing the build contract we had requested inspection and storage access to the bilge. It was something that others with knowledge of Piper barges had insisted that we do. But when Wanderlust was delivered there was only one point of access to the bottom of the bilge, the wine storage area in the saloon. And the wine cellar wasn’t even the lowest point of the bilge. The lack of access was something that Piper clearly understood; Simon himself cut a hole in the guestroom closet floor above the lowest point in the bilge to see what was happening. Without access we had very limited ability to see what was going on. The lack of bilge access was and is Wanderlust’s Achilles heel.
The French plumber had an endoscopic camera probe with him. It helped him find the source of the leak. Still it wasn’t easy. He looked first under the guest room toilet. Though you could see the bilge water moving in waves when the toilet was flushed there was still no sign of the source. Eventually there was no choice but to lift up a good stretch of the almost new hardwood floor in our guestroom. Systematically holes were cut into the subfloor to track down the source of the water. Ultimately the plumber discovered the origin of the water. A joint on the guest room sewer pipe five feet from the toilet was completely disconnected. The pipe joint had been dry fit during the build. Without cement, the joint eventually separated. Every time our guestroom toilet flushed the waste went directly into Wanderlust’s bilge.
Now we understood why our guestroom smelled of sewer from launch. We also soon learned why the room smelled of diesel fuel. Inside the hole in the guestroom closet cut by Mr. Piper we discovered signs of diesel fuel. Wanderlust had a diesel leak also.
The plumber fixed the sewer pipe joint and replaced the now damaged flooring. Though he was careful there was the inevitable damage to the floor and to the walls. We reported these problems to Piper, along with the observation of the diesel fuel. As usual there was no apology but we were told that the problems, the diesel leak and the damage to the floor created by Simon and by the plumber, would be addressed.
Fast forward from the end of April to late August. The issues from the earlier repairs were still outstanding. No attempt had been made to deal with the diesel leak or the woodwork. And now, liquid was once again coming into the bilge. Piper first explained the water as water sloshing about from the earlier flood. It was a hard theory to rule out. After all there was a lot of sewer water in Wanderlust’s bilge. It could be sloshing about for some time. It wasn’t until we reached Nancy at the beginning of September that we learned that the soapy water in the bilge had to be coming from Wanderlust’s gray water plumbing.
Wanderlust’s gray water piping collects the drain water from the sinks, showers, and clothes washer, anything that is below the water line. This wastewater is routed to a sump tank. Once the level of the wastewater rises high enough a float sensor in the tank triggers a pump out over the side. Though finicky, the system usually works. But now it appeared that we had a leak somewhere in this system. It was the only possible source of soapy water.
Before we arrived back in Toul we arranged for Lorraine Marine to fix the leak. They were already set to replace our malfunctioning air conditioning unit so this would be an additional job. To make things easier for Lorraine Marine we sent this email to the builder to define a plan of action to look for the leak:
“Wanderlust has yet another leak in its plumbing, this time on the starboard side. We believe that the water is coming out of the washing machine drain. (No water is seen under the washing machine but we extract a liter of water from the hole in the guestroom closet after each wash cycle.) At this point we cannot completely rule out that there are multiple leaks from different sources. Unless the water is pumped out of the closet hole, it will make its way up into the wine cellar. In the cellar it meets the water coming down from our leaking freshwater tank sender unit.
“What we need to know:
“1. Where is the joint between the clothes washer drain hose and the PVC drain pipe? Is it under the cabinet, under the floor, or under the guest bathroom?
“2. How is the washer drain hose connected to the PVC drainpipe? Is this a likely point of failure?
“3. How and where do the drains from the guest room floor and sink connect to the main drainpipe? Are there “T’s” directly under the sink and shower?
“4. The cabinet base beneath the clothes washer has quarter turn screws. Turning these does not release the cabinet base. Is there some other way to release the cabinet floor or does this need to be cut out?
“5. Am I correct in assuming that the under floor will need to be cut open from either below the base of the washer cabinet or under the oven?
“I might add that we are disgusted with the quality of the plumbing work on Wanderlust. We currently have four ongoing leaks; two diesel leaks that have been with us since the beginning, a new water leak from the fresh tank sensor, and the leak from the washing machine drain that we’ve been tracking down for a month. Add to that we still have the damage from the guest room sewer pipe repair that has not been fixed. When will the leaks end?”
We never did get an answer back to what we felt were straightforward questions. Instead we received an offer to send out a couple of the “lads” in 5 weeks. The favor of the lads attending Wanderlust would cost us a mere $3,800 US, depending on the exchange rates. That was just for their travel time and transportation. Once they were on board they would do the work for free.
Charging for time and travel for work done in France is a clause of our build contract. At the same time there is another clause in the contract that states that our builder can contract out warranty work to third parties. Given the we could hire someone in France for a third of the cost of sending someone out from the British Midlands it seemed ridiculous to suggest that we pay for time and travel for work done five weeks later than what we could arrange on our own. Why would we pay more and wait? Indeed, unless there’s a hidden value of sending your employees on European soirees, hiring someone local is a far more cost effective way for a manufacturer to do business. Insisting that we pay for time and travel had a clear intent; Piper Boats wanted us to go away.
Ultimately Piper relented, or so we thought. He agreed to pay Lorraine Marine to fix our current leak as long as he could pay by card.
A few days later Lorraine Marine, after a day of probing and pulling up the floor, discovered the source of the leak. The French plumber who made the earlier sewer pipe repair had nicked a pipe leading from our gray water tank to the waste pump. Without knowledge of the plumbing layout, damaging a pipe was virtually unavoidable as the gray water lines are positioned right up against the underside of the subfloor. Unfortunately the consequences of the damaged pipe were not immediately obvious. The gray water pipe is only pressurized during pump out cycles. The pump never activated while the plumber had the flooring up. Though we didn’t know it, we likely had a leak each time the gray water pumped out ever since the sewer pipe repair had been made.
Lorraine Marine repaired the pipe and cleaned the mess as much as they could. Afterwards an invoice for a little over $1,000 US was sent to Piper for the work. Lorraine Marine couldn’t take a card but it should be easy enough for Piper Boats to wire the money over.
We had reason to be concerned that Lorraine Marine would be paid. While we were in Reading England we, on agreement with Piper Boats, agreed to find someone to replace the floor in our galley. At launch the floor was unstable and rolling up. The problem was clear and Piper agreed to pay to have the floor replaced while we agreed arrange for the work and to pay for the cost of the material if it was over the price that they had paid. New to Reading, finding a floor person was a challenge. On the recommendation of two Piper Barge owners we contracted a floor person who had replaced their floors. Once the person learned that we had a Piper Boat he refused to consider our job. He said Piper had not paid him for the two other floors he had done. We offered to pay him directly for the work that was done figuring we had more leverage to get reimbursement by Piper. But still he wouldn’t take the job.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And if there’s even a remote possibility of fooling me a third time, take your business elsewhere. And so we did. We hate to see small businesses hurt this way.
When we mentioned this problem to Piper they claimed to be “confused about the rumours going around”.
It didn’t seem like much of a rumor to us.
Eventually we found another person to do the floor. To be safe we paid him directly and deducted the amount from the final stage payment we made to Piper. Nevertheless we had been warned. We did not trust Piper to pay their bills.
Indeed when Jerome the French plumber left Wanderlust I was very careful to make sure he had our contact information. Through the language barrier I made sure that he knew that if he had difficulty getting paid he should contact us. If need be we would pay him directly. We didn’t want to be party to a worker getting stiffed. And sure enough, a month later he contacted us. He was having difficulty getting paid. This time it took just a single email to Piper from us for Jerome to be paid.
With this history we took no chances with Lorraine Marine. We asked Lorraine Marine to invoice Piper Boats. At the same time we paid him in cash for the work done with the agreement that he would reimburse us if Piper paid him. And, as no surprise, Piper Boats never paid Lorraine Marine. Repeated emails to Piper from us made no difference.
We chose to have a new barge built by Piper with the belief that new build barge would avoid problems just like we experienced. And if we did have problems we’d expect that a reputable builder would quickly fix any problems without question. Unfortunately, that’s not how things turned out.
Most expect old barges might well come with old barge problems but fewer expect that new barges can come with new barge problems. If the builder of a new craft decides that they’ve fixed enough problems and decides to do no more, the owner is left in a very unpleasant spot. Nobody has a barge built wanting the process to end up in the legal system. Unfortunately that can and does happen far too often. It certainly did for us.
* I use the term antifreeze loosely here. When the concentration was measured using a specific gravity tester it was found that Wanderlust had a 20:1 ratio of water to antifreeze mixture in her central heating system and a 10:1 mixture in her main engine. This was very disturbing as before the build contract was signed we had, on advice from another owner of a boat produced by Piper, had asked for adequate antifreeze. Indeed, during the walk through just after launch were told by the head engineer on our boat that there was a 1:1 mixture of water to antifreeze in Wanderlust’s systems. (We have a video of this.) When Wanderlust’s owner’s manual arrived later it stated that she had a 3:1 mixture of water to glycol. We were later told the brand that was used. When we looked it up. The antifreeze in the engine should be blue. In reality, Wanderlust’s antifreeze is yellow.
Since our issues we’ve learned that low antifreeze is a common problem on our Piper’s boats. Indeed, we have yet to find any owner of a boat built produced by our builder who has measured their antifreeze levels and found an adequate amount of antifreeze.
Do Piper short the antifreeze because they miscalculated or to save money? It is hard to say. But either way it is a quite annoying and expensive problem to rectify. Correcting the antifreeze is a difficult and time-consuming process as it is hard to drain down the engine and central heating systems on a barge. It cost us nearly $1,500 US to rectify. If the proper amount of antifreeze were added during the manufacture the extra cost to Piper might have been $150.
We have asked Piper Boats to write to their owners and remind them to check their antifreeze concentrations. To date they have not done so.
(Wanderlust returned to Toul on the 16th of September 2015. Toul is 33 kilometers and six locks from Nancy.)