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

by on Mar 7, 2007

I wrote this essay shortly after moving into my house, and I’m digging it out after being reminded by another first-time-homeowner’s post about the joys of main-line backups. Part 1: The sewer never sleeps.

There was poop coming out of a hole in my basement.

I came home near midnight. I had some papers I wanted to put away. I went down in the dark, and when I stepped off the last stair, I heard a splash. No big deal, though. I’d had little puddles of moisture in the basement before. It’s an old house; basements aren’t perfect.

But when I turned on the lights (camera zoom out from close-up of foot to wide shot of basement) I was standing in a vast, shallow swamp.

“Man, that’s a lot of rainwater,” I thought. “Wonder where the leak is…”

After a moment of leak-searching the walls I realized something: I hadn’t rained that day.

Or the day before. Not at all.

So it wasn’t rainwater.

And, now that I thought about it, it didn’t smell like rainwater. 

I looked down at my feet, which were soaked an inch high, and – I’m embarrassed to say it – I jumped up onto a dry patch. I had the reaction everyone has when they realize their basement smells like poop: panic.

Regaining composure, I began to investigate. The puddle was seeping from a wall behind the workbench.

Behind the workbench is a little rectangular room, about the size of a picnic table. The natural-gas meter is in there, as well as some shelves and a dozen old, empty milk bottles.

I opened the door. The light was off, and it was black. But the smell was unmistakable: it was poop.

Feces. Sewage.

A horrible mix of sweet and bitter. The kind of smell you taste in your mouth. Although, by this point, the only taste I had in my mouth was of gagging.

The light revealed a gruesome scene. There, in about two inches of standing water, below the blissfully odorless milk bottles, were a few turds, a bunch of spent toilet paper, and various other relics of bathroom trips past.

All of this (you can open your eyes now, I’ll stop with the descriptions) was coming out of a two-foot square hole in the middle of the floor.

I braced myself in the doorway, and poked at the hole with a mop handle. This revealed nothing, except that the consistency of sewage is a little like soaking-wet leaves. And that poking a septic puddle in your basement is a very, very slow way to resolve your problem.

Now, I am a young person. I had lived in this house for less than a year, so perhaps I did not know many things which an older, more experienced home-owner would have known.

But as I stood there, in a state of raw-sewage confusion, I had to ask myself, “Why is there poop coming out of my basement?”

I mean, what possible justification could that have? There is just no reason why it should happen. None. Ever.

And yet, owning a home is not about what should happen, it’s about what does happen. And what did happen, apparently, was that the poop highway was backed up, and the sewage had taken the only exit available. My basement.

So, though the hour was late, I did the only thing I could think of. I turned to the only tool I trust in situations like this: the ShopVac.

After a while, the ShopVac’s little pot-belly was full. I couldn’t dump it in the basement sink, primarily because I was afraid it would come right back out the hole in the floor, and I’d be stuck in some torturous Tom-and-Jerry-like poop-loop.

So I girded up my barrel of waste, and brought it out into the street, where I released the sludge into the sewers from whence it came.

After two more rounds of this, the floor was mostly dry, and I was feeling rightly proud of myself for handling the emergency so well. So I stood there, at the base of the steps, my fists upon my hips, chin up, hair blowing in the putrid air.

And that’s when I heard the door open and close upstairs. My roommate was home, and I could hear his footsteps going up the stairs, toward the bathroom.

Shortly, I heard another door close, and then, a little while later, the sound I was dreading: the toilet flushed.

With my eyes I traced the imaginary path the fresh waste was taking down the bowels of my house. I looked at my watch; I knew what was coming.

I looked at what was left of the puddle beneath the workbench. With horror, I noticed it was growing. Creeping out from behind the walls.

Something was wrong, and I had only addressed the symptom, not the cause. But by then it was almost 2 a.m., and dark, poopy basements start feeling pretty creepy at that hour. 

So I turned out the lights and went upstairs to sleep. The water could go on seeping in the dark.

Read on to Part 2: Snakes, worms, and severe burns

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