This is Sippican, tattered and torn
That kissed the missus all forlorn
That flushed the toilet one fateful morn
That flooded the floor and smelled like scat
That filled the blog with a monologue
About fixing the house that Jack built.
I don’t know who built my house. I imagine it was constructed by a great big crew of rough-and-tumble guys. In 1901, power tools were scarce, and ‘strong backs with weak minds’ were plentiful. I’m sure any number of them were named Jack.
Of course the old expression about ‘strong backs and weak minds’ doesn’t really hold in this case. When I began working in construction, back in the dark ages of the ’70s, that appellation was reserved strictly for young people fresh on the job. The old guys knew plenty, and could do more math in their head than you can manage with a calculator.
The jobs reserved for we newcomers, luxuriant of hair but challenged in all other areas, were always pretty simple : Dig a hole here. Roll this wheelbarrow full of concrete over 100 yards of rough ground and dump it in the form by the back door. Take the bundles of shingles off the truck and put them on the roof. Don’t fall off the roof, it makes a mess. That’s the only sort of direction you’d get.
The payoff was that you got to work with people who knew their arse from their elbow. You would receive a certain amount of instruction. This instruction was supplied in the form of abuse, delivered in vibrant Anglo-Saxon, accompanied by a threat to be fired if you did whatever it was you did again. For the most part, you were required to be cautious, quiet, and “steal with your eyes” if you wanted to learn things. You would work right next to men who were very accomplished carpenters, painters, roofers, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, stonemasons, concrete finishers, or skilled at various other trades. They were also very accomplished drunks, and could show you a thing or two about getting yourself outside a quart of Four Roses while still being able to show up early for work the next day. They accomplished marvelous things, if you loved single-family houses the way I did, and if you paid attention, you could learn how to do it yourself.
In theory, this monkey-see, monkey-do method is how home and garden shows on TV are supposed to work. There’s a problem. The people featured on shelter shows are chosen because they are most likely to be entertaining to the viewers. The work is an afterthought. Even the venerable and useful This Old House has succumbed to this affliction. They spend fifteen hours picking out drapes, and fifteen seconds placing the foundation. The actual work happens in a blur in the background. You can’t steal with your eyes by watching competent people, because there aren’t any in front of the camera. If you watch Home and Garden TV, you might learn what is required to become a host on Home and Garden TV. That’s about it.
The ‘steal with your eyes approach’ eventually cultivates an ability to puzzle things out when confronted by a construction and maintenance problem, if you don’t fall off the roof holding a bundle of shingles before you learn everything. If your view of the whole thing is informed by a long series of small glimpses of the underlying structure, you get a much clearer understanding of what’s truly going on overall. This is also the basis of my interest in Victoria’s Secret catalogs.
So we’ve wandered hither and yon in the thesaurus talking about my clogged sewer pipe. It’s long since time to cap the thing off and take stock of the whole megillah. I promise I won’t exaggerate, and as I’ve said a million times before, I never resort to hyperbole. Anyway, here goes: I believe that the recalcitrant sewer line is the entire reason I was able to buy my home for less than 25 grand a few years ago, even though it seemed to be the only thing in the house that functioned, at least a little. It was not one of many things wrong with my house. It was THE thing wrong with my house. My house is a hovel, so that’s saying something. Here’s the theorem, proved:
- It has obviously been many decades since the sewer line functioned properly. It’s possible it never did. The vertical Drain-Waste-Vent line went directly into a clay pipe ‘Tee’ fitting underground. That’s not a deal-breaker, but a sweep (a gently curved pipe) would have been better.
- The Tee had a cleanout a few inches from the spot where the vertical pipe meets the horizontal tee. This cleanout couldn’t be accessed because there was a solid granite foundation wall in the way.
- Some former owners dug outside the foundation when the pipe didn’t work, only to discover the pipe didn’t exit the house that way. That excavation required the demolition of a ground-level rain gutter made from concrete. That allowed rainwater from the roof to filter down into the ground, where it makes a damp spot along the inside of the foundation wall. That made the basement perpetually damp, and it masked the water leaking out of the sewer pipe under the slab.
- There was a clean out pipe for the sewer. It was on the opposite side of the basement. To my surprise, that’s the side of the house where the main house drain actually left the building. In the mists of antiquity, someone broke off the clean out pipe underground, plugged it with a series of small fittings, and then installed some sort of sink. Then they buried all their piping in concrete. This made it appear as though the (long abandoned) sink location was at the end of a drain leading back to the main DWV vent pipe. Even if you weren’t fooled, (I was) there was no way to use this clean out anymore. That means it was a practical impossibility to clean out the house drain and sewer line outside the house for forty or fifty years.
- Once I dug up the sewer clean out, I used 70 feet of drain augur cable to clean out the pipe, and there was twenty feet of house drain before you got to the clean out. A 4″ diameter pipe that’s 100+ feet long will hold a lot of water (and other stuff). Lots of water would mean lots of weight pushing on an obstruction. If the obstruction won’t budge, that much pressure will blow out all the oakum or tar or whatever was used to seal the joins between the 4-foot sections of sewer pipe. Given enough time, all the water leaked out of the pipe without pushing the ‘solids” along.
- The solids continued building up in the pipe. I think the pipe filled from the bottom up at first, with water flowing over the top a bit, and then eventually the only way for water to get by was to seep through the entire 100-foot run of muck. Not very efficient.
- The entire sewer line became a defacto septic system. Almost nothing made it past the obstruction to reach the town sewer.
- The leaky seams in the sewer pipe let water run out quickly enough so that the house could limp along for decades with the solids slowly building up in more and more of the pipe.
- Once the unsuccessful exterior excavation ploy failed, someone dug up the pipe where the vertical DWV pipe entered the floor (and joined the clay Tee pipe). They broke the clay pipe, and they also lost or broke the plug that went in the unused end of the pipe.
- They couldn’t get another clay pipe to replace the one they broke, and Ferncos might not have been invented yet, so they put a wooden disc in the plug end of the Tee fitting, then stuck the broken bits around the DWV pipe, and covered it up with a concrete patch.
- The wooden disc plug didn’t last for long, and tree roots flourished at the now open ended pipe.
- Lots and lots of water escaped the pipe right where it entered the floor.
- The foundation and cellar floor was undermined by the water.
- In the winter, the temperature reached 20-below-zero regularly.
- The water froze, then heaved the foundation and the floor.
- The original walk-out barn doors in the basement no longer worked as the foundation in the back of the house slumped.
- Someone tried to fix the problem by pouring a makeshift concrete foundation on top of the sinking granite blocks that made up the foundation walls. The water just kept undermining the now taller wall.
- The problem accelerated, and the foundation wall in the back of the house between the 8-foot-wide barn doors completely crumbled to dust.
- Someone propped up the back of the house with a byzantine forest of metal columns, makeshift wood beams, and a few I-Beams that didn’t do anything.
- They also boarded up the entire back of the house, then insulated it, blocking out almost all sunlight and keeping heat out, while thinking they were keeping heat in. Where they thought the heat they were keeping in would come from is unknown. This accelerated the freezing, heaving, and subsidence of the remaining foundation walls and the floor.
- The forest of hollow metal columns rested on the thin concrete floor, with no footings underneath, and the floor was constantly being undermined, so the columns punched holes in the slab instead of holding anything up.
- This elicited the installation of ever more columns, all accomplishing not much. This coincided with the installation of ceiling fans, a hot tub, and a tanning bed in the house, because people think a house is for adding to, not for taking care of.
- Eventually the back of the house dropped between 6 and 8 inches.
- Because of the unusual framing technique used on the house when it was built, (thanks, Jack) the back wall of the house basically became detached from the rest of the house.
- When the back wall of the house slumped, the rear roof eave slumped a lot, and the rest of the roof only slumped a little.
- This pulled open the neglected roofing about 3 or 4 feet up from the roof edge.
- This allowed water to enter the attic, and flow freely inside the four-story back wall of the house.
- Water flowing inside the back wall destroyed the windows, so they boarded some of them up, too. This made it colder inside, prompting the owners to — you guessed it — install more ceiling fans.
- The rain and snow entering the holes in the roof made the house’s structure even worse. Leaks in the roof became big holes in the roof, which let in bees, hornets, carpenter ants, chipmunks, birds, squirrels, and bats. The holes never got large enough to let in any competent plumbers, however.
- Once the owners ran out of light fixtures to replace with ceiling fans, and it was raining indoors regularly, they folded their tents in the night and stole away, leaving the local savings and loan holding the bag holding the mortgage.
- Because a bank can’t enter a house while they foreclose on it, all the plumbing pipes in the house froze solid, and were ruined. They were no great shakes anyway. The heating plant was an oil-fired boiler with hot water baseboard heat. All of this was full of water, froze solid, and was destroyed.
- I came along looking for a cheap house. The banker realized there couldn’t be two people as dumb as me walking the Earth, so they sold it to me before I sobered up.
So, there you go, your honor. I hereby testify that someone flushed an unmentionable down the toilet, back when Eisenhower was president, probably, and it got stuck, and that little thing destroyed the sewer system, the foundation, the back wall of the house, the roof, the plumbing, and the heating system in the house. And I bought it. I plead insanity.
So if you’ve been reading right along, you know that my son and I were able to repair the main house drain. If you’re new around here, press on this Plumbing label and read the posts in reverse order.
I’ve been struck by the interest in this project from many corners of the Intertunnel, and the outpouring of support from people near and far, for which I am immensely grateful. It would seem to me that people want to hear more about fixing my house, so that is what I’ll write about every chance I get. I definitely owe Jerry and Michelle a stirring conclusion to the tale of jacking up the back of the house. By gad, I’m going to do it.
A SEWER LINE BENEDICTION:
My son and I cleaned off the nasty cables we used to augur out the sewer line, and then tromped over the snowbanks to load the rented tools into my truck to return them to the tool rental yard. We backfilled all the excavations and compacted the soil. We burned half our clothes, and my wife washed the rest. Twice.
A week or so later, we got a generic notice in the mail from the town government, appended to a utility bill. It read:
IMPORTANT SEWER NOTICEIf you experience a sewer backup, please notify the Public Works Department before you hire a plumber. After hours, call the Police Department.
But, we didn’t hire a plumber, so I guess we’re all set. Life sure is a lot simpler when no one imagines anyone like you even exists.
[Update: Many thanks to Robert B. from Chicago, Ill. for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Additional Update: Many thanks to William O from Bandera, Tejas for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is very much appreciated]
[Yet More Update: Many thanks to James H. from Lees Summit, Missouri for his kind words and generous contribution to our TipJar. It is very much appreciated]
[Still More Updates: Many thanks to Jerry and Michelle V. from Everson, WA for their unflagging support and friendship. It is greatly appreciated]