Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sewer Saga

Since we started the construction of our upstairs addition this past spring, we noticed a few clues that something was wrong.  Discoloration and debris on the sides of the toilet and a ring in the unused tub - both in the downstairs (ie, finished basement) bathroom.  Occasional "bloop bloop" sounds from the pipes. All cause for concern, but dismissed because the drains were still working. We figured it had some relation to the construction.

But a few weeks ago, we couldn't dismiss it any more.  The tub backed up with brown sludge containing not only shreds of toilet paper, but a nasty mixture of ... stuff.  So, we called the warranty company.

We had two visits from the company's contractor to clean out the pipes. On his first visit, he wasn't able to clear the problem, and he identified dirt and roots in the muck.  This was a potential problem, because our warranty wouldn't cover a break in the sewer line.  We also learned that the county wouldn't deal with any break occurring on our property.

In order to get a "diagnosis," the first guy came out the second time with a locator.  He ran the transmitter end as far as he could from the access point (the clean-out) in our basement, then walked around with the receiver end on the driveway.  He pointed to a spot about 10 feet from where he estimated the pipe to come out of the house.  His guess was that the pipe out of the house was cast iron, with it being terracotta the rest of the way to the street.  If it was terracotta, a repair job was not likely to solve the problem; it would be better to replace the whole stretch with PVC.

"I can't officially mark this, but that's where I think your break is."

It wasn't.

Turns out that when they built the house in the late 1940s, they ran the sewer line out of the east side of the foundation at a 45 degree angle, turned 45 degrees toward the street, ran about 10 feet to a right-hand 90 degree turn.  That's where the "break" was.  From there the pipe went about 15 feet, and made a couple more 45 degree turns to get to the west corner of our property - a run of 90 feet from outlet to county sewer.

But we didn't know that, yet.  We got estimates for a straight shot - right down the middle of our concrete driveway, 35 feet to the east corner of the street.  We discovered that our homeowner's insurance would cover the replacement of the line and the removal/replacement of the concrete... but NOT the excavation. (Apparently, the driveway and the pipe are part of the residence, but the dirt between them is not. Effin' lawyers...)

We needed estimates (the lowest clocked in at $4,200), schedules (next week? NO! Now, please!), and a lot of planning. Since this was happening in November, right around the 3-day weekend of veterans day, we ended up have to get creative. I took clothes in a gym bag and showered at work for a week; the kids and Kate went to shower at our friend's house; and we spent WAY too much at the laundromat. Eventually, the crew made it out and spent 3 days destroying, learning, and replacing.

But rather than terracotta in a straight shot down the driveway (which was, of course, the first thing torn out), they found 90' of ancient cast iron following that path I described above. And worst (or best) of all: they saw no break.  Nothing in the pipe being ripped out; no obvious cracks; no wet ground showing weeks' worth of seepage anywhere.  All was clear and fine (and now it was all brand new PVC) to the county's pipe.

We had to let the new joints cure overnight, so it was a full 24 hours before we could run the water.  When we did, it still backed up. So out the County came, at 11pm, to run a snake down our newly installed external cleanout.  They pulled about a foot of tree root clump out, called it good and left.

Really?  All of that money, time, inconvenience and effort for a clump of tree root? We're supposed to believe that was all that was causing 90 feet of pipe to fill with water? Was that all that was needed in the first place? I was skeptical, and so was Kate. But perhaps we would be alright.

Turns out, no; Friday night, running a load of laundry, I heard the familiar "bloop bloop" and ran into the bathroom to see the tub filling with murky, cold water.  Out came the County.  They ran the snake.  Nothing.  But miraculously, the water was flowing. Until today. Same thing (at noon instead of midnight, this time!); men + snake = still nothing.

Next step: cameras.  Maybe they'll find some missing mythical creature nesting in the junction of our sewer: the Phantom, an escaped cold-weather Anaconda, or a competent and attractive alternative to Newt Gingrich.  Who knows what watertight abomination could be down there!

Meanwhile, I'm eyeing the drains with suspicion, and waiting for the next Bloop.

To be continued?

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