How I Spent My Memorial Day Weekend

Or, as I like to call it, “Old Pipe, New Pipe, Brown Pipe, Blue Pipe.”

My house was built in 1950. There are lots of annoyances because of this. Plaster instead of drywall, 2-prong outlets that needed to be replaced and properly grounded, blah blah blah. But let me tell you, so far nothing has pissed us off as much as the plumbing. There has been one other plumbing adventure in this house that consumed an entire weekend and multiple trips to multiple hardware stores, but in terms of sheer pain in the ass, that one was a 6. This one was a 9.

I didn’t know this because I’ve never lived in or worked on a house this old, but apparently back before ABS pipes were introduced around 1970, it was standard at least in this part of the country for houses to be fitted with terra cotta sewer lines in two or three foot sections. Yeah, you heard me right. Terra cotta. Like your mom’s flower pots. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Last year, we lost our toilets. It was somewhat sudden, actually. One day everything was working fine, the next day flushing the toilet made a funny bubbling noise in the bathtub, and the day after that, ker-BLOCK. Nothing.

We called in a plumber who dug in and installed a cleanout plug (which we should have already had, but didn’t – joy) and then ran his rooter through. He managed to unclog the line, but his theory was that a tree root somewhere had invaded the terra cotta pipes. He suspected that he cleared a small block but that the original problem remained. In a year or two we might have trouble again. Boy, he was smart.

We started noticing the bubbling again about two weeks ago and called the plumber in. He dug around a bit and ran his rooter, but it didn’t correct the problem. He said he could start digging around to find the problem, but it would be $95 per hour to do so. We decided that there was a strong likelihood that the plumber was right and that the problem was underneath the deck. I was off on Thursday to go to my son’s end-of-school party, so we decided that I’d start tackling the problem that afternoon. On Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning (I forget), the toilets completely blocked again, turning the situation from an annoyance into an emergency again. Oh, joy.

Thursday morning I ran down to Wal-Mart before the party and bought a couple of shovels. On the way back, we stopped by Home Depot where I grabbed a wrecking bar and a sledgehammer. We got home about 1:30, I changed clothes, and got to work on it at about 2.

Step one was to rip up the deck near where the problem might be. Right? So I picked one nearby 5/4″x6″ decking board and started to pull it up. I thought it would be nice to have the option to reuse the decking boards, even if we probably wouldn’t, so I tried to be careful. No dice. It started to split at about the third joist, and continued to split all the way to the house. The second board split as well. At that point my wife said “These things aren’t going to survive anyway. You may as well cut them. I disagreed, and worked on it for a bit longer before deciding, screw it, she’s right, and hauling out the old Sawzall and starting to hack the bastards at every joist.

At first I had my wife pulling the nails out of the boards, but it rapidly became clear that that was a huge waste of effort. I asked her to just start hauling them out behind the garage, to tell the kids not to play near them, and I’d pull or cut them out later on.

About 4 or so we decided we’d pulled enough of the decking boards to start digging. We knew about where the pipe came out of the house, and we knew where the cleanout pipe ran, so we figured we could guess about where the old pipe made a 90-degree turn. So I started digging where we knew the line to the master bathroom (a fairly recent addition) ran, and my wife started prospecting for the elbow.

Under normal circumstances, we would have been right and could have found the elbow – but we weren’t right. After that became clear, I just told my wife to save her energy and I’d just follow the master bathroom line so we’d know where the bastard went.

Conveniently, the concrete patio under the deck had already been broken to lay the master bathroom line, so I didn’t have to break concrete there. So clearly they’d broken the patio, built the master bathroom, and then later added the deck. They also apparently backfilled the trench with storebought topsoil or something, because it was very loose and made for easy digging. It didn’t take too long for me to find the PVC pipe to the master bathroom.

What you’ll notice in the picture below are a few other, more important things. Not the hot and cold water lines (dark grey parallel lines in the center of the picture) or even the naked electrical supply line in the lower center, just to the left of the joist (nice of them not to put that one in conduit, huh? Luckily I didn’t find it the hard way). Not even that the pipe doesn’t follow a straight line. Nope. The fun part is that there is no T-joint for the master bathroom. There’s a fucking Y. The main sewer line doesn’t run perpendicular to the house. It runs diagonally away from it. You know what that meant? That meant I had to cut up more of my fucking deck to follow the lines. Hoo-boy. This is where we knocked off for the evening, just before 8 on Thursday night.

Just below the Y the white pipe disappears. That’s because they dumped the 4″ PVC line directly into the 6″ terra cotta line and backfilled around it a bit. Woo-hoo! That’s where I stopped to wait for the plumber. I had no experience with terra cotta pipe and had no clue how to deal with it. One way or another, though, one thing was obvious: There was no leak or tree root or anything apparently wrong with the PVC pipe. And unlike the PVC pipe, the concrete patio under the deck but OVER the terra cotta pipe was still whole. That sumbitch had to go. So that’s where I started about 7:30 on Friday morning.

It’s always fun to find out that beneath the 4″ of concrete there’s a nice, even layer of red brick. The dumbasses poured concrete right over a brick patio without removing it. Assholes. Do you know how brick crumbles when sledged from above? Or how much of a pain in the ass it is to dig a hole, looking for something ceramic, when you keep hitting big chunks of brick?

So after a few hours of sledging and hauling huge-ass chunks of concrete out behind the garage (with some help from my wife and even my son) and a few hours of cutting up more decking boards and digging, the plumber showed up around 11. He surmised the situation, predicted that there was a leak a little farther along between the PVC Y and the elbow toward the cleanout. After half an hour of digging, we found out that he was right. There was a golf-ball sized hole in the top of the pipe that was slowly allowing dirt to dribble into the pipe until it formed a solid blockage. Holy hell, I’m only amazed it took that long to block up the pipes completely.

(I’ve spared you a few gross pictures. You can thank me later.)

It was at that point that my wife and I conferred and decided: Fuck this. The deck was already half ripped up. We could replace the pipe from the house to the elbow and have the problem fixed – but we’d be leaving the terra cotta from the elbow to the cleanout, with the possibility of having to come back at some future time, rip up the REST of the deck, and fix that as well. We decided to go ahead and do it all right now. So while the plumber cleared the blockage and dug up the pipe from the house to the elbow, I sawed three feet of decking board all the way across the front end of my deck.

Then I jumped my ass back between the joists and started digging down to the pipe underneath where I’d just cut. It was about then that the plumber paused for a second, looked back and forth for a minute, and said, “Damn. That hole over there sure does look deeper than over here. You got a level?” I fetched my level, and sure enough, the goddamned sewer line was inclined slightly toward the house instead of away from it as it should have been. Ain’t that grand. Yep, good thing we were replacing the whole shebang. At about 3, another plumber showed up and started pulling up the pipe where I’d trenched.

After all the old pipe was pulled up, from the house to the elbow:

From the elbow to the cleanout:

The guys left at about 3:30 to grab something to eat and pick up some parts. They got back about 4:30 and went to work. Putting the new pipe in the trench was the easy part.

They were done before 6, actually. My wife went out for subs while I backfilled the trenches until about 7:30.

On Saturday morning, I went back to Wal-Mart to do some grocery shopping and to buy a small angle grinder, and I then spent about another hour and a half just using the angle grinder to cut the nails out of the ripped-up decking boards so I wouldn’t be so worried about the kids until I could get rid of them.

But that’s it for now. I still have to, oh, rebuild my deck. But that can wait for another week. For now, I can use my own bathroom in my own house, and that’ll have to do.

How was your Memorial Day holiday?

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15 Responses

  1. Sheesh. Much better than yours. Our last house had been built in 1931 (we were the 3rd owners, which was kind of cool), so we had the whole plaster walls and ancient plumbing to contend with. Thankfully, my sister-in-law and her husband build houses and remodel for a living so we were constantly inviting them over to “visit”. We never had anything like that happen with the plumbing, but I was always a little worried. I don’t miss those kinds of concerns (or just having 1 bathroom and very tiny closets), but I do miss the original stained woodwork, the arched entryways, the milk box, and the coal chute.

    Good luck with your deck re-building project!

    We almost bought a house about that vintage when we moved here, but right as we were sitting down to write up an offer, my wife and I looked at each other and decided to come back to look at this house again. We ended up going with it. In the rare occasions when I pass that other house, I’m glad we went where we did. That house had some definite bonuses, but definite minuses as well. But for all the griping we have about our house, we absolutely adore our neighborhood, and that means a lot.

    If my dad and my brother were within 200 miles, they’d be here this weekend to help out. They both work around the construction business, and my dad in particular is handy at just about everything (except plumbing and electrical). But nope, it’s a solid day’s drive for them to get here. Barring a miracle, I’m on my own. But given the scope of this project, I should be okay. The hard part is always the posts and joists, and those will be staying. All I really have to do is replace the decking, although I’ll probably take the opportunity to replace the handrails and probably the lattice as well. Maybe even replace the lattice below the handrails with pickets.

  2. I remember when I was about 10 my dad had to do the same thing in the house that I grew up in. It was insane and incredibly gross. My dad was pretty good with the plumbing and he didn’t have to call a plumber, but looking back on it and remembering all of the swearing and the days of having to go to neighbors houses to use the bathroom I’m sure he wished he had called a plumber.

    He did take that opportunity to completely rebuild our deck though and that was just more swearing…

    I’m glad that you can use your bathroom again though.

    My last plumbing adventure was a DIY. That one was trying. This one was a whole hell of a lot bigger. Maybe not more complex in the end, now that I saw what they did, but bigger. And the thought of slightly screwing up the plumbing and finding out AFTER I’d rebuilt the deck is, believe it or not, even more daunting than, oh, having to clear out the blockage to begin with. And that definitely would have qualified as probably the grossest thing I’ve ever done.

    I know the deck will be a pain in the ass, but I’m confident that I can handle it. There’ll be swearing, of course, but that’s true of any day around me.

  3. Gee, and I thought I had all the fun when it was ‘suggested’ I move boulders (not rocks, not pebbles, bloody boulders. Well, bloody due to my blood painted on them) from one area of the yard to another to make room for more planting.

    A neighbor came over (AFTER I was done, I might add) looked at one boulder and said, “You moved that by yourself? It must weigh over three hundred pounds.” My retroactive hernia thanks you, Mr. Weights And Measures.

    Then, when I can’t lift my arms high enough to sip a beer, I sit to watch the French Open and guess what? Yep, raining in France.

    Yeah, I’ll remember this day.

    Holy hell. I think my answer would have been “A glacier put those boulders there, and they can sit there until the glaciers come back and decide to move ’em.”

  4. Impressive work! We once lived in an old house that had lovely screw in fuses that you could sometimes jimmy with a piece of foil or a penny. Oh yes and the lead pipes that woud sometimes rust out causing water to spray into the plastering in the walls.

    Oh, crap, I’m not a superstitious person but that make me want to knock on wood or something. I haven’t had the horror of that one yet.

  5. Actually, I think I had the better end of the deal with just having to rake the yard. But on the bright side, since you replaced all the piping, you don’t have to do it later on down the road.

    That’s what we keep telling ourselves…

  6. Fricken hell!

    But hey, good thing you’re handy. All that digging would have cost you a fortune if you couldn’t do it yourself.

    I don’t know about “handy,” a trained gorilla could use a shovel or a sledgehammer – but yes, at the $95/hour the plumber charged, I saved us about $1000-1200. I’ll take it.

  7. Geez. I thought I had replied to this yesterday.

    You know you have become delirious from work when you start talking like Dr. Seuss.

    I’m glad you survived and that you have flushable toilets again. Life is not good when your commode is nothing but a decorative piece.

    Ain’t THAT the truth. Gas-station bathrooms are bad enough when they’re not your default option!

  8. At least your public restroom was snake free:

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,359587,00.html

    Umm. Uhh. Yeah.

    But what do you expect from Australia? An Ozzie friend of mine once sent me a link to a web page that I dearly wish I could find. It was a discussion of Australian wildlife, centered around the theme that there are only three kinds of animals in Australia: 1) Weird 2) Poisonous 3) Sheep.

  9. Holy hell, Batman! That was almost tiring to read. That’s just.. wow.

    It could have been worse, believe it or not. It could have backed up into the house or something. BLEAGH.

  10. […] of my goofy ass for you guys, if not actually record a short video. But then there was that whole plumbing snafu, and we just never ended up getting it […]

  11. […] 1)  Get rid of the huge pile of shit behind my garage from the Memorial Day fiasco. […]

  12. […] my measurements and preparing my big lumber order so I can use the Labor Day weekend to repair my busticated deck. You know, tear it up on Memorial Day, repair it on Labor Day.  Symmetry and all […]

  13. […] arrived.  This is the topsoil that Dys ordered to finish filling in and leveling off the huge-ass trenches from Memorial Day.   We backfilled the trenches at the time, of course, but since we pulled out a honking terra […]

  14. […] Nothing big planned for the weekend – right now I’m just content that it’ll be a lot more restful than last Memorial Day weekend! […]

  15. HOLY. SHIT. (Literally.) That is some kind of story. I am awfully glad it’s behind you, though…

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