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]