Adventures in home maintenance in Bolivia

I’ve never owned a house or a car, so I rarely have to fix anything. When I moved into my new apartment, however, I found all sorts of things, that I needed fixing.

I love the wooden parquet floors, but the previous renters had put down flooring wax without first cleaning the floors, so I could see lots of spots on the floor. I started scrubbing off the wax to clean the spots and ended up scrubbing the floors for two whole days.

Unlike in the US, Bolivian parquet flooring doesn’t have grooves to fit together the wooden tiles and they are glued on top of cement, so after a decade or two of being walked on, the wooden tiles start to come loose. I found about 100 loose tiles, especially in the areas of the apartment there there as a lot of foot traffic, such as the threshold of doorways.

I was reluctant to apply more glue to the loose tiles, because that would raise them above the surrounding tiles. The problem was that I couldn’t find an easy way to get the old glue off the floor tiles, which was hard like cement.

When I asked Jose, who is my partner in la ILLA-A, he had no idea how to remove the old glue, so we walked over to the hardware market which is only one block from my apartment and started asking people how to remove the glue. Almost everyone told us that it was impossible, but I kept asking if paint thinner would remove the glue. One guy told us that we could use hot water, which I knew wouldn’t work, since the glue is water resistant. Finally, someone suggested muriatic acid.

We bought a bottle of acid and did some experiments. I found that muriatic acid did work, but the acid is expensive and you have to soak the tiles for at least half an hour to start loosening the glue, and then scrap off the old glue with a putty knife (i.e. spatula). The acid discolored the wooden tiles and I messed up the front of the tiles when scraping the glue off the backs, so I had to sand the fronts of the tiles to remove the discoloration and the scraps. When I left some of the tiles soaking over night, I discovered in the morning that many of them were warped.

If it were my house, I would have just bought new tiles and thrown away the loose tiles, but since I’m just a renter I glued down the warped tiles, knowing that their warps would cause them to come loose again in a couple years.

I only removed the glue from 30 tiles with muriatic acid, before deciding that it was more trouble than it was worth. In the end, I decided to just sand off parts of the glue that were raised up, and leave most the glue on the tiles when regluing them to the floor.

The whole time I was sanding and regluing the floor tiles, I couldn’t help thinking about how much better quality parquet floors are in the US, compared to Bolivia. My parents have a house built in 1889 filled with wooden floors, and they have never once had to replace a single wooden slat of their floors over the last 30 years, because the slats have grooves so they are fitted together and they rest on wooden joists which bend with the wooden flooring, unlike cement. Lots of Bolivian homes have parquet floors, but every couple decades, they have to reglue the floors, which creates an uneven surface, so they bring in big belt sanders to smooth out the flooring after regluing it. It all seems like an enormous waste to make flooring that only lasts a couple decades, but that is the way it is done here.

At any rate, I now have an uneven floor in parts of my apartment, but at least the floor tiles aren’t loose anymore and I don’t see any spots on the floor.

When I moved in, the faucet in the kitchen dripped. I had to twist the faucet very hard to stop it from dripping. I thought about complaining to the landlord, but I never got around to it. A couple days ago, the handle on the faucet stopped being able to turn off the water. When I took apart the faucet, I found that the grooves in the handle were made of plastic and those grooves had been worn out from rubbing against the metal. When I took the plastic handle to the hardware market, everyone told me that no one sells just the handle, so I would have to replace the entire faucet.

I would have reported the problem to the landlord, but when I got back to my apartment, I discovered that I had dropped the handle somewhere in the market. I didn’t want to have to explain to my landlord why my faucet no longer had a handle, so I decided to replace the faucet myself. If it were my house, I would have bought a high quality faucet, but instead I found the cheapest one that was all metal.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the old faucet off with my small pliers, so I had to go back to the market and buy a bigger set of pliers that was capable of wrenching loose the old faucet. After spending a whole morning fixing my faucet, I kept wondering why I wasn’t a normal renter who just let the landlord take care of these problems.

The cost to use a metal part vs a plastic part in the handle is probably $0.50, but the contractor who built the apartment figured he could save a buck or two on the faucets and the owner didn’t know enough to insist on durable faucets. After taking off the old faucet, I couldn’t help thinking about how wasteful it was to throw away $15 of metal because a tiny plastic part in the handle had worn out. Because faucet manufacturers don’t use standard form factors for the components in faucets, it isn’t possible to replace just the spout or just the handle. As I threw the entire faucet in the trash, I wondered what was the environmental cost of making billions of faucets that don’t have replaceable parts.

Another problem I discovered when I moved into my new apartment was that the toilet didn’t flush very well, and I have to use the plunger every time I have a bowel movement. When I asked how much a snake would cost to dig out whatever was blocking my pipes, I was told 190 Bolivianos. I decided to just buy a cheap wire and try and try and fish out the blockage. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, so now I’m going to have to report this problem to my landlord, which is what I should have done in the first place.

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