There is a seemingly endless list of the joys of home-ownership, particularly when it comes to owning an older house. Our first home was built about 30 years before we acquired it. Those delights include electricity and plumbing, amid a medley of other issues. If you’re old enough, you may remember glass fuses. We had the usual assortment of modern appliances like a clothes washer, electric dryer, electric water heater and a dishwasher. All of which drew far more amperage than their ancestors that were around when the house was built. We learned quickly that you could only run two devices at a time or you were swapping out fuses every time someone used the toaster.
The house sewage drains went from the plumbing devices (sinks, shower and toilets), two floors, straight down to a six inch cast iron soil pipe in the basement. Keep that in mind as it’s important later in the story.
Originally, the house had been equipped with a septic tank. The main 6 inch drain pipe went straight out the back of the house to where the tank used to be. In subsequent years, the tank was removed by the previous homeowners and proceeded from there to street where it hooked up to the new municipal sewer line. Why is that important? Well, for good drainage allowing the waste water to leave the house, you need something called “pitch”. The drain pipe needs to be on an angle so gravity can carry the water out of the house efficiently. This is where our problem begins. Remember the septic tank that was removed? The spot where the pipe entered the tank from the house was only a few inches lower than the starting point, some 50 feet away in the house. We came to find out after we were in the house for a couple of years, that this does not constitute sufficient pitch. To go out to the street, a 90 degree elbow was needed. Stay with me, now. I know it seems like a lot of detail but without it you can’t get the full impact.
The second floor bathroom toilet drain traveled about 20 feet to the basement. Then, the drain pipe had to travel across the basement to a trap (again, important later), then out to the 90 degree elbow (that’s where the tank was). With all that travel, there was only a few inches of pitch.
As time went on with 2 adults and two kids in the house, the waste water combination of liquid and solid waste (need I elaborate?) passed quite well out to the sewer. However, and here’s where our story really begins with the rushing “black water” striking the elbow deep in the back yard and bouncing back a little each time, slowing down the flow and consequently building up residue in the pipes.
The slow draining due to the lack of pitch, allows the trap to build up with solids, eventually plugging it up. So, one day, both toilets won’t flush and begin to back up. The more serious problem is on the second floor. When it was innocently flushed on that late afternoon, our home was filling with the aroma of my wife’s tasty homemade chicken soup. The pot was simmering on the cook-top while she diligently went about her other household chores.
The upstairs bathroom was inconveniently positioned directly over the kitchen. As the liquids began to gather in between the bathroom floor and the kitchen ceiling, they were slowly seeping through the plaster. Now, if you’ve ever owned a house with plaster walls and ceilings, you know that those pesky cracks are hard to hide. It was the 70’s and suspended ceilings with florescent lighting were popular. Unattractive maybe, but none the less fashionable. Those channels that held the tiles in place, made for quaint little aqueducts to move any water-like substances over the kitchen. Well, they dumped their flow right over the stove straight into the boiling soup. In the days ahead we bleached that thing, scrubbed it, put it through the dishwasher and let it dry outside in the sun for a week. We never looked at that pot the same again. As we talk about this story, we think it may be lurking in the cabinets somewhere. We think that this may be a good time to buy some new pots.
So, Olga then had to decide what to do with the soup. What seemed to be the obvious answer was to dump the tainted solution into the downstairs toilet. That had a bad outcome. Another gallon of liquid, plus chicken and veggies, had no place to go. The commode barked it back up, flooding the downstairs bathroom.
As she began disinfecting the stove, the rest of our compact kitchen and both bathrooms, I figured it high time to head into the basement, thinking that I may have procrastinated a bit too long in addressing the plumbing issue. I consider myself a pretty handy guy, so I figure that I’ll unplug the trap without calling a plumber. After all, it’s only a larger version of a sink drain trap. How complicated it that?
I grab my trusty pipe wrench and spend the next 30 minutes trying to get the top off the trap that probably had not been removed in years. By now, I’m frustrated and sweating from pounding with a hammer on the pipe wrench to get the rusty plug to turn. It begins to move. I figured that I had it licked. I gingerly remove the top of the trap, being very careful not to release any “water” into the basement that could be built up in the pipes. The threaded cover comes off and to my surprise and relief, it’s dry. No water in the trap. Now what do I do? I can’t afford a plumber so there has to be another way. Curiosity gets the best of me so I grab an old piece of hardwood flooring and begin to poke around in the trap to see if I can loosen things up a bit. Well, I poke the incoming side of the trap and the plug releases. Remember how far away the toilets are and that one of the bathrooms is on the second floor?
Maybe I should have been paying better attention in Physics class. Turns out that Sir Isaac Newton was right. Gravity takes over and all the liquids and solids, built up for 60 feet of piping, comes whooshing through the trap, creating a bubbling brown geyser, about 3 feet high. Gallons of “material” flood the basement. Fortunately, I was standing with my face right over the opening. Startled, I jumped back and caught the initial “flush” with my clothing.
To make matters worse, there was a section of the basement that had been used as a root cellar at one time before we had purchased the house. Consequently, there was no concrete in an area about six feet square. As luck would have it, there was a nice pitch in the floor from the area surrounding the aforementioned geyser.
We cleaned up the floor with a bleach solution and Olga burned my clothing and disinfected me with various soap concoctions. We made a pretty fair attempt at digging out some of the wet soil from the basement corner. The smell was minimal and we thought we had done a good job decontaminating the place until about a week later when a crop of mushrooms appeared. No, we didn’t harvest them, if that’s what your thinking.