I felt that I must scream or die! And now... again... hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER!
- Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart
Few things are as sure to drive a person to the brink of insanity - or, at the very least, to deprive a person of sleep - as the sound of a dripping tap. Along with barking dogs and toothache, dripping taps belong to a select group of phenomena with the diabolical power to completely rob someone of the ability to think of anything else. True, there are those who profess the capacity to 'tune out' the sound, but they should be thought of as aberrations. Most of us stand about as much chance of ignoring the endless monotony of a dripping tap as we would of ignoring, for example, a woodpecker looking for grubs in the nape of our necks.
Taps, or faucets, as they are sometimes known, are the technological response we have made to the idea that having water flowing in our homes is something of a mixed blessing. It's jolly nice to be able to let some cold water run into a glass when you're a bit thirsty in the wee hours of the morning. But it's another thing altogether when your slippers have drifted away in the middle of the night and the morning paper is as sloppy and insubstantial as the journalism blurred across its dissolving pages.
In short, having water flowing in our homes is generally good... but not all the time. Hence the need for taps.
They work by allowing us to block the pipes through which water would otherwise run, usually by the simple operation of a lever mechanism of some sort. Traditionally, the lever was a disk or a spoked wheel that could be turned a lot or a little to achieve a corresponding flow. Modern adaptations of this basic theme have resulted in long levers, often with more or less gracefully swan-like curves, that enable a skilful operator to control water temperature by adjusting the mixed flow of hot and cold water, as well as the rate at which it is dispensed. There are, of course, an almost infinite number of variations on the theme, catering to all tastes and levels of technical competence, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from simple utility to baroque splendour.
The things that make taps work, that lie at the secret heart of a tap's ability to make things wet, are washers. These are either flat or more or less cone-shaped; and they are made of a variety of exotic materials which, for nostalgic reasons, we usually describe as 'rubber' or 'plastic'. Their purpose is to form a tight seal between metal surfaces when we turn a tap off, thereby stemming the flow of water, and to retain their shape and usefulness for a fairly long time before they need to be replaced. This, sooner or later, will become the point of departure from a person's state of complete satisfaction with the beauty and efficiency of modern plumbing to the beginning of the sleepless, shadowy hell of the all night drip... drip... drip...
Eventually, of course, even the best washers wear out. This is something almost every homeowner learns to dread, because they will then be faced with the equally repugnant prospects of having to deal with some basic plumbing, or of becoming reconciled to living with the dripping of this hideous tap.
Tackling a question of basic plumbing is a test, a rite of passage, fundamental to a homeowner's sense of worth as a person. It is the modern, urban equivalent of going off somewhere hot and arid in search of a lion... when you would really rather be doing anything else; and no excuse is too flimsy to justify putting off the awful feat for yet another weekend.
Changing a washer involves removing the beautifully ornamental exterior of the tap; pulling out the depressingly functional central cylinder; unscrewing the rather nasty worn and dissolving remains of the old washer, before replacing it with a new one that you hope bears a close enough resemblance to the original that it won't cause any embarrassingly noticeable leaks before you can sell the house and move away; and finally putting everything back together... and having a drink containing very little, if any, water.
Obviously, the thought of turning off the supply of water before undertaking any of this (except perhaps the drink) should have occurred to you. If it didn't, then it would probably be a good thing to forget about do-it-yourself plumbing for a while1, because you're probably not the sort of person to deal with the minutia of such endeavours in sufficient detail to make undertaking them safe or sane.
This is more or less what a person who is of the personality type that prefers to confront problems head on, and considers life's obstacles a challenge that build character, would choose to do. This is the solution that appeals to the sort of person who invariably leads the group discussions in motivational meetings at the office, who points at lists of goals and objectives written on big sheets of newsprint without a trace of embarrassment or sense of being absolutely, if anonymously, resented, would choose to do.
But there are ways of dealing with the problem that, while they don't actually involve what might be called an authentic repair, at least let you get a good night's sleep, secure in the knowledge that you haven't fundamentally done anything to the plumbing that could in any way lead to your slippers migrating in the night.
All right, so we have to admit, however grudgingly, that the best course of action would be to actually replace the defective washer. However, for a variety of reasons, this might not necessarily be the best course of action to take. You may not, for example, happen to have on hand the correct combination of tools, washers, or inclination; you may be a guest in someone else's home or staying in a hotel; or you may be suffering from a rare and debilitating illness that will one day actually be proven to exist and finally vindicate everyone who hates, at a molecular level, the prospect of doing plumbing.
Whatever the actual reason may be, here is a non-plumbing solution to the problem of being deprived of sleep by that pestilential dripping tap.
Grab the tap in both hands and twist it just slightly tighter than, in a calmer state of mind, you would consider the maximum point at which the risk of doing irreparable damage is dire.
Position the spout as close to the edge of the sink as possible, so that the drops of water fall onto the sloping sides instead of hitting the horizontal surface like an astronaut's lost glove dealing a knockout punch to a satellite... only louder2.
Do, for God's sake, make sure that the tap isn't dripping into a cup, bowl, or pile of unwashed dishes. Stack them on the floor or on the lawn - smash them if you have to! However, make absolutely sure that there is nothing in the sink that a dripping tap could possibly drip into.
Place something soft and absorbent beneath the dripping tap to act as a shock absorber. If you happen to be away from home, a handkerchief, or even a sock, will do.
To deal with the second - and much worse - stage, the drain plop, you will have to resort to an even greater degree of cunning. When a drop of water from a dripping tap hits a hard surface with a resounding thud or a splash many people allow themselves to believe that there is an end to it, that this sound alone is what stands between them and sleep. Imagine their despair when there inevitably follows a loud, full throated plop, rich and resonant. This may not happen for several seconds or several minutes, but it will happen! This is the dreadful sound that is the prime cause of sleeplessness and insanity. This is the sound that keeps us lying awake listening in anticipation. It is never quite regular enough to become hypnotic. It varies just enough (as if it is controlled by some tiny, evil goblin) to make anticipating the next plop almost possible... but not quite.
This insidious sound is caused when water that has already played its part in the sink percussion stage makes its way to the very centre of the drain hole, and falls several centimetres into a pool in the 'trap' section of the drain.
Most sinks have some sort of structure, resembling a tiny grate, that is designed to prevent things we might wish to keep3 from being lost down the drain. Most drains have a combination of loops, which trap a small amount of water and prevent unpleasant odours from wafting back up from the imponderable depths to which they have been consigned. Which is all well and good until the taps start to drip!
This combination of design elements has the unfortunate side effect of allowing drops of water to hang long enough for an unbearable amount of tension to rise. Then allowing them to fall unobstructed into the resonating chamber under the sink. The result is a loud and fulsome plop.
This is how to fix it... without, of course, having to fix it.
Take a piece of string or thread - anything long and thin will do, even a shoelace - and drape it through the little grate in the sink, so that at least one end reaches the water in the trap. This will prevent the drop of water from forming above the trap. Instead, it will adhere to the string, and run down into the pool in the trap without making a sound. Hooray!
Now you will be able to sleep the sleep of the innocent. Few things in life are sweeter than a solution that completely sidesteps the problem.