Sippican Cottage



A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

‘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]

9 Responses

  1. I like the way you question it all. You even question it existentially (I've read here for awhile). Marked "water," huh? Probably a trick.

    Next time I'm going to tell you about well-digging, since I've got you outside and you have so much time on your hands. Of course, it involves alcohol. Well digging and alcohol always go together and that goes without saying.

    Enjoy your digging.

  2. I am glad my house is only 67 years old and not 110. We have "issues", but, not quite wooden pipe issues..

  3. "What could possibly go wrong?"

    A question I learned not to ask, because I inevitably didn't like the answer.

    The house I'm in (a friend's) is at least 130 years old, possibly older. Its an amazing kludge of patches and attempted fixes.

    Like you, I "have the poverty" (as doe she), so it's all up to me.

    It makes life not boring.

    I *still* want to know how you jacked the house and slid a foundation under it with only a teen-aged boy.

  4. Our house is about 115 years old, and was built before the city was platted. I’m pretty sure that it had a well and a septic field, but there’s no trace of it anywhere. When the city ran pipes from the street to the house (to carry water) and sewer pipes back from the house to the street (to carry water plus stuff) they did it the old-fashioned way, not logs, but with jointed clay drain pipes. Every two feet, there’s a joint (bell and spigot).

    When freshly laid I’m sure it looked all very nice; the pipes lying on a nice bed of soil (I’m guessing they didn’t bother with any of that fancy gravel stuff back then) and tightly joined together as they ran from the cast iron drain at the outlet of the house to the concrete sewer in the middle of the street, about 8 feet below the (later) pavement.

    Nothing stays the same, including the ground. Here in Minnesnowta it heaves, and settles, and otherwise moves around. Over the years those nice tight clay joints start to separate and begin to leak a little bit of water. That’s not too much of a problem by itself, but because people here love trees, they plant them in front yards. Usually right over the sewer line. Trees love water, and their little roots try to soak up as much of it as they can. When they find a nice source of “nutrient-rich” water 6 feet underground, they become very, very happy and grow lots of little roots. Some of them right into the separated joints of the clay pipes, and then they start to fill the pipe with lots of nice fine roots. The more solid parts of the “water plus stuff” doesn’t go through that so well.

    Our sewer backed up and brought some of the most interesting materials to the surface of the floor drain. Not owning (or even being sure how to operate) a power auger we called a local guy who came out and for a very nominal fee ran his auger the 66 feet from our house out to the sewer, and cut up the tree roots getting the drain working quite nicely. We asked him how we could avoid this in the future; he gave us a resigned look, and said, “Cut down the damned maple tree in your front yard, or be ready to do this every other year.”

    Since that tree is the only thing that makes living in a house without A/C comfortable in a Minnesnowta swamp-summer it wasn’t really an option. So we had a guy with a nifty gizmo (“See-Snake”) come over and run his camera all the way down the sewer. Lots of fun, but we had some of the tree roots still running the length of the pipe, and could see the locations where the pipe joints were starting to separate. In a few years, we’d probably start seeing them begin to cave in, and then we’d be completely out of luck. 3 basic options:
    – Excavate a ditch from the house to the sewer (5 ft deep at the house, 8 ft deep at the sewer) and put in a new line. This would mean a huge hole in the street, and would probably kill the damned tree anyway.
    – Try “pipe-bursting” where they excavate a (huge) hole in the street and run a gizmo from there to the house, busting up the clay pipe and dragging a new line behind it
    – In-situ lining, where they pull a fiber sock through a gizmo that impregnates it with epoxy resin and hardener, and then inflate a really long balloon in it to create a new fiberglass-lined sewer pipe inside the old one
    The last being the cheapest of the three we opted to do it. Did I mention that it costs around $100/ft to do it, and that it was 66 ft? Do the math; all I had to do was write the check.

    That was a few years ago, and the maple tree in our front yard, which used to be the last tree in the state to drop its leaves, now drops them with all of the other trees. We figure that giving it water year-round might have had something to do with it hanging onto leaves until the snowfall tore them off.

    And the water plus stuff just goes away now.

  5. Thanks a bunch – now I'm getting flashbacks of a crappy (not very old but really amateur) house my father bought in rural Michigan sometime around 1971. First good cold snap, we lost all drainage. Tried snaking out the drainage line and for all practical purposes there was none. Went with improvised water and waste disposal all winter. Come the thaw we dug out the line to the septic tank, every inch of which was broken crockery filled in so completely I don't know how it ever did drain.

    That summer we had to hire welldiggers, because the water system all froze, too. People had been living in this house, but they apparently figured stoicism built better character than maintenance.

  6. Your nightmare shared with us all dredges up our own personal nightmares of the past–or anticipated future. My city's mayor sent out a mailing a few years ago strongly suggesting that we purchase insurance to cover part of the expense of lines dug and replaced from the house to the street. I don't know how old the lines in the street are, but some off my neighbor's houses are 100+ years old and we have a beautiful tree-lined street. I love how the interweb can tie itself to any web page and so had a good laff at the ad at the top of the Sippican page this morning offering to find me a plumber if I'd enter my zip code. How do it know?

  7. The Orangeburg pipe I recently had the misfortune to work with looked like it was made from several layers of paper impregnated with tar. My plumbing mentor, who worked on it when it was the newest thing, confirmed that was the case. Perhaps a regional variant?

    I had discovered that the iron pipe at the apartment's external clean-out turned into PVC roughly 12 feet beyond the apartment (thank heavens for a Harbor Freight trencher that actually worked)then plunged from 2 feet deep to 4 feet deep (you can do 2 feet in Georgia where the frost line is only 2 inches). The assumption by the water department was that It continued down the block to a manhole at the cross streed and I would have to continue digging another 12 feet or so to find the blockage. When I asked if I could just turn right and connect to the street line I was informed that they contracted street work out and that the minimum charge was $5,000. So I kept digging and discovered that after the pipe bottomed out at about 4 feet it turned to the right. After talking again with the water department and digging another 3 feet to verify that it did indeed turn right… Well to sum up they agreed to dig at the property line and verify that the blockage continued to the street, fix it if it did. In either case I could run my line to their excavation. Then they discovered "Orangeburg" that was solidly filled with something very black and very solid. They told me that They would finish the work all the way back to where I'd cut out a section of iron pipe that they'd told me was where the blockage was (it wasn't) and I wouldn't have to pay anything, just write a letter they could use to get a Federal grant for the work. Most expensive letter I've written. They later found that the Orangeburg had just been poked into the main sewer line with no connector, so they had to cut out a part of that.

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