November 17, 2010

Duct tape adventures in wastewater management

As published in The Erin Advocate

When water goes down the household drains, I just want it to go away – preferably far away. I do not want to see it, hear it, smell it or touch it. Unfortunately, I've had to do all those things this fall.

It started with a soggy spot at the end of the septic bed, and proceeded to the guessing game that septic system owners must eventually face: Are my weeping bed tiles disintegrating? Are they clogged with crud from my septic tank? Have the roots from nearby trees grown into the pipes and choked them? Has the layer of biofilm (smelly black gunk) under the pipes gotten so dense that the water has to drain up instead of down?

With the expensive possibility of having to replace the entire system looming, I asked the inevitable bottom line question: What is the least amount of money I need to spend to get this system working again?

The tank is about 33 years of age, but I get it pumped every three years and it still works properly. Since I was unsure about the condition of the septic bed, I decided against a system that would regularly pump air into the pipes and possibly rejuvenate their ability to process wastewater.

I got some helpful advice from Dave Doan at SepTech Wastewater Systems in Hillsburgh. We decided the best first step would be to pump out the bed, which could solve the problem, at least for the short term. That's when the fun started.

I had to get access to the drain pipe, downstream of the septic tank. To save myself some money, I said I would do the digging on my own, since the pipe appeared to be only about 18 inches underground. When I started digging, however, I found that the pipe took a sharp turn downward, through some dense clay.

Many hours later, I finally had the pipe exposed at the bottom of a three and a half foot deep hole, dug wide enough for someone to get in and work.

I found too that the drain pipe had for some time been separated at one of the joints, leaving a large gap. Standing in the hole, I wondered why the ground was totally dry.

Then, someone flushed a toilet. I was suddenly flooded with a realization: the tightly packed soil I had just dug out had formed part of the drainway. I jammed the pipes together, wrapped the joint in plastic bags and sealed it up with duct tape until a proper repair could be done.

The next day, a whole truckload of gunk was pumped out of the septic bed and the drain was fixed – complete with a new access pipe so I could add hydrogen peroxide to the drainage bed. It breaks down to oxygen and water, putting dissolved oxygen into the system to help the digestive process. The wet spot on the lawn dried up, and everything was fine.

A few weeks later, though, I heard strange gurgling sounds through the kitchen sink. When we used water in any part of the house, it started filling up the kitchen sink. The laundry drain was backed up, and when I tried to let some water out of it, I got a solid spray in the face. I thought the whole septic system may have failed and backed up, but when I went outside and lifted the septic tank lid, the water level was normal.

That meant there had to be a blockage in the pipe between the house and the septic tank, which led me to the big threaded clean-out plug in my crawlspace. But before you can attack the clog, you have to get rid of all the water in your drains. That means unscrewing the plug just enough to let the smelly water pour into buckets. If you have poured Drano into the system, in a futile attempt to clear the clog, then you have to haul out smelly, caustic water.

Running a bucket brigade to get wastewater out of your basement may seem like an unpleasant job, but trust me, it can be much worse. If you are ever in this situation, do not be tempted to loosen the plug just a bit more, to speed up the process.

When the plug popped out of the drain pipe, it only took a few seconds to force it back on. But with a 3.5-inch pipe under pressure from the whole house, that was enough time to create an unforgettable mess. The type of mess that requires not only a Shop-Vac, but a small shovel.

Moving right along...the water was eventually out of the pipe and I had access to the clogged drain, but my plumbing snake was not long enough to reach the clog. So, naturally, I got three broomsticks and attached them together with duct tape. That made a ramrod that would go all the way from the basement to the septic tank.

The clog didn't stand a chance and soon the drain was draining like it should. We put a proper snake through it a couple of days later just to be sure, but the adventure was all over, except for the cleanup.

And the moral of these two stories? It is pretty obvious. Before you start any household project, always have plenty of duct tape on hand.