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‘Frog-Marching Plumber’ Is the Name of My Golden Earring Tribute Band. But I Digress

After we stopped the bleeding by capping my geyser of excrement, I set aside one day to figure out what was going on underground. A plumber would not be part of the equation.

It’s not that I hold plumbers in disfavor, exactly. I have frog-marched a plumber to the property line a time or two when they sawed a house in half just to rough in a 1-1/2″ drain. Other than that, we get on swimmingly. I just don’t need one very often. I’ve always fixed most everything that’s busted in whatever home I’m in, and occasionally built the home, too. Nothing would make me happier than to have someone else muck around in my sewer instead of me. Not gonna happen.

There’s no way I could call a plumber to fix my dyspeptic drain for one very good reason: Calling a plumber is an open-ended transaction. More or less, I’d be writing a blank check with my mouth for a plumber’s services simply by calling one. I’m too poor to write a finite check to anyone, never mind a blank one. I’m on my own on this one, and that’s that. It focuses the mind to think like that. There’s no cavalry coming, so let’s fix the plumbing in the Alamo ourselves! We all know there’s no basement in the Alamo, so I suppose that’s an inapt analogy. OK, let’s simplify: A plumber makes more money than I do, so I might as well fix it myself. That’s also why I perform all my own open-heart surgery. Those guys charge.

The next morning, We performed some experiments. My son filled up the slop sink in the workshop on the second floor with water, then pulled the plug to let it drain out all at once. I removed the cleanout cover that lets you peer straight down into the DWV pipe as it enters the ground. The pipe filled up with water instead of draining away immediately, so I knew there was an active plug, if those two words can be used together. But the water did eventually go — somewhere. That’s only a minor clue. An old sewer line can be leaky enough to get rid of all the water you send through it without ever reaching its intended destination. My house is 115-years-old. I bet it leaks plenty.

There was nothing, how shall I say it — unpleasant — visible in the pipe. That means the plug isn’t right where the pipe enters the ground and goes somewhere. The 4″ sewer pipe enters the floor a few inches from an outside wall. That indicates that it leaves the building immediately, and probably takes a turn to get to the main sewer line under the street. The sewer pipe underground might be made of anything.

No, really; anything. I’ve actually worked on a house so old that some of its plumbing was made from wood. A pipe was fashioned by splitting a log, hollowing out the halves, and then tarring the joining surfaces and lashing it back together. Don’t laugh, it was still working, after a fashion, three hundred years after the plumber cashed the check. Because I’ve worked on so many commercial and residential projects in New England, I’ve seen a lot of different types of sewer drains.

I doubted that the underground pipe at my house is cast iron just because the pipe above ground is made of that august material. Even back when Queen Victoria was grumbling over her last bowl of porridge and they were nailing the last board on my house, they knew cast iron wouldn’t last long if it was buried. I’m not even sure the sewer pipe is as old as the house. That means the sewer pipe might be some kind of pottery clay affair, concrete, or asbestos mixed with concrete, usually known as Transite pipe.

Transite reminds me of everything to do with “green” construction. It tries to solve one problem — roots getting into your segmented sewer pipe through the seams — and by doing so it creates numerous other problems, including lung cancer for everyone that works on it. It also likes to collapse under the weight of the soil it’s buried in. Orangeburg is another version of this kind of ersatz pipe.It’s made of sawdust and tar mixed together, and is about as sturdy as it sounds. Pretty much everything is plastic now, which works great. That’s how I know it’s not plastic.

So I don’t know what’s underground, but I assume it will be really sh*tty, and I mean that every which way. I went outside and looked at the ground at the spot where the pipe was located indoors. Someone had dug up a section of concrete sluicing that ran next to my house, which was intended to carry dripping rainwater from the eaves into the back yard. You can’t put a gutter on a house in Maine because of ice dams, so everyone deals with water at ground level. The disturbed soil was disturbed very long ago, but I could see someone had been digging around. A foot away, there was an ancient metal pipe sticking a foot or so out of the ground with a round metal badge on top that read: Water.

My water service is original to the house, is made of lead pipe, and it enters the front of the house from the street. That’s nearly fifty feet away. The “Water” marker can’t possibly mark the water line. Surely you can see that anyone would deduce that the sewer pipe had been plugged up before, someone had dug just outside the cellar wall to find it, and they marked the spot with the only kind of utility marker available back in the day. Surely you must see this. Surely this must be what was going on, amirite? There’s no way this could not be the obvious thing that it is. There’s no way I could be mistaken on this point. There was no chance of not-ness. You don’t need Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out, do you Watson? Or Sherlock Homes, even. This has to be it, right?


[To be continued]

Coincidentally, ‘Polyclylohexapedealidocious’ Is the Name of My Mr. Mister Tribute Band. But I Digress

I’m bound and determined to get around to telling you the when and wherefore and how-to and why-for I fixed my sewer pipe, but I haven’t even managed to finish writing about capping a broken tributary pipe yet. Let’s get cracking!

I may have actually said, “Let’s get cracking,” to my son, who was helping me. It was midnighty, and we’d been banging on things since morning Matins. I was beat, but not beaten, I guess. Once more into the breach my heir, once more! Let’s see if we can glue some PVC pipe on this mess and cap it.

It’s a bit of a misnomer to say you “glue” PVC pipe. You’re actually performing a chemical weld. Plastic no-hub plumbing uses what’s called solvent cement to join the pipe and fittings. The key word is solvent. It melts the plastic on the mating surfaces, you jam the pipe in the fitting, and it fuses together. It makes a really strong joint, and it’s almost idiot-proof. Almost.

Solvent cement normally comes in a package with purple primer. Solvents don’t work well on surfaces that have a barrier on them. You know, like everything you encounter when working on plumbing. Dirty pipe, bad weld. If you’ve ever wondered why the joints on your DWV pipes look like a blood sample from Barney the Dinosaur, it’s the purple primer. You wipe on runny purple primer to remove water, dirt, oil, poopsies, and other assorted oopsies. The solvent itself is clear, and fairly thick. It’s prodigiously evil stuff.

To bring up the topic of fake safety again, PVC solvent is the nastiest substance I know of that’s commonly found in regular construction. In my experience, it’s inevitably lethal. It just takes a long time to do its work. I’ve known a lot of plumbers over the years. I know a lot of dead plumbers. They mostly died of liver and kidney failure, or cancer of those organs. It was the solvent. The solvent has Methyl Ethyl Ketone, some sort of furan, acetone, and other delightfully toxic things. I don’t have the label in front of me, but it’s filled with tetrahydras and polyclylohexpealidocious and various other compounds that are usually found leaking out of alien mothers and eating through the floor after you shoot them. PVC solvent is OK for use in California because it’s low VOC or something, even though everything else in the known universe gives you cancer according to that fine state by the wrong ocean. There is no practical alternative to the stuff, so everyone looks the other way.

Lead paint, asbestos, mercury, and everything else you encounter while remodeling is a mere bagatelle compared to solvent cement. None of that stuff is good for you, but their ill effects are well understood, and they can be handled fairly readily with a little common sense. Safely using solvent cement, according to the instructions, involves going outside to make your joints, or wearing just short of a scuba outfit. Go find me a plumber that does either of those things in order to glue up the drain under your bathroom sink. I’ll wait, but I won’t hold my breath. Neither will he.

As I was saying, the joints are almost idiot proof. However, Maine breeds a hardier brand of idiot than most places. Normally, I’d never attempt to get a pipe out of a fitting because they’re essentially one piece after gluing. I was getting brave (tired) and decided to rely on my intimate knowledge of how stupid everything in my house is. I took a plain old putty knife, turned it on edge against the shard of pipe inside the hub on the fitting, and I whacked the busted-off piece of pipe as hard as I could. It parted like the Red Sea, because there wasn’t a trace of purple on it. It was a bad weld. It’s wonderful to be able to rely on incompetence in others. There’s an inexhaustible supply, and if you run out, you can always make your own.

We cut a two-foot piece of 1-1/2″ pipe out of one of the abandoned psycho plumbing experiments in another corner of the basement, and glued it into the existing elbow fitting. The hub was cracked a bit, but I glued the chip back on, and the joint held nicely. I went rooting around in one of the battered toolboxes we keep in the basement, filled with nearly useless stuff and bent tools. I found, no word of lie, a brand spanking new, 25-year-old, 1-1/2″ rubber test and cleanout cap. I have no idea what possessed me to hold on to a $1.50 plumbing tchotchke for a quarter-century. I had, we wrestled it on the end of the pipe, and we were done. Or done-ish, at any rate.

I did my best Scarlett O’Hara imitation, told my son we’d done enough for one day, and said we’d worry about the real problem tomorrow. Since all my clothes were covered in excrement and mud, and the washing machine was out of service, I figured I’d be wearing clothes made from drapes the next day, too.

[to be continued]

Don’t Laugh. ‘Peripatetic Plumbing Journey’ Is the Name of My REO Speedwagon Tribute Band. But I Digress

My little peripatetic journey through the plumbing in my house is getting a lot of attention. The usual rubberneckers who crane their necks when they drive past car wrecks on the highway have been joined by people who seem to know something about plumbing. My plumbing is bothering them. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Well, I don’t blame them. My plumbing certainly bothers me. Just the plumbing in the house, mind you. My personal plumbing is fine, thanks. But the house is a horror. That’s because my house is in Maine.

I’ve been trying to get used to plumbing in Maine since I moved here. Most of the plumbing in Maine is original equipment, and Maine has the oldest housing stock in the nation. We have plumbing red in tooth and claw around here. I imagine that it was miles better than thunder jugs and a little shed in the back yard with a half-moon in the door, so no one complained in 1901. Jaysus, I complain.

The original plumbing in my house is a black iron stack that runs from ground level in the sub-basement straight up through 4 floors of house and out through the roof. It’s boxed in with wood as it travels through our one working bathroom. There’s another, abandoned, aftermarket attempt at a bathroom upstairs in a converted closet. I can’t stand up in it, and you could wash your hands while sitting on the toilet.

The black iron pipe is the entire drain, waste, and vent system for the whole house. Everything attached to it was a simple trap arm. Wondering what a “trap arm” is? OK, I’ll explain:

Hold your arm straight out from your shoulder, with your palm up. Cup your hand. Now lift your hand so that it’s as high above the floor as your ear, not your shoulder. Now have someone poop in your hand. Don’t worry. It’s for science. If you’d really rather not have someone poop in your hand, you can watch German pornography to get the general idea.

The point I’m trying to make is that’s what a trap arm is like if you imagine your arm is hollow. Everything nasty would travel through the gentle slope of your arm and be dumped into the big, vertical pipe of your torso. You’d open your mouth to let in air, which would allow the effluent to exit your nether regions without being bothered by a vacuum. If you still can’t picture a trap arm, you can refer to this plumbing guy’s picture of a trap arm, which he aptly nicknames a “dirty arm.

To understand why I instructed you to open your mouth to let in air, put a drinking straw into a Faygo soda at the next Gathering of the Juggalos you attend. Clamp your thumb down on the top of the straw. Withdraw the straw. The soda stays in the straw because of a vacuum. Take your finger off the straw, and all the Faygo runs out all over you. Your drains need air to get to the top of the pipe for the same reason. By the way, it’s really easy to find someone to poop in your hand at a Gathering of the Juggalos, but they’ll look at you quizzically if you mention it has anything to do with plumbing.

Now, trap arms have to be short. The longest trap arm I’ve ever heard of is 16 feet, and the pipe has to be really big for that kind of reach. Smaller pipes in a bathroom are only supposed to have trap arms half that long, if that. Of course it’s possible to install plumbing further away from the “main stack,” than the length of a trap arm. You just have to make sure the drain line doesn’t end at whatever plumbing fixture you’re piping. The drain continues up and becomes a vent, and it eventually ties in to the main vent somewhere. Like this:

Illustration courtesy of DIY Advice

I can assure you that this sensible arrangement has never been attempted in Maine. The main stack is the Maine stack, and that’s that. They’ve been hanging trap arms from the main stack like Charlie Brown’s plumbing Christmas Tree forever and a day. The traps arms in Maine only stop when you find yourself outside. Every fixture in the house uses another fixture as its vent. When the washer runs, the sink fills up with foam. When you wash your hands in the bathroom, the kitchen sink yells at you. Every plumbing event is followed by the soundtrack to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The house gurgles like Mr. Creosote after a trip to Chipotle if you flush the toilet while the dishwasher is running.

So I’m trying to plug a broken 1-1/2″ plastic pipe that’s sticking out of a concrete floor 25 feet from the main stack, with no vent in sight. In Maine, a 25-foot trap arm didn’t ring any alarm bells in my head. Maybe it should have.

[to be continued]

That’s Funny. ‘Disastrous Ersatz Rube Goldberg Clusterfarge’ Is the Name of My Little River Tribute Band. But I Digress

Please note: We’re working on the plumbing today, but if any welding projects turn up, my able assistant Sophia is standing by, wearing all the protective equipment she’ll need to help me out. Actually, she may require even less than that to help me out.

Are we ever going to fix this pipe? Joke’s on you. I’m writing about it, and not from a homeless shelter, so I guess I fixed it, huh? It’s almost as if the whole enchilada is just an excuse to wax philosophical about a gaggle of extraneous topics, and to make fart jokes.

Fido, get away from that guy before he takes a dump on you!

Let’s go back in the hole shall we? It’s pushing 11 PM on Sunday night, we’ve slowed the geyser of toilet paper and congressional probity to a trickle. Now what?

First, you have to disregard some forms of personal comfort, and protect others. For instance, there’s no way I’m mucking around in sewage like the plumber I described earlier. I’m a generally fastidious person. I’m a slob, but I’m a very neat slob. I’m pretty tough, though, all in all. I’ve been willing to suffer through privations so terrible that they’d make your average cubicle dweller write a strongly worded Yelp review that would make Howard Beale sound like Howard Baker. I’ll go without rest and food and water and vacations and a million other things the general public takes for granted,  but I’m not going to smear excrement all over myself unless I get a pretty sizable NEA grant first. I’m also not going to suffocate myself and my firstborn to stay comfortable.

It was well below zero that night, but my first instruction to my son was to open the big swinging doors we had installed after we jacked up our house and slipped a foundation under it. That required a bit of doing, because snow and ice were bunged up against it pretty solid. My son dutifully squeezed through a crack we opened up by shoving like mules, went into the shed-type thing where we keep a disreputable assortment of broken tools, and got a pry bar and some metal shovels. After some chuffing, we got the doors to swing free.

See, this is where the plumber who wallowed in poop would have bailed out. He would have demanded the doors be kept closed because it was too cold. His type of tough guy simply like being dirty. It demands nothing from him. Intrude on his sense of personal comfort, and he’ll pitch a fit, just like anyone else. The only difference between his toughness and yours is what’s considered uncomfortable. He doesn’t mind being smeared with other people’s excrement, but forcing him to fill out a simple form after he completed a job would send him over the edge. He’d gladly risk suffocation to avoid having to dress properly for his job. His Megadeth t-shirt is his work uniform, period.

Me, I opened the door and was glad for the fresh air. My son got a few five-gallon pails of water, with a capful of bleach in each, and we dumped them on the floor behind the taupe lagoon that had formed around the busted pipe. We jostled the resulting roller out the doorway with a shovel and a broom. It started to perk up in there, I tell you what.

Then I told my son a story about plumbing. Of course it was a story about life, but I made it about plumbing because I’m a long-winded jerk. I told him that everything recent was bad and broken, and this was likely to be the case with everything we encountered. Our life is a monument to this concept. Our mission was to use our wits to trace a disastrous ersatz Rube Goldberg clusterfarge back to some place in its lineage that we could consider solid enough to build on. Everything before that, we’d work with, and everything after that would be torn out, root and branch.

Plastic plumbing pipe is pretty easy to work with, and easy to understand. There was a sheared off piece of no-hub, Schedule 40 PVC, 1-1/2″ pipe sticking out of a fairly sturdy looking PVC elbow, which in turn was glued into a cast iron elbow. I wanted less than nothing to do with the cast iron elbow. The sheared off pipe itself was useless. If they had sheared it off with 1/2″ showing, I could work with it, but they must have hit it with a hammer and broke it off half in, half out of the hub on the elbow. I had to save that elbow while removing the pipe. Easy to say, hard to do.

If the pipe talk is confusing, I’ll run it down for you. PVC is polyvinyl chloride. It’s the type of plastic the pipe is made from. The measurement, 1-1/2″, refers to the inside diameter of the pipe. Schedule 40 refers to the thickness of the pipe walls. That’s why you need different fittings for different grades of pipe. A Schedule 40 fitting won’t fit around a Schedule 80 pipe, because the thickness of the pipe wall increases the diameter of the pipe. [Update: Jon in the comments kindly corrected me on this point. Schedule 40 and 80 pipe has the same outside diameter. It’s Sewer and Drain pipe that has a thinner wall, and a different outside diameter, and can’t use the same fittings]

PVC pipe like this is called no-hub. It’s a straight tube. The hubs — the part that surround the pipes to join them together — are supplied by the fittings. Cast iron pipe has a hub on one end and a spigot on the other end. The spigot on pipe A goes into the hub on pipe B, and so on. The cylindrical part of the pipe between the hub and spigot is called the barrel. You can also buy cast iron pipe with a hub on both ends, or no hubs at all, but almost all of it will be hub and spigot.

Plastic no hub pipe is miles easier to handle than cast iron pipe. Cut the pipe with any old tool to the length you need, plus enough to fit into the hubs or couplings on each end, and then glue the whole mess together. If I could remove the no-hub PVC pipe from the elbow’s hub without breaking the elbow, and if I could find a piece of 1-1/2″ pipe, and if I could find a cap for that piece of pipe, I’d be able to seal this mother off.

And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

[to be continued]

Interestingly, ‘Malfunction of Unknown Provenance’ Is the Name of My Men Without Hats Tribute Band. But I Digress

Seems legit.

You must understand. I’m not telling you to be terrified of sewer gas. Sewer gas will not steal your spoons. Sewer gas will not change the channel during a Hail Mary play in the playoffs. Sewer gas will not go shoe shopping and max out your credit card. Sewer gas won’t forget to water your plants. Sewer gas is like a lot of topics in construction and maintenance. Sewer gas should be understood, and its relative danger respected. Fear is not the same as knowledge and respect.

Knowledge coupled with respect is not au courant in today’s world. If you watch any “home improvement” show, there is only one constant. Everyone wears safety glasses all the time no matter how trivial the dangers involved. I have seen people put on safety glasses to hang drapes. If you truly understand risk, and respect danger in proportion to that risk, you are using judgment. If you do not understand risk, but are simply afraid of everything, you wear safety glasses all the time. An overwhelming fear of putting your eye out trumps any rational assessment of the behavior you should undertake to avoid it. You’d be smarter to examine your neurotic urge to achieve an illusory feeling of safety while ignoring really dangerous things.

Safety glasses are the clown shoes of fear. I have seen all the shelter shows — once — and I have observed a noticeably pregnant woman put on safety glasses in order to undertake the demolition of perfectly good tile in her tract home bathroom. It’s not unwise to wear safety glasses if you’re determined to strike ceramic tile with a sledgehammer. It’s just really dumb to think that striking ceramic tile with a sledgehammer is how demolition is accomplished. The pregnant woman was wearing flip flops in order to display her painted toenails to the public. People who understand risk and respect the process they’ve undertaken do not perform demolition in open-toed shoes while pregnant. Believing that wearing safety glasses under those circumstances bestows safety is magical, cargo cult thinking. Magical thinking doesn’t result in safety, ever. It results in paranoia with recklessness ladled all over it.

I am not terrified of sewer gas. I am aware of what it is capable of, and I’m on the lookout for it in situations where it might be present. In the right concentrations, it is instantly lethal. If you’re of the Internet generation, and accustomed to the term “literally” being used in place of the word “figuratively”, look up the word “instantly.” You need to understand that I’m not exaggerating. One breath and you’re overcome and dead an instant later. Sewer gas sounds like a general term for the unpleasant smell in the sewer, which could be all sorts of things like methane that aren’t Chanel No.5, exactly, but can be managed. True “sewer gas” is hydrogen sulfide. It’s one of the scariest airborne chemicals you”re likely to encounter unless you mop the floors in a North Korean chemical weapons shed for a living.

If you’re curious about how dangerous hydrogen sulfide can be, you can Google “Two men dead from sewer gas.” Don’t bother searching for “one man dead from sewer gas.” It’s always two men dead. The first man goes in the hole, and lasts maybe five seconds. The second man goes in to get him. Both are probably wearing safety glasses, because safety.

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S), the toxic gas associated with the smell of
“rotten eggs,” is an important cause of work-related sudden death. The
gas is particularly insidious due to the unpredictability of its
presence and concentration and its neurotoxicity at relatively low
concentrations, causing olfactory nerve paralysis and loss of the
warning odor. We report a double fatality involving 2 surveyors working
near a man-hole, who fell into the sewer and died due to sudden exposure
to hydrogen sulfide gas. Key historical, physical, and toxicologic
findings are described. Additionally, we present a discussion of the
clinical presentations and differential diagnosis, mechanism of injury,
metabolism and toxicology, incidence, and scene and safety concerns in
fatal hydrogen sulfide exposures.

Confined space entry training dwells on sewer gas a lot. Sewer gas is the chemical equivalent of both barrels to the forehead, so it’s worth the attention. There is a long laundry list of things you need to be aware of, and equipment you need to have on hand to deal with potential sewer gas exposure. The first man is required to enter the confined space wearing a harness which is attached to a winch on a tripod placed over the hole. If he’s incapacitated, the second man yanks him out without doubling down on the problem by jumping in after him. This never happens. The first man goes in without any equipment, and the second man dives in after him and dies on top of him.

Here in Maine, it happened a year or two ago. OSHA prosecuted the owner of a business that lost two men in a sewer because of sewer gas. OSHA didn’t care that the company had trained the men for confined space entry. OSHA didn’t care that the company had supplied the men with all the equipment necessary to do the job safely. The workers left all the equipment in the truck and went in the hole and died, even though they must have known the risk. OSHA prosecutes the business because it’s easier than speaking ill of the dead.

I have a long experience with exactly the type of person who ends up dead in a sewer. Without knowing any particulars of the case, I can tell you that no workman will use any safety device of any kind that interferes with smoking cigarettes — and they all smoke. You can train them and yell at them and equip them to a fare-thee-well, but the moment they’re out of your sight, they’ll do exactly as they please. Texting while driving is the poindexter version of this phenomenon.

My house had a malfunctioning sewer line. The malfunction was still of unknown provenance. Unknown unknowns, as an erstwhile SecDef once observed, are harder to assess than known unknowns. My son is standing at my elbow in an unventilated, mostly underground room that stands a small chance of filling up with a lethal gas. You’re damn right I’m going to cap that pipe, right now, and I won’t be worrying about finding safety glasses to do it, either.

[to be continued]

Interestingly, ‘Confined Space Entry’ Is the Name of My Village People Tribute Band. But I Digress

Overheard while a plumber worked in my house 30 years ago: Drain traps and venting are for pussies! Sewer gas builds character! Let’s rock!

So the “water” coming out of the pipe coming out of the floor has slowed to a trickle. Now what?

We can’t go to bed and worry about it tomorrow. I won’t stuff a rag in the broken pipe and call it a day. That pipe has to be sealed off pretty well, because it’s potentially dangerous, not because it’s unpleasant. The average person really doesn’t understand sewers or septic systems. It’s just as well. Poking around in there can get you killed. The common, sensible reaction to a sewer problem is, “Ew, poo.” Poo is no fun, but it probably won’t kill you. I’ve engaged the services, directly or indirectly, of hundreds of plumbers. They wallow in poo all day long. I noticed that it didn’t make them terrific ballroom dancers, or witty at dinner parties, but it didn’t fit them for toe tags, either. Poo is nothing special. Sewer gas is lethal.

I once summoned a plumber to a filling station to snake out a clogged drain. He dutifully sent his drain auger down the toilet, reeled it out thirty feet or so, and discovered a diaper someone had flushed down the john. As he reeled the snake back in, he passed it between his ungloved thumb and forefinger.  He wanted to scrape off the residue of the disreputable things that get flushed down a gas station toilet. It was his favorite drain snake, and he liked to put it away clean. He must have noticed a modestly horrified look on my face.

“You get used to it after a while.”

There are some things I’d rather not get used to, thanks. I have to admit that poo doesn’t smell all that bad, at least when compared to other things I’ve encountered underground. For instance, every fast food restaurant has a big kitchen sink. It’s a stainless steel job with a spray head depending over it. You wouldn’t think you’d need a big wash station in a place that puts food in a paper bag and throws it at you through a hole in the wall. You’d think wrong. There’s always something that need cleaning in any restaurant. Most restaurants are located in places where a bunch of people live, so they rarely handle their own sewage onsite. Town sewer is available and mandatory. Restaurants are required to do various things to their effluent before they’re allowed to dump it into the town sewer, however.

Back to the sink. Underneath the sink, buried in the floor, is a big grease trap. A city sewer system hates grease. The slogan at the base of the Sewer Statue of Liberty reads: Give us your pooped, your piss poor, your tangled masses of toilet paper yearning to swim free, the wretched refuse of your Happy Meal, but stop dumping grease down the drain you jerk.

The typical grease trap in a McPtomaine’s is maybe a couple of feet wide, a couple of feet deep, and perhaps four feet long. The top of it is flat, and it’s set just above the level of the concrete slab. When tile is laid atop the concrete, the top of the trap is level with the finished floor. It’s got a diamond-plate lid that’s bolted down hard — for a good reason. Its contents are the foulest smelling thing in the world.

It’s hard to describe the smell of a rancid grease trap to a civilian. Opening up a neglected grease trap is like sorting out corpses after a mustard gas attack on a Passchendaele trench. That was my grandfather’s job, by the way. The trench sorting, not cleaning out grease traps. So anyway, a little poop never hurt anyone. The sewer you send it down can kill you, however.

Sewers are home to sewer gas. Sewer gas is dangerous stuff. Way back when, I had to get a confined space certificate or license or credential or merit badge or some such appellation added to my curriculum vitae. When you build big things, the sewer systems get really big, and you
occasionally have to climb into them. Sometimes they’re not showroom
fresh. By the time I got a license to enter confined spaces, the only confined space I entered was my wife’s car, but whatever. I was required to nominally supervise people who climbed into all sorts of unpleasant places. The government figured it was important for me to know more about the topic than the people in the hole for some reason. I generally waited in the car with the heater on while they climbed into the nasty concrete underground vault, but rules is rules. 

Sewer gas is like a motorcycle gang. Most members of motorcycle gangs are harmless. Most sewer gas just smells like the potpourri in Satan’s powder room. No big deal dealing with either of them. However, you always need to keep in mind that one guy in a hundred in the biker gang might be a stone cold killer, and one sewer gas exposure in a thousand might kill you instantly. The problem lies in the fact that the harmless kind look exactly the same as the lethal kind.

[to be continued]

Interestingly, ‘Loo Lagoon’ Is the Name of My Linda Ronstadt Tribute Band. But I Digress

Hey, mister; did you really buy this house? Yes. Yes I did. I think it was formerly owned by Hitler’s pool man.

Let’s stop waxing philosophical and get down to brass tacks. Poopy brass tacks. My plumbing was installed by Helen Keller and maintained for a century by the Shirk Brothers. My house was inhabited for a goodly portion of its long history by stoners, drunks, and pyromaniacs. Wondering what was flushed down that toilet over the years could turn me to drink, medical marijuana, and arson, now that I consider it. But I don’t have time for any of that. A geyser of excrement must be dealt with in the here and now.

I didn’t care exactly what the problem was. That might sound dumb, but only if you’re never been in a leaky boat. First, you bail. Then you plug the hole. Thirdly, after the morning ration of grog and cheese the next day, you wonder where the hole came from. It was ten at night on a Sunday, we were already really tired from our HVAC exertions, and the only thing to do was stop the bleeding.

You’ll have to trust me when I tell you I know more about a sewer line than the average person. If you’re the average person, I’d like to take this opportunity to finally shake your hand. I’ve heard so much about you over the years. Then I’d like to caution you to wash your hand with bleach because I’ve been mucking about in sewage systems.

I’ve broken into dozens and dozens of sewer lines, and repaired them. That’s because I’ve built or renovated a lot of structures out there in the real world. Structures that the average person just drives past or poops in without another thought. I’ve inspected many more than I’ve actually mucked about in, too. Take a piddle in the closed end of Gillette Stadium? Do more than rest at a Rest Area on half the Mass Pike? Flush a moist towelette down the john in the ladies room of the gas station at the Belvidere Oasis outside Chicago? Pour paint down the sink in the gingerbread house in Fairhaven, or flush an adult diaper down the crapper at the senior center in Bellingham, Mass? Scoot into the Martha’s Vineyard Post Office to throw up last night’s clam bellies and appletinis after the ferry ride? Yeah, I know where that goes. Believe you me, you don’t want to know.

I looked over the loo lagoon that had coalesced in my basement’s basement, and I had to make some quick decisions. What’s necessary in such situations is to think critically. Critical Thinking is now an official subject in college, high school, and in some grammar schools. That’s why no one knows how to do it anymore. Rearranging your prejudices to conform to the topic at hand might get you an “A” in school, but it won’t stop a geyser of excrement in the basement.

You have to know real facts to think critically. Critical thinking is choosing between competing factual facts, not introducing unfactual things as an alternative to reality. On top of that, many facts are true, but extraneous. You decide which to ignore and which to pay attention to. Every-other program on television is a lamebrain version of Sherlock Holmes, but the viewers never get any impression from the archetype other than acting like an imperious jerk is proof you’re smarter than everyone else. Acting like an imperious jerk in a ditch where sewage is spoken will get you a bouquet of fingers applied to your nose. Put a sock in it, college boy.

So here’s what we know that tells us how to behave:

  • A sewer pipe is tested when installed with very low air or water pressure, but it’s never supposed to have any pressure in it after that
  • A geyser of goo means it’s under pressure 
  • We have town sewer. Pressure from a town sewer would be cataclysmic
  • The pressure is coming from the house, not into the house, or the problem would appear upstairs, too. There was no geyser of excrement coming from the toilet. Thank goodness for small favors
  • You’ve been told that lo-flow toilets, miserly sink faucets, and water-rationing showerheads will cut your water usage bigtime. They won’t
  • In the same vein, your toilet went from having 5 gallons of water to 3 to 1.5 or something now. Whoopty
  • Your clothes washer dumps between 30 and 50 gallons of water down the drain
  • Our clothes washer was currently running
  • A gallon of water weighs about 7 pounds
  • Fifty gallons of water weighs about 350 pounds
  • Tree-fitty pounds of pressure in a pipe that’s not supposed to have any pressure can result in deleterious effects on your plan to move excrement outside your house expeditiously
  • Turn off the clothes washer, dear
  • Geyser goes to sleep for the night

OK, so we’ve stopped the bleeding. Now we have to cauterize the wound. We’ve got a sheared off plastic knuckle glued in a rusty cast iron knuckle jammed into another cast iron knuckle that’s buried in a concrete floor. At 10 at night on Sunday in the middle of nowhere. What to do?

[to be continued] 

Interestingly, ‘Dented Wedding Photographer’ Is the Name of My Firefall Tribute Band. But I Digress

As it turns out, this plumbing did not function all that well in the long term. I’m shocked. This is my shocked face.

I posted a photograph of the sewer pipe in my basement’s basement yesterday. Well, I posted it on the Internet. I took the picture in my basement’s basement. English is durn tricky, ain’t it? The good news is, well, there is no good news. The bad news is that I took that picture five years ago or so when I bought my house. That’s the before picture. That’s when the old girl was firing on all cylinders. I was reminiscing about days of yore when poop went away forevermore. Or seemed to, anyway.

Everything in my house was a horror. I knew that. When we were “in the market,” as they say, we contacted realtors in Maine and assured them that we were only interested in houses that no one else would want. They never believed us. They wasted our time and theirs by showing us houses they thought were swell. I hated them, and they cost too much, a bad combination. Realtors always assume they have a live one on the line, and they figure they can sell anything to anyone by performing their avant-garde real estate fandango. They weave a tapestry of “potential” with flailing arms and incongruous superlatives in any dreary, squat, vinyl-sided split-level with the ceiling-fan-equivalent of Robespierre for anyone over six feet tall — which I am, and would like to stay that way. Listen, lady — I’m immune.

By the time we had gotten to the house we now inhabit, the realtor was like a beat dog when the paperboy is coming up the walk. She skulked around the corners of the rooms while my wife and I wordlessly looked around. I looked at things normal people don’t look at when buying a house: I looked at the house. After a long while of poking around, I told the realtor we were inclined to make an offer, which would be emailed to her. She looked desperate, and confused. I gather that if other humans say what I had just said, they immediately disappear forever because they’ve actually lost interest, and some other real estate Svengali gets hold of them and hoovers out their wallet. I find few people who understand a person in dead earnest anymore.

“Don’t you want to have a home inspector look at it first?”

The faith of this woman in a person with a trivial credential was heartwarming. It reminded me of an expression I’d seen before. If you’ve ever slaughtered a farm animal, you’ll recognize this look. It doesn’t matter if you’re feeding it or tending to it or killing it. It looks up at you with the same, dumb, trusting look whether you’re holding a puntilla or a bucket of corn: Are you my mommy? It’s not that dumb an assumption for an animal. At first you are their mommy, day after day. Then for one, brief moment, you are their god.

I did not bother to mention my bona fides to the realtor, because what’s the point? There was no way to impress her in the lingua franca of realtors. I wasn’t an exalted home inspector, a god among men, a real estate master race participant trophy winner deluxe. I was just some guy who, in recent memory, had $59 million in profit or loss responsibility for construction projects in a calendar year. I was licensed to build anything from a dog house to a skyscraper in Massachusetts, but hey, this was Maine, where true home inspection men bestrode the landscape like Colossus. I was once paid $135,000 to paint the inside of one house, but that wouldn’t impress a realtor who had just advised me about the transformation I could achieve by putting ceiling fans in every room in an abandoned house, in a climate that has zero cooling degree days every year. True, every room in the house already had a ceiling fan, but the realtor assured me I could replace them with new ones and spruce the place up. Think of what a home inspector could tell me!

I may have said, “My dear lady; a home inspector is engaged to determine if anything is wrong with a house before you purchase it. I can assure you that his services will not be required, because there is absofarginlutely nothing right with this house. Every atom of its being is corrupt and contemptible. There is a hole in the roof I can climb through, if I’m willing to be elbowed by squirrels on the way by. The electricity is borne on raw wires strung through the house like a Depression-era photo of an Arkansas dirt road. The boiler will not boil, and the walls do not wall out much of anything. The plumbing does not plumb, is not plumb, and cannot achieve anything plumbish. There is a box in the basement filled with 25 pounds of asbestos batting. The good paint is lead, and the bad paint, the part that shows, is the color of a Soviet battleship hull. The floors are concave and the pipes are convex. Most of the interior walls are covered with shingles for some reason, including the backsplash behind the stove. This house is an affront to the trees that were massacred to produce it.” It’s also possible I said, “No thanks.” I really can’t remember.

We offered less than twenty-five grand to the bank that owned the house. I told them the number was based solely on the shade the building threw on the ground, the only value I could find in it. It would take an atomic clock to measure the moment in time it took for them to say yes.

The home inspector did eventually come, however. I tried to insure the house, and the insurance company hired him and sent him over. He was a wedding photographer, and he had a very large dent in his head.

[to be continued]

Interestingly, ‘Geyser of Excrement’ Is the Name of My Tears for Fears Tribute Band. But I Digress

So, we’ve moved seamlessly from HVAC to plumbing. A very particular kind of plumbing — the sewer line. If you’ve ever done plumbing above the concrete regions of your house, you might figure plumbing holds no terrors. Lefty loosie, righty tightie, and wash your hands before eating lunch was the entire plumbing handbook when I was a kid. The appendix held one one additional piece of advice: Water always runs downhill. Wanna bet?

When the clocks run backwards, when the sun rises in the west, when the lion lays down with the lamb, when politicians start telling the truth, when water doesn’t run downhill, when the laws of supply and demand are revoked — supplying finless brown trout to the porcelain gods and demanding that they go away — that’s when you know you’re in for it. You got existential trouble there, Camus, I’m tellin’ you.

I don’t think I can accurately describe what that geyser of excrement in the carhole meant to me at that moment. It was literally an existential threat. If I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, almost immediately, we would be homeless. Not fake homeless like an indie-rock drummer sleeping on strange couches. My family and I would not be able, or more to the point, not be allowed to live in our house while I sorted it out. It’s fight or flee, and since it was below zero at the time, fleeing only lasts until you get to the end of the street where you re-enact the end of The Shining. I prefer fighting anyway.

The first thing you have to get through your head in such situations is that no one is going to save you. Everyone thinks they can act any old way and someone will save them. I eventually got help, but that’s not the same as waiting to be saved. The old joke about the lost traveler that sat down and prayed for God to save him is apropos. A man on a camel passes by, but he refuses a ride because God will save him. A man in a hot-air balloon floats by and throws down a rope. The traveler refuses, because God will save him. Things go along like that for quite some time. When the man is about to die of thirst and hunger, he entreats the Lord, “Why won’t you save me?” The heavens open up, and a figure in flowing robes appears in the clouds, and booms, “I sent a hot air balloon and a camel driver. What did you want, a sedan chair?”

If I wanted to be saved I’d go to snake-handling church. I had to fix my problem. I looked at my older son, and said, “Get it through your head, right now, son. No one will save us. Let’s save ourselves.” It was superfluous.

In the nether regions of the carhole, there was an old pipe, plastic, sheared off roughly, inexpertly glued into a 2-inch cast iron knuckle, which in turn was inelegantly rammed into another cast-iron knuckle, which disappeared into the concrete floor. Bad things were coming out of the sheared off plastic pipe. This pipe was as far away from the sewer main as you could get and still be indoors. Someone had decided they needed a sink really badly in this godforsaken, frozen sepulchre, and true to the task, had put one in really badly, then removed it. And now that pipe was jetting the equivalent of 175 meals eaten at a Chipotle franchise located on a Carnival Cruise ship onto my cellar floor every minute. Steps must be taken.

[to be continued]

Let’s See if Sippican Can Tie His Heating System Into His Sewer System

I know it sounds like a tough transition, but I believe I can tie my heating ducts into my sewer pipe. You might wonder why I would want to do that. Well, I didn’t. I wanted to save my widdle pennies for a longish time, buy some tin, and knock it in place. It was supposed to bring heat from my dining room, where my pellet stove resides, into my children’s bedrooms, where my two human bowling alleys reside. It was a good plan, as it turns out. Better than I anticipated, really. But then I had to go and tie it in with my sewer.

If you’re wondering where I’ve been for a couple of weeks, this should explain it. Sh*t happens, as they say. The “they” who say that have no idea how much merde happens when merde happens. I know for a dead cert. You see, my older son and I put that heating duct in, easy as you please, two days flat, soup to nuts, and it worked like a charm. Perhaps, another day, I will regale you with amusing anecdotes about self-tapping screws and foil duct tape. Wax poetic about galvanized HVAC starting rings and six-inch diameter round duct 90-degree saddle take offs with gaskets. Become rhapsodic about Cubic Feet per Minute and British Thermal Units. It’s bound to be the entertainment equivalent of a slideshow of vacation photos of Luray Caverns presented by an uncle with his pants up under his armpits. Haband slacks, natch. But for now, I’ll need you to take that part as read, believe me when I testify under several oaths and some Anglo-Saxon words that I succeeded, which will allow us to move on to explaining my reference to offal awful quick.

You see, it was Sunday night at 10 PM, we had just got that duct in, and we had configured a fan to commence blowing warm air through it, easy peasy. The children’s rooms were comfy all of a sudden, and I was looking for laurels to rest on. Before I could put myself outside a beer, I was required by common sense — a little — and plain fear — rather more — to descend the three flights of stairs that separate the top level of my house from what we refer to as the carhole, the elegant name we have for the basement below the basement. We had been cutting ductwork down there with an abrasive wheel fitted to a grinder, and we had to check that stray sparks didn’t ignite anything, which would make the house too warm and dash my BTU calculations all to hell. Everything looked copacetic, and we were picking up the tools in a desultory fashion from the frigid concrete floor, when we heard water running. That’s bad, because the carhole doesn’t have running water.

I walked around the 99-percent finished rowboat I’ve never launched that we keep in the carhole instead of cars. It doesn’t trouble us to keep a boat that never floats in there, because we don’t own a car anymore, just a truck, and the truck doesn’t fit through the door in two directions instead of just one dimension like the car didn’t fit when it was still not fitting in there instead of fitting in the junkyard just fine.

And there, coming out of the floor, was a geyser of excrement.

[to be continued]

Month: February 2016

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