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]