Jan 8, 2009

The Great Sewer Chase

It began on New Years Eve.  Early in the day we decided to have the Roto Rooter guy come out and give us a good cleansing, er, rooting.  Nothing major had happened, just a problem with slow drains.  Something usually cured by the removal of roots from our sewer output line to the street.  We'd done it ever year for years and skipped it last year and thought it would be a good idea to nip it in the bud right away.  Especially since we had guests coming..

Ok, let's back up a bit.  A hundred years?  When they built the house they typically (and in our case) connected the main house water output, which was a cast iron pipe (ours was 4" dia.), to a collection of two foot clay pipes connected to one another simply by fitted ends.  Not even glued.   In the old days some leakage into or out of the pipes was considered good.  It kept the system clean.  But those spaces allow roots to get in there and block the line.  Sometimes it's a big root that catches "matter" and causes a blockage.  In other cases, it's a root mass of many fine roots (image not our own or our system) which create something of a filter.  Water still gets through, but it's slow.  And "matter" is more easily stopped for blocking the line, as well.

Well, we had some sort of issue -- the plumber we had out on New Years eve showed up at 5:30pm.  A quick job of snaking the line clean turned into a bit more complicated job.  And then they had to send out for more line, as they'd gotten to the end of theirs.  They came back and kept up the grinding, but it just wasn't giving way.  We rang in the New Year with friends in our living room, but the poor guys were just packing up at that time.  They'd given it their all but had to come back the next day with a smaller blade.

The next day we were heading up to the cabin, but waited to see how the situation developer.  By midday we knew it was a lost cause.  The theory was that there was a blockage that the blades could not clear, but they had this jetting system...  Hydroblasting.

Monday they came back with the jetting system, which would blow massive amounts of water down the line in the hopes of forcing any blockages out of the line.  After a day, it was another lost cause.

At this point it's a collapsed pipe.  Got to be.  These guys have some cool waterproof cameras on wires with lights and all sorts of cool gadgets.  They can literally see what's going on in there.  Right up to the "blockage."  Tuesday night it's declared a pipe collapse and the digger will be in Wednesday to figure out where they're going to have to dig.

Wednesday they decide what's needed is to replace the section outside of the house that was a collapse (possibly 10 feet total) and the connection from the 4" cast iron pipe to the clay 6" pipe.  So we'll replace the broken stuff and the non-broken stuff will get sheathed (a PVC pipe shoved through it to act as a support/replacement).  This will also add a clean-out pipe that makes it so much easier to hydro blast or rotoroot the thing again -- the irony of course being the hopeful lack of a need for those things, since it'll be nice clean and smooth pipe.

This, of course, means we need to make a few changes in the basement.  So my computer desk and all of the technology I own, as well as my hobby/woodworking desk and all of my hobby stuff has to get moved so they can dig up the floor underneath.  If you know anything about me, you must know that my hobby stuff and my computer stuff are pretty .. voluminous?  And I have an evening to get it all moved.  (Upside, the rearranging of the basement once it's all over.)

So now it's Thursday and they're bringing in the big guns.  The digger: 

All of the appropriate people have been out to mark the location of the gas, electric, water, etc lines.  And now the deciding moment -- the dig:

We're actually the third house in a row on our block to do this.  The next door neighbors had to dig a hole last year and the next house down had to do it, also.  In January -- in the street.  They had to have a charcoal heater installed in the street to help thaw out the asphalt.  Took three days.  But we had a BBQ breakfast on it in that time.  For ours we really didn't want to have to deal with that.  But our guys said it wouldn't need thawing, that they could just dig through.
After much scraping (and banging of the business end of the shovel) and quite a bit of jackhammering they get through the 6 to 8 inches of permafrost like material and start bringing up dirt.  The ground beneath was actually warm enough that the dirt was steaming when it got piled up. 

By the time I ran out for some lunch (and a public restroom, yay!) they had a hole in the basement and were "looking for" the pipe in the front yard.  They were down deep enough that a guy could stand in the outside hole and still have a foot to go up before the ground level.  But they hadn't had to destroy any sidewalks.  The rain garden is hanging a bit precariously over the hole, but seems like it might survive eventually).
When I went out to pick up the kids from the bus stop (4:15pm, 6 or 7 hours after the dig started) they had located the pipe further down, but it had angled down a bit and done some odd twists and turns.  Surprisingly, this is not a deep hole.  The guy in charge has done a lot of work here in Minneapolis and said it wasn't uncommon to have to go this deep, and sometimes needed to go up to 28 feet down.  I have no idea how they do that!

 In the photo above you can see bits of pipe.  Those are the two foot sections of clay pipe.  When they were placed in the ground Charles Lindbergh was six years old.  And it would be another twenty years of flushes before he'd cross the Atlantic in his airplane.  Sixty years after that pipe was put in the ground Alvin "Creepy" Karpis the gangster finally left Alcatraz prison.  

The pipe in the above picture literally fell apart when they dropped it on that pile of sand.  It had been enduring toilet flushes, laundry loads, and baths and showers for over a hundred years.

Things moved well once they located the outside pipe, and before long we were thrilling to the fumes of PVC cement and the possibility of a working system by the end of the night.  They had pledged to work late to get it done.

The flood lights and flashlights were the first indication things weren't going well.  They had brought back the generator with the hydro blast jet and I was worried that there were more issues.  As they left it at the end of the night the system was looking great from the inside of the house out to the hole.  We even had drying cement in the basement.  Eli placed a hand print in it and I put his initials above, and in trying to keep Lily equal, Jill carried her down from bed to put Lily's hand in the cement.  We put her initials in and called it a night.  

Unfortunately, the pipes from the house lead to.. the hole.  From the hold to the city main there's an issue.  As it stands, it sounds like the pipe goes out to the street and then takes a 90 degree angle straight down, presumably to drop in to the main.  Unfortunately, they can't get the camera or snake to get past the turn, and it sounds like it's blocked or collapsed beyond that.  So they'll finish up the job they came to do by having it all inspected and buried and summed up.  But we'll still have a blocked line.  Except this time it's in the street.

For a day we have a drain pipe that leads to a big hole in the front yard.  I took a shower anyway.  Our own little third world country in our front yard accepting my shower water.

So we'll double the bill and have the next team from the company come out and cut the street and work out the problem there.  Unfortunately, working in the street means not just an inconvenience to the neighbors, but stricter code and OSHA requirements and a whole new level of hassle.  And we won't know until tomorrow if that means we get to set up a thawing rig in the street like the neighbors had to.  So we're looking at next week before we get a working sewer system.  We'll get those New Years dishes done one of these days...

Random other things:
  • The pipe coming from the house apparently had a 60 degree turn in it that consisted of one pipe going straight and another pipe at 60 degrees - no joint.
  • At some point in the front yard the pipe went down, but then came back up for a pointed arch.  Not a curve, but a "lets make a couple more sharp turns" kind of thing.
  • The poor guys who have been working on this are heroes as far as we're concerned.
  • The average temperature has been about 5 degrees F.
  • Our neighbors rock the house.  They've let us use their facilities with no complaint -- mostly because they were in the exact same situation last year.  We can't thank them enough!
  • And at least this happened at the END of the holiday season.  We had three separate groups of folks come through the house for various stays throughout the holidays, and it would have been a nightmare had we not had a working water system.
  • I have a new understanding of the concept of basic household niceties.  The ability to output water is an amazing thing and sorely missed when it's gone.
  • Insurance only covers stuff that gets wrecked.  So unless it backed up and messed up our carpet, or something like that, this is all just home maintenance costs.  
One thing I've learned though, is that there's always something else down the line.  And until we can send a tennis ball from our toilet to the city main line I'm not going to believe it's over.  But once it's done it's done and we won't have to worry about it.  We knew we were getting into these things when we bought a (now) 100 year old house, and we love it dearly.  But I do have to say I would have loved the convertible sports car that this project could have afforded us.  :)  So far.

1 comment:

Janet said...

We had to have the same thing done when we lived in our old house. BIG, DEEP hole in the front yard...to get down to the old, sad, broken, erroded, collapsed sewer line. I didn't document with photos...I got the heck out of there. Since our house sat up on a hill, they had to dig DEEP to get down to the level of the street...down, down, down. We feel your pain.