Adventures in Plumbing, or Raw Sewage is NOT Your Friend

Now that the nightmare is over, I can tell you about our escapades of the past week.  It all began with Kelly noticing that the toilet was taking too long to flush last Wednesday while I was at work.   Then suddenly the tub was taking longer to drain too, with the tub actually starting to fill during a shower.  So obviously something was wrong.  We just didn’t know right away how wrong.  So don’t read this if you are a little squeamish, although I will try to not get too graphic.

We had some sort of liquid drain cleaner on hand, and so Kelly used the remainder of the bottle to try to unclog the toilet.  No noticeable difference.  So once I got home from work on Thursday, I started plunging the toilet.  I worked at it for quite some time and there was no difference.  Then I plunged the tub.  At first it seemed promising, as I got a big glob of hair out.  Yay, I thought, maybe this the problem.  Turns out all that glob of hair was doing was keeping the sewage from backing up the drain pipe into the tub, because the next time the toilet was flushed, that is exactly what happened.  And it continued to do so until we had an inch of raw sewage in the tub.  Believe me, not the greatest thing in the world, either in appearance or smell.  And it certainly makes taking a shower a bit difficult.  So I continued to try to fix the problem in my *cough* copious amounts of spare time, which meant that I was working on the problem late at night, and occasionally in the morning as well.  In the meantime Kelly and I had to try to wash our hair by leaning over the tub, as the wonderful smell wafted into our faces, and had to do the rest of our washing with facecloths or whatever.

So I started thinking about what the problem could be, and asked a couple of people I knew who knew much more about plumbing than I what they thought the problem might be.  Eventually we narrowed it down to one of two problems.  Either the sewer main from the building had a clog somewhere under the house, or the roofers who had recently put on the new roof had done something wrong with the sewage vents that came through the roof.  Either was not a great situation.  I am less than thrilled about getting on any roof, much less one that is three and a half stories up.  I am also unexcited about trying to clean out a sewage pipe, because I have heard plenty of stories about worse-case scenarios of basements filling up with sewage or backed-up sewage under pressure shooting across a room, onto the ceiling, etc.  My first inclination was to call our building super, but he is notoriously hard to get on the phone and does not always respond to calls or voice mails right away and I did not want to waste time.  I could call a plumber and just have him do it, and just take it out of our rent check.   But I also knew that if we had to call in a plumber, we were looking at $300 minimum, and even more if the plumber had to pull the toilet off the soil pipe or, God forbid, do any sort of excavation to get to the sewer pipe.  And that is money we simply don’t have to spend, even if we do take it out of the rent.  So I decided, with a lot of not-so-gentle nudging from Kelly, to try to solve the problem myself and only call in an expert as a last resort.

Now, I have had some experience with plumbing, but this was all 15 years ago when I worked in construction/home repair.  So, having tried all the other options, I decided that it was up to me to try to clear the sewage pipe, or at least determine if that was the problem.  So I had to go looking for the clean out, which is the name of the place in the sewer line, usually in the yard or basement, that allows access to the inside of the sewer line for just these sorts of situations.  It’s usually a big cap that be be unscrewed to allow access to the inside of the sewer pipe.  So after looking around I found it in our basement, hiding in a dark corner close to the water plumbing lines and our washing machine.  Normally these sorts of things are augured out with a huge machine that has 100 feet of cable and costs a fortune to either rent or buy.  All I had was a manual drain cleaner with about 25 feet of cable, although mine could also be hooked up to an electric drill for a bit more oomph.

The first problem I ran into was trying to get the cap off.  I could not get enough leverage on it.  So I improvised and found a piece of 2×4 and used that to slowly, slowly unscrew the cap, all the while bracing myself for an unholy geyser.  Finally I got it loose, and I could see some sewage bubbling out.  Okay, I thought, that is encouraging.  So I waited until the pipe had some time to drain itself and then I put in the auger, having to feel around for the correct pipe opening.  Even with rubber gloves, not a great feeling.  So I got it in there, and started “drilling” away.  It got to a place where it seemed to stop, and then felt like it was working on something.  O I let it go a while like that, and then when I saw some of the water moving I pulled it out and put the cap back on, not wanting to flood the basement or anything.  Sure enough, when I got back inside, the tub was almost drained and the toilet, once I flushed it, was back to a normal water level.

Problem solved, right?  Well, yes, mostly.  Now the problem was to deal with the aftermath, which meant sanitizing everything in the bathroom, since when we had plunged the tub and toilet water had splashed out and gone God knows where.  So I cleaned out the bathroom, getting everything off the floor and sink, and then started cleaning all of it.  It took a few hours, and technically I am still not done since there are still a few things I have to sanitize.  But at least we are able to take showers now and the problem has been solved.

Moral of the story?  If there is one, it would be that the most basic part of solving any problem is to know how the relevant system works, and that without that knowledge it may be impossible to determine what the nature of the problem is.   Which of course means it might never get fixed.

-Geoff

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