Adventures at the Intersection of Homeownership And Sewage

by Jake Mohan

It started with black dirt around the basement’s floor drain, discovered just a couple weeks after my wife and I moved into the house we’d just bought. Because I’d only rented before then, and don’t tend to learn new things until there’s an immediate necessity to, I’d never had occasion to know much about home maintenance beyond filling holes in the wall with toothpaste and hoping my landlord didn’t notice.

But even we knew that stuff was supposed to go into, not out of, the floor drain, so I went online and found a sewer guy named Rick, and Amanda called him. We scheduled the appointment for Saturday morning. Amanda would be in class, and I’d be left to deal with Rick.

No sooner had Rick arrived than the first crisis arose. Friendly and voluble, goofy but kind of blustery, gray-haired and large-bellied like we hope all skilled laborers will be, Rick lumbered downstairs and immediately worked himself into a lather of panicked disbelief.

“Oh no. Oh, this isn’t good. This isn’t good at all.”

Still half-asleep, I followed Rick into the basement where he was standing at the foot of the stairs looking at the knobby PVC valve protruding from the wall. It was there that I received my first plumbing lesson, still barefoot and shivering in my pajamas, my caffeine-withdrawal headache already setting in.

The people who sold us the house, an extremely friendly brother-and-sister contracting team who flip houses all over town, had done a spectacular job on the house. They’d all but gutted it, salvaging a structure on the verge of condemnation and putting in new floors, windows, appliances — pretty much everything except the walls themselves. It was the perfect purchase for someone like me, an unmanly man whose expertise with maintenance and engineering pretty much starts and stops with changing a bike tire. It was move-in ready, everything brand new and fully functional.

Except for the plumbing. Rick explained why: The cleanout valve, usually in the basement of a house, is where one accesses the house’s main sewer line so it can be cleaned with a sewer snake, commercially known as a Roto-Rooter. Over the years, the sewage main that runs from a house to the city’s sewers under the streets gets clogged with things people aren’t supposed to flush down toilets, along with roots, which inevitably work their way into pipes through the couplings or cracks. An old house — in our case, one built in 1900 — is especially susceptible, and its sewer line needs to be cleaned almost every year.

The problem was that the sellers had installed a useless cleanout valve, one that sat at an acute angle to the sewer main, impossible to get a snake through. Rick suspected that the structural malfeasance was more extensive than that, but first he’d have to remove part of the wall to find out. This was not as involved a process as I imagined; in under two minutes he used a box-cutter to slash away at the sheetrock until there was a 2×2’ hole in the wall surrounding the valve. But this only sent him further into a spiral of shock and dismay. He stood up, brushed off his pants, and said, “This is worse that I thought. This is totally illegal.”

Illegal? Could inanimate objects be illegal? Well, guns and drugs, I suppose. But walls? plumbing? Renovated dream houses? How could any part of that be illegal?

As Rick continued fulminating, I eventually grasped the vague outlines: While they’d competently renovated the rest of the house, the sellers had cut corners on the plumbing, and it wasn’t compliant with city code. Rick suspected that they hadn’t paid a city inspector — pulled a permit, in the parlance of our times — to look at the plumbing before they walled it up, so the private inspector we hired when we bought the house wouldn’t see it, either.

Rick called his friend Tom, a plumber. If I’d thought Rick was eccentric, I hadn’t seen anything yet. Tom was the Kramer to his Seinfeld. Leather-skinned and gray-mustached, Tom swaggered into the house, took one look at me, and asked me if I was a model. I still hadn’t had any coffee, so I wasn’t sure if I was suffering auditory hallucinations. “A model?”

“Yeah, you look like you could be a model.”

I told him I was a teacher, possibly the furthest thing from a model. “Well, you might have a second calling, brother.”

Ordinarily I might have been flattered, but I was disoriented and increasingly angry that our perfect new house was anything but, its actual guts in a state of delinquent disarray. Rick and Tom set about looking at the shoddy plumbing work, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues (the phrases “crap work” and “lipstick on a pig” were uttered). Not only was the cleanout valve worthless, but the downstairs bathroom’s waste line, which runs directly from the toilet, was routed directly into the cleanout valve.

As this diagram shows, the vertical green pipe, or “stack,” runs from the top of the house to the bottom, and every plumbing fixture — the toilets, sinks, dishwasher, and clothes washer — drains into it. Furthermore, the stack must be vented at the top, usually through a porous bulb jutting from the roof, so that the toxic gases we produce when we do our humble business or dump stuff into our sinks don’t re-circulate throughout the house and poison us, or worse, embarrass us with untoward smells while we’re hosting high-society galas.

The stack makes a ninety-degree turn at the bottom and runs under the house and to the city sewer. Somewhere along this horizontal route there should be at least one cleanout valve through which good old Rick can access the sewer for regular cleanings. What the sellers had done instead was graft a cleanout valve directly onto the downstairs bathroom’s drainage line — the small white pipe near the bottom of the diagram. This would force a sewer snake to make a U-turn on its sinuous course out to the street, which isn’t really possible, and might damage the plumbing besides.

I didn’t understand this at the time, while Tom and Rick were doing their clucking and head-shaking. Now that I do, I sympathize with them. Not only was this plumbing work unfeasible and against city code; it was an affront to their professional expertise. Think of something you’re good at, then imagine your reaction when someone who isn’t good at it fucks it up. It’s analogous to a writer proudly handing me an essay where half the sentences are written backward and every other word is spelled wrong — but with far more expensive and inconvenient consequences.

I didn’t want to believe that the kindly brother and sister had intentionally set out to deceive us, but Tom and Rick had already sold them down the river, muttering about corrupt contractors and bribed inspectors. I’d sat across from the sellers at the closing, shook their hands. They’d left a bottle of champagne in the fridge for us. If they weren’t corrupt, that meant they were incompetent, which was slightly preferable. Good old Hanlon’s Razor and all that.

So while Tom and Rick continued their muttering, I went upstairs and called our immensely helpful realtor Melinda, who in turn called the sister seller, Bonnie. Melinda subtly coaxed from Bonnie an admission that the downstairs bathroom was a new addition, and that she and her brother Mike hadn’t pulled a permit for it, or the subsequent adaptations to the main stack, when they renovated the house.

Fortunately (for us), Bonnie and Mike were immediately contrite and willing to make it right, i.e. pay for everything. Which was a good thing, because in the two-inch stack of documents Amanda and I had signed at the closing, there was a contract promising that we wouldn’t sue if the sellers misrepresented anything about the house, instead opting for arbitration, which was its own special brand of arcane legal unpleasantness.

In the meantime, Tom and Rick devised a way to install a legal cleanout right away so that Amanda and I wouldn’t have to forsake personal hygiene and eat off paper plates until Bonnie and Mike fixed everything. The solution they finally hit upon seemed nearly impossible to me, but was all in a few hour’s work for them: Simply dig up the (concrete) floor, remove part of the (cast-iron) sewer main, and replace it with segment that included a cleanout valve, through which Rick could remove whatever was causing our clog. Easy as pie.

This is where I differ in temperament and expertise from people like Rick and Tom. At the first sign of distress from Rick, I assumed that our perfect new house was ruined. In my head, we’d already burned it down, collected the insurance money, and gone back to renting a squat in some crooked slumlord’s tax write-off. Of course, I am also the kind of person who assumes that when the Check Engine light comes on in my car, my only options are to either put more oil in it or drive it into the river. Looking under the hood of things is comically ineffectual for a person like me; I might as well be reading a foreign language. I don’t “drop in a new carburetor” or “slap up some drywall” or “irrigate the soil bed.” I pound nails into walls so I can hang pictures from them, and poorly.

But rather than throw my hands up in frustration and ignorance, I decided to watch Rick and Tom, to maybe learn more about the inner workings of my house. I was motivated more by expedience than intellectual curiosity: Tom had to leave for another job, so Rick said I should help him with the whole digging-up-the-basement-floor thing, and he’d charge me less because it would go faster.

1 (an ingenious tool with giant chainsaw-like links that he tightened around the pipe and torqued with a giant lever until the pipe literally snapped with a clean, satisfying* pop *(doubly satisfying† for the entertainment of watching Tom, when the pipe snapped and what can only be described as “poop-water” trickled out of it into the dirt and a familiar stench filled the room, smile and exclaim, “Smells like money!”) †(Triply satisfying for the moment when Tom looked down into the muck, pointed, and exclaimed “Doo doo!” Later, when I returned from a trip upstairs to make myself the coffee I should have had hours ago, Tom pointed to the floor, where an indistinct gray mass lay, and said: “We found a tampon.” When I told Amanda about this later, she emphatically blurted, “That’s not mine.”)

Rick turned on the jackhammer, making the loudest noise I’ve ever heard indoors (and I’m a drummer). What’s truly crazy is that we didn’t actually know where the sewer line was underneath the floor — we were simply operating according to Rick’ educated guess. So once we’d punched through the concrete with the jackhammer and pounded it away with a sledgehammer and shoveled away the soil underneath, we had to dig down and back and forth in several directions — roughly the dimensions, I noted grimly, of the hole one might dig for a small coffin — tapping around gingerly with the shovel until we heard the telltale ping of the iron sewer main.

That’s when Tom returned with segments of PVC and cans of pungent, purple adhesive to fuse them together. In slightly more time than it would take me to change the aforementioned bike tire, Tom jumped into the hole, cut out a segment of 112-year-old cast-iron sewer pipe using a pipe snapper1 measured and cut a section of PVC with Y-joint for the cleanout, and attached this elegant new segment onto the old sewer line.

Tom then ran off again, but not before writing me an invoice for “work to resolve a non-conforming cleanout,” which made our plumbing sound like a goth kid.

Rick lugged his sewer snake into the basement and began feeding its coiled length, shuddering and creaking, from its giant motorized wheel into the cleanout, while affably explaining every step of this process to me. That was the most endearing thing about Rick: he was invested in teaching me something, even if it meant I’d eventually be able to rent a snake and do this myself, robbing him of a client.2

2Watching Tom and Rick, asking them questions, and doing my usual code-switching into the rural dialect of my birthplace that I subconsciously do whenever I talk to blue-collar individuals and older, rugged men in general (a lot of gonnas and nothin’s and don’t gots), I was deeply impressed and found myself wishing I’d learned a manual skill, even while feeling shame because that admiration / aspiration is so fraught and gross, that intellectual-class fetishization of manual labor — ask your precious knees and back how they feel about these noble vocations after even just a few hours of dabbling. But I couldn’t help it — I was awed and enlightened.

Rick’s process entailed several very slow journeys down and back up the sewer line with the snake. Less experienced practitioners, he told me, might jam the snake down or withdraw it too fast, causing damage to the snake, or the pipe, front yard above the line. Rick often spends hours on a job, slowly and gently coaxing out roots and other debris.3

As if to prove his dedication, Rick remained in the basement while it got dark and Amanda and I left to keep a dinner date we’d made with friends. We had just ordered when he called me to announce he’d cleared the main. The roots were out; he had saved us.

That was over a month ago, and only this week was the whole situation resolved. Our basement had a giant pit in the floor for nearly two weeks while we waited for the inspector to come and look at the work before Rick filled the pit with dirt and concrete. Then Bonnie and Mike sent over a plumber to redo the plumbing so it was legal, and a third sibling came to patch up the walls and clean the basement.

All of this work ran to $3,500, which Bonnie and Mike paid in full. They didn’t have to. They could have played hardball and claimed it was our fault the sewer backed up and the non-compliant plumbing was like that when they found it, but that defense would have been pretty thin, and like I said, they weren’t corrupt, just in over their heads. They got caught doing shoddy work and they immediately did everything they could to make amends.

3Rick told me I’m lucky the house wasn’t built after the 1940s, when the iron used in plumbing systems was devoted to the war effort instead, and tarpaper pipes came into vogue. That’s right, tarpaper. After a few years these pipes, predictably, began to disintegrate, and Rick has spent the last three decades removing their remains from under people’s homes.

That’s the silver lining, I suppose, and for that, we are grateful. I am also personally grateful that I learned something about the inner workings of the house for which I’ve elected to be in debt for the next thirty years. My willful blindness to what’s going on under the hood has been tempered by the realization that if you’re willing to tolerate trial-and-error and make a bit of a mess, not all home-improvement projects must be left to the professionals. Just the ones involving electricity, plumbing, and pretty much anything else that could kill me or drown me in poop-water.

Jake Mohan is a writer, teacher, and musician who lives in the Twin Cities. He is on Twitter.

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