Plumbing Problems

Do it yourself or call the plumber?

by the Rookie Homeowner

5 a.m. Monday morning

My daughter yelled from the bathroom, "Maaaaahhmmm. The toilet's making funny noises!" Asleep, I mumbled, "Flush it."

A second later, "Now it's flooding!" At that point I leaped out of bed fully awake. Amazing how that works.

"Get towels!" I ordered as I looked in dismay at the mess. I turned off the water then used towels to soak up the overflow, which fortunately was just water. I energetically attacked it with the plunger without success. Being first thing in the morning, and not making any headway, I decided to go to the gym, work out, then stop by the local home improvement store to pick up a super duper plunger and a snake.

Home again, I tried the plunger...the type with the snout for extra air pressure. Still no movement. Not good. Moving on to the next tool in my arsenal, I inserted the deluxe toilet auger. That didn't work either.

The only thing left to do was call Carl, the handyman. Carl is great. He's a licensed general contractor, a great Mr. Fixit, and a decent guy to boot. Within an hour and a half Carl was standing in the bathroom assessing possible courses of action. For the next hour, he tried attacking the blockage from both the stack (the vent pipe) and the oddball clean out using both the snake and his pressure jet attached to my hose. All we succeeded in doing was pushing the offending blockage further down the line. Finally, he gave me the bad news.

11 a.m.

"Looks like you'll have to call a plumber and have it rootered."

"How much will that cost?"

"'bout 300 bucks," I probably moaned. but Carl said cheerfully, "but since I didn't fix it, I won't charge you." Which is why I really like Carl.

On Carl's recommendation, I called Bob's Reedville Plumbing. I knew they would probably be a little more expensive, but I always try to support local small businesses instead of giant national franchises. Sonya took my call and said she'd have someone out in about an hour or two. "Great," I said. After all, it was about noon and I was restricting liquid intake for obvious reasons.

2:30 p.m.

At about 2:30 p.m., Pat Kennedy of Bob's showed up. He looked at the toilet and announced that he'd need to check the water lines under the house. It was pouring rain (of course) as, we marched around the perimeter of the house while he plotted the best access. Finally, with much fanfare, he opened the access panel, ceremoniously laid down a sheet of cardboard to avoid the mud, flopped on his stomach, and vanished from sight under the house. About ten minutes later, he emerged grubby and dirty.

"Where's the clean out?" So I showed him the clean out Carl had located on the far side of the house.

"That's strange. It has this weird T-joint." Pat mused. Evidently the odd angle prevented him from using the tool the way he wanted to. "Is there another one?"

"I don't know," I answered weakly. Anyone who has owned an older house knows about these strange anomalies that tend to get attached by various owners over the years. Because I hadn't done any plumbing work, I was embarrassed to admit I didn't know any of this. In fact, there's a lot I don't know because my last house was new and I didn't have to concern myself with a lot of maintenance issues.

"If I can get use the main clean out, the cost is $327.21. If I can't, it'll be more." He said looking at the house and scanning the ground. "What's this?" he asked lifting the lid off what I thought was part of the sprinkler system. "Here it is." I exhaled in relief realizing that I'd been holding my breath.

The clean out had a strange, bolted on lid, but at least it was there and its existence was bound to make my life more affordable. Pat ambled to his truck and returned with a machine that looked like a small generator with a coiled metal hose and two curved cutting blades on the business end. He unbolted the cap on the clean out and when it was loosened water gushed out.

"You can open this if you have a recurrence. Opening the clean out will relieve pressure so you won't have overflow in the house," he said helpfully. News to me.

He switched on the machine and started feeding cable down the main water line. As he worked, I asked 101 questions. "Will you know when you hit the blockage?"


"How did they clean plumbing lines before these machines?"

"Plumbers used to link lengths of metal rods together and just push it through."

"To prevent additional plumbing problems, what should I do?" Normal people get out of the rain and write the check, but I'm curious and would rather get wet than miss the action.

"Use a little common sense. That solves most problems. Some you can't do anything about, but never, ever flush anything down the toilet except toilet paper." He elaborated, "That means no q-tips, tampons, cigarette butts, or "flushable" anything. No goldfish, cat litter, and don't let the kids flush anything."

"If you use a garbage disposal, use a strong flow of cold water and keep it running at least 30 seconds after the grinding has stopped to flush all food particles through the drain line. Most people don't let it run long enough. Whoa, there it is." He guided the hose in some more then backed it out and reran it. After a couple minutes, he started rewinding the hose. When the cutters finally emerged from the pipe, they were wound up in very small roots.

"And you can flush a 1/2 cup of copper sulfate crystals down the toilet a couple times a year. The crystals adhere to the roots and eventually kill them."

"Is that environmentally sound?" I asked.

"Oh, sure."

He finished winding up the hose and put the machine back in the truck. Happy just to have access to the city sewer once again, I asked, "So, the damage is $327.21, right? You'll take a check?"

After the plumber: Lessons learned

The first obvious lesson is that anyone old enough to yell that the toilet is overflowing should know how to turn off the water supply to the toilet. Show the kids, the babysitter, and grandma.

Other than the obvious inconvenience of having a major plumbing problem crop up out of nowhere and having bow out of work for the day, I was reminded again that there's a lot about my house that I take for granted. Finding out where the clean out is important, as was the emphasis on precisely what can go down the drain and what can't. As Pat and Carl emphasized, toilets take toilet paper, but nothing else. If you don't already know how your plumbing lines work, make a diagram. It can come in handy when you need to make repairs or hire a plumber.

Kitchen drains and garbage disposals are geared for vegetable matter and water. Even so, celery, chard, and asparagus ends, which are very fibrous, can cause problems. Using plenty of hot, soapy water to clear out the lines and letting the water run long enough is important. Meat trimmings and fats, solid or liquid, should never go down the garbage disposal. And never dispose of hazardous materials or volatile solvents, such as insecticides or paint down the sink or toilet. From an environmental viewpoint the garbage disposal is not your friend. Composting vegetable matter is important. Go a step further and don't buy anything you can't use 100%. One of the major waste management issues for many metropolitan areas is the volume of kitchen waste that goes into the landfill or down the drain.

As for the copper sulfate, check with your local wastewater treatment agency if you are on a city sewer. Though copper sulfate is commonly considered to be non-toxic, some municipalities ask homeowners to avoid using it because the copper sulfate can end up in biosolids. Instead they may recommend other products that use the herbicide dichlobenil as its active ingredient. Products that contain dichlobenil include Casoron and Barrier. I have to admit, I don't really like using chemicals when I don't know the long term effect, so I tend to be a chemical Luddite. One person suggested flushing rock salt at night to kill the roots, and still others swear by the baking soda and vinegar treatment.

The root issue is important especially when there has been a drought. Trees and shrubs will tend to gravitate toward a source of water (i.e., drain lines). Lines with any kind of leakage are particularly susceptible. As the roots grow, they can force larger cracks until the lines fail entirely. Replacing drain lines is hugely expensive, so keeping your existing lines healthy as long as possible saves major dollars.

An alternate method for clearing drains if you are a Mother Earth News type, is using the hose cleaning approach to your drains. That's probably a technique for the very handy and/or the intrepid. At the very least you could make a mess, though it's unlikely you'd blow anything up. Drag the hose in, seal the subject drain with a wrapped rag, then turn on the hose. You’ll need a helper to monitor the hose, especially the part when you yell to turn it off NOW! Start slowly to build up the pressure. It's basically the same method your plumber or handyman uses.

In the final analysis, it's probably a good idea to know who to call before you have a plumbing problem. When you home's system is compromised and water doesn't run at all, your lifestyle will be suspended until it's fixed. It might not be going too far to suggest making your plumber your new best friend.

For help finding a local plumber, UpdateRenovate is a useful resource.

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