(pardon my French)
One morning in the fall of 2003 I took a shower, and the drain was slow. The tub filled up a little as I showered. I figured I’d have to clean out some hair or something from the tub drain sometime soon. But then I was done with my shower and happened to flush the toilet. Two alarming things happened: first, the level of water in the tub went up. With a few little black specks floating out of the drain just to prove I wasn’t imagining it. And second, a little water seeped out from under the toilet onto the floor.
“That can’t be good.”
When I got home from work, the tub was empty. But when I ran the tub at all, it filled right back up and more water seeped from under the toilet. I went into the basement to see what was happening down there. The laundry tub was dry. Usually when the main line clogs the shower and kitchen back up into the laundry tub. And in fact that had happened a month before and I’d paid a guy to rod out my sewer.
I looked at the cleanout on the bathroom stack. It was pretty secure. I looked in the room that had once been a half bath. The handwash sink was full of brown water and slowly dripping on the floor. The ceiling was dripping from the seepage happening in the real bathroom. I looked at the big yellow plastic plug in the floor where there was in earlier days a toilet. It was moist. It should not have been moist. I reached out toward it. I touched the wingnut that worked the compression mechanism that was keeping it in place. I hadn’t even started turning it when it let loose, and a geyser of bathroom waste of all descriptions (shower water, handwash water, and toilet outflow) erupted from the hole, shooting at least a foot or two into the air and falling back all over the floor, my shoes, everywhere.
It seems that there was a blockage just past the pipe for the basement toilet, before where the branch for the kitchen and laundry attaches. So the 10 feet of pipe coming down from the bathroom above was completely full. And under a lot of pressure from gravity. So when the plug let loose (it was only held in by friction. It was meant to keep sewer gas out of the basement. It wasn’t intended to hold this), the water tried to find its own level—Shitgeyser.
My house is under a big ol’ tree. Technically on the neighbor’s property, this tree sits between our two houses and totally shades them. It’s huge. Easily 50′ tall. It keeps my house cool in the summer. I love the tree.
But big trees have big root systems. And they’re hungry. The roots work their way into the joints between the clay drain pipes. There they find lots of nutrients, and they grow. It turns out that the guy I paid the month before had only done half: there’s a cleanout at the front of the house so you can rod from the house to the street (and he’d pulled a wad of roots the size of a woodchuck out of that), but there’s a second one at the back of the house, on the bathroom stack, for rodding the part under the house. He’d done the easy one and left. The drain was flowing, so he thought that was good enough.
I called him back to finish the job I’d paid him for. He came. He worked. He swore. He said there was no way to rod that section out, because the rod kept getting diverted into the little branch for that downstairs toilet. He said someone else may have special heads for the auger to get it around that bend, but he was not able to and we might have to break open the floor, etc. I swore. I called a different plumber. Their ad in the yellow pages said they would rod any line for $40. But when he got to my house it was $225. He yelled at me. I yelled at him. He left. I called his office. They said he was right: the $40 price was only for easy-to-access lines. Not for basements. I said the ad said “Any line”. She hung up on me. I called another plumber.
This was a guy I’d worked with before (He had just a little while before repaired the hot water faucet I mentioned in the story of the mixing valve), but who was not specifically a drain guy. He said it’d be $125-300 for him to take care of it. I said that was fine, because I’d rather pay a person who quotes a real price than the bait-and-switch jerk, even if it ends up being more. No way am I going to reward sleazy business practices.
This guy came at 0-dark-30 the next morning with a helper. They got past the spot that had stymied the first guy in like 10 minutes. No special heads for the rod, just an understanding of physics and geometry that the first guy had apparently lacked. They spent an hour rodding out the whole line to the street. 105′ of rod.
At one point in the process, all the cold water taps in the house were on, including the one in the basement handwash sink. But the basement handwash sink drain was clogged (by stuff that had been forced back up it during the time the stack was filling up; that’s why the stack had been able to fill instead of draining out through this sink), so the water overflowed the handwash sink and added to the (now somewhat dry) mess from the fountain of ordure. When they discovered that, after the clog was gone, while the one guy was still working on the rod, his helper got a squeegee, opened the yellow plug and cleaned up the lake of poo in my basement, squeegeeing it down the hole. I could have kissed them. But they were covered in sewage.
All in all this fiasco cost me about $500 including the money I paid the first guy who did half the job. What I learned is that rodding out the main drain of your house is easy. When things backed up again a few years later (because the tree keeps trying…), I rented the machine and did it myself and it cost me about $100. It’s easy, somewhat dirty, smelly work. You can do it.