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Plumbing of age: what every first-time homeowner should know about the sewer system, part two

by on Mar 8, 2007

Our septic series continues. If you haven’t already, you may want to read the first part, well, first. Part 2: Snakes, worms, and severe burns.

In the morning I awoke with the sudden realization that I couldn’t do the one thing I wanted to do most: use the toilet.

I thought of going outside, but it was broad daylight, and my neighbors are not that friendly.

Bodily fluids are great motivators, though, so, at 7:30 in the morning, I lurched out of bed and got the phone book. To my surprise and relief, there was a listing, under ‘Public Works’, for ‘Sewer Complaints/Back-ups’,

This was exactly what I needed! I had a sewer complaint! I had a sewer back-up! These people would help me!

I told the man on the phone what the problem was (poopy basement) and he said my main line was probably clogged somewhere between my house and the street.

I didn’t care what it was, as long as he (or someone like him) was going to come fix it.

But he wasn’t coming, he said. And neither was anyone else. Because the main line, between my house and the street, is not the city’s problem. They only take care of the big sewers, beneath the streets. He advised me to call a plumber, or if I wanted to save money, to get a snake.

A snake is a round or flat piece of flexible metal that can be of varying lengths. At the end it has a pointy tip – either arrow or corkscrew-shaped – which is used to poke through the offending clot.

The plumbers I called said they would charge in the neighborhood of $190 to clear the obstruction.

Within 20 minutes, I was standing at the Home Depot checkout counter with a snake and some Drano.

Back in the milk-bottle room, I set up some 2×4’s to stand on (sewage is remarkably slippery if you’re not careful) and started threading the snake into the murky water. After a few failed tries and a burning sensation in my eyes, I got it through.

After about 40 feet, I ran out of snake, and I thought I felt something give way, so I pulled the flat wire back out.

As I did that, it dawned on me that the snake I was pulling through my hands had just passed through perhaps the 40 most unholy feet of water I would ever encounter in my life. And I decided, with great resolve, that gloves were needed.

When tip of the snake came out, it brought something with it. Like a cat leaving a dead mouse on the front steps, the snake dropped a softball-sized clump of black, dripping, stringy things.

“This is horrid,” I said to myself. “This is not worth saving $190.”

And that was before I realized the clump I was holding (I think they might have been tree roots) was crawling with worms and thin, white slugs.

On the other hand, practically anything is worth saving money. Especially when it comes to fixing things that go wrong with your house. There’s just something priceless about being able to say you fixed it yourself.

Except I couldn’t say that yet. Because, while the water was beginning to drain, it was moving very slowly. And I knew that if my roommates or I flushed even a moderate-sized expulsion, it would end up on the basement floor.

So I went to the hardware store and asked for the strongest drain cleaner they had. Drano hadn’t done it. I didn’t want any prissy foams or gels. I wanted fire, liquid fire.

So they gave me Insta-Flo, a sodium-hydroxide powder that reacts with hot water to produce intense heat which “will burn its way through small roots” and “causes severe burns”, depending on where you apply it.

Back at home, I stood contemplating the “harmful or fatal if swallowed” warning, and it occurred to me that if I were going to die of Insta-Flo poisoning, I didn’t want to do it here. No dignity in that.

So I donned goggles and a face mask as the directions suggested, and commenced pouring. The powder bristled and popped when it touched the hot water I was running through the pipe; the sound of my problems melting.

It sounded nice.

Even better, it worked. An hour and another Insta-Flo application later, the pipe was draining perfectly; it was like a little gurgling creek, right there in my basement.

And, by the way, don’t think there isn’t any sewage in those city creeks. Stay out of there, kids, nature isn’t what it used to be.

So the water was flowing, my skin wasn’t burning, and the slug-clump had been disposed of (in the storm sewer again). Everything was rosy (except all the sewage that had spilled onto the basement floor, but I got rid of that with a snow shovel and, what else, the ShopVac).

And, though it wasn’t easy, I gained a lot from the experience. I now know that there is no household problem so dreadful that it can’t be solved with the right tools and persistence (and a lot of poking). Not to mention dumb luck and self-endangerment.

But I also learned that a house has its own logic, even when it seems as though it’s rebelling against you. When poop is coming out of a hole in the basement, there’s a reason. If there’s a leak in the ceiling, there’s a reason.

And if you know the reasons, you can try to address the problem. It may be difficult. It may be god-awful disgusting. But this is your house, and there’s nothing you can’t handle.

At least, there’s nothing you can’t handle the first time. If there’s a second or third or fourth time, you reach the limit every do-it-your-self homeowner eventually reaches, where you refuse to stand in raw sewage for another minute.

Because owning a house involves learning not only what you’re capable of doing, but also what you’re willing to do. The first category grows as the second category shrinks.

And you call a plumber.

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