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How the iPhone is transforming plumbing

By on January 21, 2011

This is a guest post from Pete Morrish, Studio Manager at Waterfront Entertainment. It’s not really about games, but about how the iPhone is changing the way we think about and use technology. I thought it was cool, so I’ve posted it here.

If you ignore the horrible wet hissing noise, the water oozing down the living room wall, and the fact that several grands’ worth of AV equipment was sat in a puddle of water, last Sunday started like any other: with a quick bash of Plants vs. Zombies in bed on my iPhone.  My first melon-pult had hardly had chance to fling his first piece of zombie-mulching ordnance before my weekly lie-in was brought to an abrupt halt.

"Boogy?" called my wife (yes, embarrassingly, I’m known as ‘Boogy’).

"What, Loops?" (hardly better, I’ll grant you)

"We’ve got a leak!"

I don’t like leaks.  After a day from hell back at my old flat (long story short: shower exploded, flat flooded, insurance job needed to cover damage to my pad and my two downstairs neighbours. Lesson learned? Find out where your stopcock is), I’m a bit sensitive to leaks.  Nothing gets my blood pressure up quite so much as water appearing where there shouldn’t be water.

Up out of bed in a flash, I legged it downstairs to find out what was going on.  Didn’t seem too bad in the grand scheme of things: just a horrible wet squirty hissy noise and a damp patch down the wall (at that point, I hadn’t noticed the puddle spreading around the base of the home entertainment stuff; ignorance is indeed bliss).  As is normal in this kind of situation, I panicked.  A lot.

Whilst Mrs M took in her normal morning cup of coffee and a ciggy by the back door, I was running round like a headless chicken.

…a headless chicken that had failed to learn the stopcock-based rule when it moved into its new house about six months ago.  Shit.

We get on quite well with the people who we bought the house off, so a panicked text message at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning was just what the doctor ordered.  Right after phoning an emergency plumber off the back of a paid-for Google ad (told you I was panicking), the reply pinged up on my phone: "underneath the cupboard on the far left-hand side of the kitchen (ps: I told you where it was in the welcome pack we left)."
Lesson Two: when reading a welcome pack, try and remember some of it.
Water off.  Blood pressure back to normal.

About an hour later, the plumber turned up.  It’s worth pointing out at this point that I’ve met two types of tradespeople: those who’ll quite happlily get on with jobs slightly outside their speciality, and those who don’t.

This plumber was firmly in the latter camp.  This plumber plumbed.  It turned out that he wasn’t very good at taking non-plumbing-related stuff apart.

I turned the water back on, and he had a quick poke around to try and find the source of the leak. 

In our house, the bathroom sink is pretty much directly above the stopcock.  The ‘stack’ – which is a technical term meaning something plumbingy – runs up from near where the stopcock is towards the bathroom.


A little cupboard under the sink upstairs affords some – not much – access to stuff behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, ‘not much’ means ‘too small for a human head’. In an effort to try and track down the leak, the plumber decided to try and get through the wooden covering of the stack (I pointed out to him that, because the damp patch was present on the living room ceiling, starting off underneath the leak mightn’t be the best plan).


Still, trying to hack through to the stack was the closest thing we had to a plan. I won’t bore you with the details, but it took quite a long time. Our plumber had come equipped with a) a drill, and b) the world’s least-appropriate electric saw (imagine an electric carving knife scaled up until it’s about four feet long, and you’ve got the general idea).

Mix in some wood that was quite happy with the size it was at the moment thankyouverymuch, and it took quite a long time to achieve… this

Needless to say, we couldn’t see anything.  No damp.  Even less encouragingly, although we could stick a hand through from the bathroom into the gap you see in the picture above, there still wasn’t any sign of any untoward even when we turned the water on.
The plumber gave up.  After paying him handsomely for the privilege of tearing apart my kitchen, I started to have a think.

I twigged that I could use my iPhone to poke around in the bits that we weren’t able to reach.  Camera app loaded up, flash switched on, I started experimenting.  My fist attempt was not much help: it showed just plenty of dry bottom-of-bath and little else.

It was obvious that I’d have to get another plumber round (and the sooner the better: we had no water, or heat, or anything).  I figured that there must be a better way to use my phone to systematically track down where the leak was. 

Brain: on.

The next day brought with it a new-found appreciation of fan heaters, several trips to the supermarket to get lots of five-litre bottles of mineral water, and a frantic phone call to our insurers.  Dealing with insurers is never fun, so I’ll skip to the end: once I’d told them for the sixth consecutive phone call that we had no water at all, they gave me the thumbs up to do a ‘whatever it takes’ job to get the leak fixed. 

(Up until that point, their course of action was to send round a specialist with an endoscope at some point within the next ten days.  Hnngh.)

Once they’d confirmed the go-ahead by email, I started phoning round plumbers (carefully avoiding the one I’d used a few days before).  I used for the first time, and had a decent-sounding plumber called me back within half an hour.  He was Calum from CK Plumbers, and was happy to turn up the next day at 8am.

At that point, I twigged that I hadn’t come to a conclusion with the whole use-my-phone-to-track-down-the-leak thing. So I pinged a message up on a game development forum that I frequent, asking for help. What I needed was something that would allow me to stream the video input from my phone to another device. You might think it was easy (after all, Skype and Facetime both do that, right?), but there was one critical feature missing from any of the obvious answers: no flash. When you’re poking around in dark places, you need a source of light to actually see what’s there, so the hunt was on for something that’d allow me to control the LED light doohickey on the front of the phone.

Eventually, a lovely chap by the name of Haydxn pointed me in the direction of a couple of apps called Camera A and Camera B.  The general idea is that you install one on one iOS device, and the other on another.  You fire up Camera B on the device that you want to stream from, and start Camera A on the device that you want to stream to.  The proud owner of just one iOS device, I raided the cupboard at work and borrowed myself an iPad.  Sorted.

The next morning rolled around and Calum turned up at 8am.  He spent about an hour poking around, and not really finding anything.  As a totally non-practical non-plumber with no real clue as to what was going on, I was a bit hesitant to suggest that we could use a couple of horrendously-expensive slivers of technology to poke around where we couldn’t see, but eventually I plucked up the courage.

I’m very glad I did.

After a couple of false starts, Camera A and Camera B were happily talking to each other: the iPhone’s camera input was appearing on the iPad’s screen.  The next scene must’ve seemed slightly surreal to anyone passing by the kitched: me shoulder deep in the wall, with the world’s highest-tech plumber saying "left a bit… no, not that left – the other left!".

You know what, though? It worked. 59p spent on the app store and a minute’s effort had done what the insurance company were going to send a specialist round for: we’d found water.  We hadn’t got the actual source yet, but we’d found evidence of leak. 

(Sadly, Camera A and Camera B aren’t set up to actually capture footage, so I can’t show you what we saw.  I had thought of faking some but – d’oh! – the leak’s been fixed now, so it wouldn’t be very convincing.)

At least Calum a starting point.  He disappeared upstairs, and started trying to source the actual leak.  We knew now that it was somewhere underneath the bathroom floor.
About twenty minutes later, Calum called me upstairs. He’d made a small hand-sized hole in the right sort of area. "Can we do the camera thing again?". So we did. And in not much time, we’d found the precise location of the leak.

Within the hour, there was this:

It may look horrendous, but the fact is that Calum had made the smallest hole possible to access and create a working space around the leak (compare that to my shower explosion, where I had builders and plumbers in for a week completely gutting the place to track down the problem).  And here is the little bastard in glorious technicolor: clip_image008
It seems as though the pipes weren’t brilliantly installed, and so fixing the leak wasn’t easy.  But a few hours later, and we had:
We turned the water back on, and – this time around – it actually stayed in the pipes.  Happy days.  Another couple of hours to put everything back to normal (and to feed Calum with a lovely bacon sarnie), and we were done.  For actually fixing it, Calum only charged me double what the previous plumber (who’d achieved nothing apart from tearing a hole in my kitchen with a steroid-enhanced electric carving knife) had a couple of days before.

Things I learned?

  1. Find out where the stopcock is.  Really.
  2. Modern consumer technology is awesome.  We’d spent 59p on an app that did what the insurance company would have taken ten days and a premium-tripling specialist to do.
  3. If you live in south-east London and want a really decent plumber, call Calum on 07916 621125.  He’s really good.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: