Sippican Cottage

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

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]

9 Responses

  1. In my early 20's I worked in a flower shop in Tucson with a woman who was from a family of 17 children. She got married when she was 19, no wonder, and the man she married, Chuck, had a business cleaning out grease traps. He occasionally stopped by the shop to see his wife, and even though he was not coming from work, and was obviously showered and in clean clothes, he reeked. You are right. It was the foulest, nastiest odor. I always wondered if she worked in the flower shop to fill her nose with the smell of carnations, so she could put up with his..funk.

  2. Leslie, it must have been true love.

    As these stories progress, I'm starting to think the people who lived in the Sippican Cottage way back when might have been close relatives of Cousin Eddie.

  3. "Sewer gas is lethal"

    Which is why when you see that scene of him crawling through that pipe in "The Shawshank Redemption" you say "Bullshit".

  4. I had an uncle, uncle Letsgo's brother it was, who billed himself an a Solid Waste Management Engineer. Turns out he got that degree from offa matchbook and he only worked at it part time. The other times he was with his brothers Tito and Joe Pep spreading used motor oil on peoples' driveways. If pushed he would fess up that his real job was 20 hours a week painting rental boats at an amusement park.

  5. Besides maggot-infested mud swimming, I'd say cleaning a ship's bilge was my worst job. Probably, if anything was worse than that, I have blacked it out. Might explain those years from 1980-85. Hmmm.

    I'm eager to see what happens to your sewer gas issue, and which cover band you name next time. I vote for Nirvana, but that's just me.

  6. My first career was working as a grocery store butcher. 20 years. We also had grease traps. Large ones. One day while headed to the walk-in freezer I passed by the plumber standing in the open trap, filling 5 gallon buckets to carry out to his reclamation vehicle. You have been too kind about the smell. On the way back, I apologized for my rudeness, but had to tell him I thought his task might be the worst job in the world. "I don't know." he shrugged "there's probably worse." Then he laughed.

    I still remember the smell. After 20 years.

  7. Confined Space Entry
    Too many instances of some guy working in a sewer,septic tank or cesspool is overwhelmed by sewer gas and passes out, only to be followed by someone who jumps in to help and they are overcome and then the next etc.

    Also cutting ductwork with a grinder? Unless it is over 18 gauge get a good pair of tin snips.

    Rob in AZ

  8. Miasma

    A word, the meaning of which is generally inaccessible to the uninitiated; said initiation available to those willing to excavate the buried septic tank lid, open same (breathe deep the gathering gloom)drop the vac truck hose fifteen feet or so – heavily, repeatedly mind you – in an attempt to break through onto the other side of the foot ana half of floating congealed grease and crap crust.

    Just so the vac can suck up the riches below. Six times a day.

    Ed Norton, Jackie's pal

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