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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

You May Not Believe This, But ‘Polyglot Pipe Patches’ Is the Name of My Cowsills Tribute Band. But I Digress

As I was saying (there’s an understatement), your average civilian doesn’t know much about concrete. I’ve built a lot of stuff that had a lot of concrete in it, and I’ve had to bust out a lot of it, too. I’ve demolished concrete using the right tools, and I’ve smashed concrete using the wrong tools. Today, my son, we’re going to be breaking concrete without any tools.

I used the word “any” only somewhat facetiously. What I mean is that we’ll be doing it with only hand tools, our strong backs, and our weak minds. Wait a minute, flip those last two. I wish I had a strong back and a weak mind. I’d be able to sit for hours in an upholstered chair and enjoy everything on television if that was the case. Unfortunately, I’m doomed to walk the Earth noticing things without being able to do much about them.

Concrete is only strong in one direction. That’s a difficult concept for educated people to grasp. If you try to crush concrete, it’s plenty hard. It pulls apart relatively easily. That’s why structural concrete is full of rebar. Rebar consists of steel rods that are encapsulated in the concrete while it’s still plastic. Rebar is good in tension. If you don’t believe me, try to stretch a piece. Concrete is for compression strength and embedded steel is for strength in tension. It’s a great combination.

A cellar floor almost never has any rebar in it. It might have wire mesh, but even that’s pretty rare. There’s no reason to reinforce it. It’s just supposed to keep you from standing in mud when you’re looking for your skis in the basement in the fall. If I had a nickel for every terrified homeowner who asked me about inconsequential cracks in their cellar floor, I’d have several nickels, which believe me, I could use. Your cellar floor cracks because the concrete shrinks while it hardens, and for a long time after that, because concrete is lousy in tension. The cracks rarely mean anything substantial. If you’ve ever wondered why sidewalks are laid in four-foot squares, it’s because they know they’ll crack, so they force a crack every so often to keep it from happening willy-nilly.

So I know we can bust out the concrete with a sledgehammer, because I know how to do it. If you go down in the basement with a sledgehammer and start whaling on your concrete floor with a sledge, you’ll get tired before you dent it much. You’re playing concrete’s game. You’re trying to break it by compressing it. You need to give the concrete someplace to escape to in order to crack it.

There was a patch in the floor around the 4-inch cast-iron DWV pipe as it entered the floor, because everything in my house has always been broken forever. I took a big, pointed pry bar and whacked at the seam between the ancient patch and the ancient-er concrete floor. Officially, I was breaking the floor, but in reality, I was drilling a little hole. Once I got a dent big enough to lever at it, the pry bar pulled up a palm-sized chunk of concrete. We’re off to the races, son. Hit the concrete a few inches in from the hole, and it will shear off and fall away into the gap. The gap will get inexorably larger, and it will get easier and easier to work the edge. The same technique is used in blasting, which I’ve supervised a little. You shear things off next to a hole, you don’t pulverize it in place if you can avoid it.

It only took a few minutes of pounding to clear the 1′ x 3′ patch. It was easy digging in the soil underneath it, and we exposed the sewer line under the floor. It was only about a foot or a foot-and-a-half deep. Outside the house, the ground slopes steeply, and giant spruce trees mark the property line just ten feet or so from the house. The soil is piled high along the granite block foundation walls, so a foot deep measurement inside would be around four or five feet below ground outside, which makes sense. I got a good look at the pipe in the floor directly under the vertical DWV pipe. It was a “tee.”

That’s bad plumbing, I thought. That’s a bad way to dump waste — in a pile at the bottom of the stink pipe. I’d already tried to snake the drain, but I couldn’t get it to make the turn towards the outside of the house. I could make it turn and go the other way up the crazy abandoned sink pipe, but I ran out of snake before I hit anything. I couldn’t tell what was going on until I dug up the sewer and looked at it.

The sewer pipe in the ground looked like cast iron, but so what. It was dark and shiny and had letters embossed on it. Then I noticed the hub on the Tee fitting, the one that accepted the vertical cast iron pipe coming straight down through the house. It was broken. It’s hard to break cast iron. I picked up the pieces. It was pottery, not iron.

We instructed everyone above grade to avoid running any water, and we took apart the DWV pipe. The polyglot pipe patches make that easy. There were several rubber fittings that rely on clamping rings that are easily undone. Now I could finagle things directly into the horizontal pipe that runs underground. I put the metal snake into the pipe heading towards the outside wall, and it ran into resistance after less than a foot. When I pulled it out, there were bits of tree roots on the spike on the end. The tee was already broken, and would have to be replaced in any case, so I could do what I pleased with it. I took the six-foot-iron bar and jammed it in there, and wiggled it. My son tried it too, and described the sensation as trying to shove a spike through a soggy hardcover book. You could push the rod if you used a little muscle, but it was met with constant, soft resistance.

Now you have all the facts in front of you. You have all the clues a person could need. I’m certain they’re all the clues you need because they’re all I needed to figure out what was wrong. I’ve gotten a lot of advice over the last week about how I should proceed. So here’s your big chance. Tell me in the comments why my sewer wouldn’t work, and how to fix it. I’ll let you know if you’re right.

[to be continued]

15 Responses

  1. An ancient abandoned diaper of a long ago infant whose adult manifestation has finally passed away was trying to crawl out into the light to reunite with the heaven-routed soul got stuck at the turn of the pipe…. just like those folks escaping from prison didn't get to the Shawshank stream but got stuck in the pipe forever… Am I close?

  2. Sipp-
    One morning, in a ground floor apartment here in Phoenix, the effluent backed up into the bathtub. Turned out it was the last contributor in the long line to the sewer and tree roots had blocked the pipe. Easy fix, and, thankfully, I didn’t have to do it.
    Another blocked line, this time in upstate New York, was my problem, because I had built the house.
    A young couple bought the house, moved in, and enjoyed living there until the following Sunday night. I answered the phone, then called my plumber and we met at the new house shortly after. The blockage manifested itself by water backfilling the washing machine located in the basement. The line exited straight out of the house and entered the city sewer about forty feet away. My plumber snaked the line, unblocking it, the water flowed in the right direction, the new owners were happy and all was well.
    Until the next Sunday night.
    Repeat the above, however the next morning the plumber, his crew and I dug up the line to make sure it was intact.
    [Side note: another house I had built had a blocked line that turned out to be broken by the local utility truck driving over the still soft, recently backfilled trench in the front yard. No, I don’t know why he needed to maneuver on a brand new lawn; however it wasn’t discovered until the following spring because it had snowed the day after he drove over the pipe. As the snow melted, his tracks became visible and one of my crew remembered seeing it happen; thankfully the utility company didn’t protest and fixed the problem.]
    Monday morning revealed an intact line and all was well.
    Until the next Sunday night.
    At least the couple was pleased at the alacrity with which we responded to their call.
    The next day I got the city involved, the lines downstream were checked resulting in finding a shopping cart, rocks and gravel found in a manhole access to the line. They cleaned it out, pronounced it good and it was… until… yes,
    The next Sunday night.
    O.K. sez I, this gets fixed.
    I had asked the couple, why only on Sunday nights, well, they said, we both work long hours during the week, mostly out of town and do all the laundry on…Sunday night, I said. When the city supervisor and I met that Monday, he said the only thing left is to send in the robot.
    Robot, late 1980’s, small town, upstate New York, robot? Really? Actually, a camera on a little moving track guided by him using a joystick, no I said, guided by me. This was too cool to miss.
    It was set up going through the next manhole downstream, a hundred or so feet away from the house (not the rocks, gravel and shopping cart one, that was much further away), and the little robot started his journey, the picture was displayed on a low-res B&W screen, more than adequate to see what was going on. As the robot got nearer to the house, we both said ‘that’s the problem’!
    You see, when building a home there, at that time anyway, the plumber would leave an overly long piece of Schedule 40 in place from the end of the plumbing in the house to the city sewer line. The city would then make the entry cut into the line, advance the pipe and seal it in place. The plumber would finish his connection in the house and call for inspection.
    What we saw was a Sched. 40 pipe butted up against the opposite wall of the sewer line; when the couple took a shower, did the dishes, flushed the toilets during the week, there wasn’t quite enough volume to back up. That took all of the above plus the washing on Sunday nights.
    City fixed it and they all lived happily ever after.
    The end.
    Your set up? No idea for sure- but I’m wondering if the “soggy hardcover book” isn’t a hollowed out tree, that’s about the only pipe material not used so far in your home.

  3. I too suspect trees. They look so peaceful, rooted to the spot, that it's easy to miss the harsh reality that they are out to get us.

  4. Dynamite is a sure fix. At least one stick, unless you can get more. Tell the responding law enforcement that you were scaring birds with firecrackers. That seems to be sufficient to get by with setting off fireworks down here in Florida…

  5. I second Mark. There is no problem that cannot be solved by a suitable application of high explosives.

    In this case, the problem is simply a Charlie Foxtrot. The cause is irrelevant.

  6. Hi Gerard: Worse
    Hi Dave B: Not a careless hookup to the sewer line
    Hi Julie: The ents are friendly here
    Hi Tim: I wish
    Hi Mark: If I had dynamite, this story would have been a week shorter

  7. I understand that one M-80 is roughly equivalent to a quarter stick. Don't nobody sell no fireworks in your AO???

  8. Hope the roots are very small ones and just coming through the joints.
    Now if it is big roots / plug / crushed / cracked pipe and are off your property and on the cities then maybe you can save yourself about $5 grand.
    Have you run a camera down the pipe yet?

  9. All new run from the iron to the city sewer. Try to get the city to cough up for it (one never knows and you can check them for Sanders bumper stickers). The tree roots in the clay pipes are death's own knell for your outflubber.

    Too bad you found the doo doo in there, but no matter. It's gotta go-so to speak.

    That's my distant assessment, but I half expect to hear you say "I can fix this without the huge replacement effort and it'll be sort of a snap." I hope so for your sake; we need you here writing the funny and the wise.

    Hey! I have my own problems. Last night a wind event took off a quarter of one side of the barn roof. Scared the mice half to death, but I slept right through it.

  10. Didja see my little missive in the comments on the "Frog Marching Plumber"? I, too, suspect the tree roots coming in through the jointed clay tile pipes. With your extensive experience and knowledge of all things plumbing, I'm guess you've used a power auger to cut through those kinds of obstructions before. The local Rent-All center (do they have those in Maine?) might have one with a good cutting head, but if you're not going to in-situ line the pipe, you'll need to cut the roots out every year…may as well buy one, then. It's a tool with only one use, but when you need it, nothing else will do.

  11. And the root of the problem is…

    I have a drain field. Downwind from my septic tank. A little old lady lived in our house for 30 years. Pretty soon after she left and we moved in things began to back up. Uh oh. Septic guy came out, popped the top on the tank, said "Uh oh". Anyway, there was a large maple tree right at the far end of the drain field. The four inch drain pipes in the drain field were entirely full of roots. Solid organic matter in the pipe all the way up to the distribution box. All three runs.

    I did what I was told couldn't be done. I carefully dug the gravel off of the top of the pipes, gently lifted the pipes out of their snug little beds and carefully laid new pipes back down. The gravel looked like it had never been used. Covered it all back up and 12 years later all is well.

    Oh yeah. We cut down the maple tree and dug up it's roots. If there is a tree in your yard that is growing extra fast, maybe it's being fertilized? Maybe you are fertilizing it :-0

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