Happy story about a ghastly plumbing problem

Jake Mohan's account of getting the plumbers in to repair a ghastly backed-up basement drain is a lovely, happy-ending tale of honest contractors, nice property developers, and the fascinating, invisible guts of your house:

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.

Adventures At The Intersection of Homeownership And Sewage [Jake Mohan/The Billfold]

(via Kottke)


  1. Sound like what happened when the water coming into my house broke.
    My house is 115 years old, and didn’t have city water originally.
    There was no shut off found, and the city records had something hand scribbled from the 1920’s. They had to shut it off around a block away which shut off the neighbors as well. Turned out there was copper that went into the neighbors house and then back out through their basement and then into some sort of junction 6 ft under ground. By poking around with metal rods, they were able to sort of locate some of the pipes. After a lot of careful digging, they found the shut off going to my house in the neighbors yard. They finally figured out how it was all plumbed, decided it was a mess and needed redone. The bad 90 year old galvanized pipe going to my house was replaced with copper as was the shutoff and old copper pipe going to neighbors. It’s all documented by the city now, and should be good for another 90 years at least.

    1. That’s probably the reason why Brussels hell-bent on dismantling the German system in favor in turning out more bachelors of plumbing and mechanics. 

    2. Was treating a builder/roofer for a wrist injury, trying to get him rehabbed so he could use a hammer again.  I mentioned how when he first gets back to work, he might want to practice to see if he could hammer a little with his left arm, if the right wasn’t fully recovered.  He laughed and said that he’s always done that.  Especially when he’s up on a ladder, if you can’t reach with your right, or when it gets tired from hammering, you have to be able to do it on your left.  I thought that was kind of godlike.  

  2. Off-topic post: In the last 24 hours Chrome has stopped registering new posts. It doesn’t matter if I reload the home page, click the little bb in the ‘toolbar’ or try the bb logo with jill on the page. Even loading fresh from a bookmark, I still see Maggie’s post about changing last names as the freshest item on BB. I tried clearing my cache earlier, which worked, but only once. Anybody having this problem? Anybody know what suddenly went different or how to fix it?

    Thanks for tolerating my off-topic-ness. I don’t know how else to ask for help.

    1. Close your browser and re-open it. There was a caching bug that’s been resolved.

  3. That is truly the amazing and the frustrating thing about skilled labor. When you see them work, it looks SO EASY. And they do it so quickly! And then you get the bill and you think “It cost me how much for THAT?!”

    Inevitably, the truly outraged attempt it themselves and after spending hours and hours and numerous trips to the store buying bizarre tools and weird parts (not to mention strange liquids and gels), and then realize that the price paid for a good skilled laborer is worth it.

    (this of course depends on the house and the work. It’s easy to replace a toilet, if the plumbing is modern. It’s nearly impossible to do so if the flange is busted off, though)

    1. I’ve always done sewer pipe work myself, precisely because it costs so much for some guy to dig holes in your yard for $150/hour.

      It’s not that hard to do, if you have a couple decades of experience doing stuff yourself.

  4. As a small-time, home remodeling contractor, raised by contractors, I can’t tell you how nice it is, even to read about someone genuinely appreciating good, honest work.

  5. The only thing I truly hate about plumbing is dealing with the water.  The solder work, cutting, fitting, all that is fine.  It’s the moment you put pressure to it and there is a tiny leak at a joint….now you have water dribbling everywhere while you are covered in dirt (which turns to mud, cause you are in the crawl space of course) fumbling around with the propane torch once again.

  6. As I get into this story I keep wondering something, but first the details:
    -the downstairs bath was an addition.
    -a clean out was installed in this new addition.

    This is the only or lowest clean out for the entire sewer line, isn’t it possible there simply wasn’t a clean out there at all?  I mean it is possible they removed a Y connector (and the clean out plug with it) to add in the addition, I don’t know.  But at the same time my house is 100 years old and I’m pretty sure there isn’t an easily accessible clean out plug near the old cast iron section.  (There is however a clean out plug outside, originally buried but now visible.)

    I’d wager to guess there might have been a clean out or Y in that section of old pipe that was replaced.  Well considering the sellers didn’t ask more questions and paid for it all I would, but that’s just me being cynical.

  7. [Rick] 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

    Something tells me Rick’s not too worried about that happening…

    1. I’m a bit like Rick myself.  And I’ll say two things.  First is there are a lot of bottom feeder tasks that are easy for people to learn and boring to do over and over. If you teach your customers to do those it frees you up to do more lucrative work. Second, they also don’t pay your competitors for those small jobs either.

  8. As an experienced plumber’s assistant (aka my dad is a plumber) it makes me really happy to read anything appreciating how easy skilled tradespeople make operations like this look. 

  9. When you find a GOOD plumber (electrician, heat and air guy, mechanic, etc) you better be good to him, because there are wannabes as well as master workers. When he retires, get his recommendation for the next one. Knowing which guys really know what they are doing is a lifesaver. 

    1. The sad part is that frequently, until the wannabes are halfway into the job, you don’t know that they are wannabes.  Cost and/or a license is not necessarily an indicator.

  10. Here’s to honest and competent plumbers.  I too, recently bought a nearly century old house and woke up one morning after a rare Southern California frost to a broken irrigation pipe in the front yard causing several different leaks/geysers.

    A little digging revealed an irrigation system looking like six different pretzels made of five different types of rust and a tiny bit of cheap metal from the Hoover administration, fused together with a knot of chicken wire.

    I feared it would cost two or four grand, but when the plumber took a look at it, he just laughed and said, well, let’s just cap it off and leave it buried.  Seventy bucks later, problem solved.

    1. Good solution. I found that the folks who owned my house before me did such wondrous things as use polypropylene irrigation tubing with PVC couplers epoxied into place. Apparently, they didn’t know about push-on polypropylene couplers. I didn’t even bother to try making that system work.

  11. So the stack was accessible enough to tie a new bathroom into it yet the floor had to be opened up to install a proper cleanout, when a new cleanout on the stack would have sufficed? I love the part about snakes not being able to make u-turns, most can turn a 1′ radius all day. Either you misunderstood their explanation or you got suckered.

  12. Happiness is indeed a competent, honest plumber. Or electrician or furnace guy or roofer. Living in an 80-plus-year-old house makes you into a believer. We have been especially fortunate that our fixers and makers also tolerate my hanging around and aking “What’s that?” and “How does that work?” like a curious ten-year-old, so that every repair project becomes a live version of This Old House. I almost regret the fact that our plumbing guys finally came up with a solution to our basement drain backups (involving digging a whacking great hole through the driveway just outside that side of the basement) that means I am unlikely to be seeing them several times a year. On the other hand, it also means no more pools of sewage to clean up. Such is life.

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