Our 1st Major Home Maintenance "Adventure" May 8, 2002
Tuesday May 8, 2002 20:57:33

This morning, not long after I had arrived and first sat at my desk, I got a phone call from Ruth. Normally, since it's a long distance call from our house to my office, I encourage her to contact me via AOL Instant Messenger so when I heard her voice, I wondered what interesting occurrence she was about to relate.

First, let me clarify that it's been raining quite a bit here lately, and though water does flow into our basement from the bottom of the north side foundation, it normally flows out the basement drain leaving the floor wet, but doing little else.

Today, however, Ruth discovered that the rainwater had not been draining and that in the area of the drain, at least, the water was 4 inches deep. Luckily the whole basement wasn't flooded, but the water did reach far further than it normally does mostly in areas containing things not highly vulnerable to such attacks. Ruth had dragged a couple of lawn mowers and some junk out of the way, she told me, and her folks were on the way over to help her watch the boys (Isaiah and the two she sits, Colin and Mason). She promised to let me know how things progressed and went back to performing damage control.

This kind of junk never seems to happen when I'm home. I guess it did happen when I was home, but it wasn't discovered until I'd left for work. According to Ruth, as soon as she saw the water down there, she ran out the front door to see me rolling down our street just out of shouting range, which is a drag because I would have liked to have used it as an excuse to take a day off work.

Later in the afternoon she called back to let me know that the something-rooter guy she'd called had run a snake down the drain pipe- to no avail. He said it had gone down about 65 to 70 feet and stopped, blocked by impenetrable mud. Although we owed him $165, there was nothing he could do for us today but his company would be glad to come back and straighten everything out for us for about $1400. Evidently, he was a nice guy, though. He described to Ruth how we could do it ourselves for about $100 (and a staggering amount of manual labor in the form of digging).

I knew exactly what had happened. We, like passive lemmings, had for a couple of weeks been saying to each other "I wonder what the muddy patch in the back yard which never dries could be...". I actually had a strong suspicion what the source of the wetness might be. This suspicion turned out to be 100% correct. A defect in the antiquated clay drain pipe running from our basement floor drain to the ravine at the bottom of our back yard (don't tell the building code guys or any rabid eco-terrorists, OK?). Yes, I had thought the wet patch could have been caused by the drain pipe, but it seemed to be working OK and it was working well enough to drain the washing machine exfluent, but the far greater input from the recent rain finally plugged it up for good.

The forecast was for continued rain, so as soon as I got home, I broke out the trusty ol' shovel and wheel barrow and went to work. My goal was to find the blockage and clear it to allow the pipe to at least get the water out of the basement, if not out of the yard. Not having any better idea of where to start, I began digging right in the middle of the mud-patch. I found the pipe, about 12 inches down, encrusted in some kind of amalgamate coating of what seemed to be tar and large gravel. The pipe looked fine where I had made the initial incision and as I stared at it in frustration, I watched water slowly seep into the hole I'd dug from the uphill side. This indicated to me that the source of trouble was upstream so I extended my trench toward the house.

This mode of exploratory surgery continued for about 8 feet (3 wheel barrow-fuls) within which I found at least 3 cracks, all of which I eagerly hoped to be the source of the problem until I saw water once again flowing down from uphill. Finally, I found a crack which seemed to be the real source of the problem. It was a big, obvious crack and I didn't note much water at all seeping into the hole from above.

I tried to wedge the edge of the shovel into the crack to pry up the downstream hunk of pipe to get access to the upstream end in hopes of clearing the mud out of it. I couldn't get anything jammed into the crack well enough to be able to pry, so I got a 4 pound hammer and gave the downstream piece of pipe a good, hard whack. The pipe cracked with one hit, but it didn't break. The feeling of the hit was disgusting. I felt the pipe crack, but also felt that the pipe was filled, packed tight with something inside. It felt like cracking the chitinous shell of a giant bug filled with guts.

I whacked a couple of more times and was able to pry away a big enough section of the downstream pipe to stick a metal rod far enough up the upstream pipe to tell that the blockage was at least a couple of feet further up. I was running out of steam by now. The digging was taking it's toll and the fruitless search was adding to my frustration. I hoped heartily that I'd find the source soon.

I dug a couple feet further up, and not having a better plan after having found no more cracks, I brought the hammer to bear on the freshly exposed region of pipe. This time I knew, as soon as the hammer hit, that I'd met with success. I felt the pipe break, with a clean clay like impact and saw the hammer punch a nice, round hole.

The next moments happened in s l o w motion. As I pulled the hammer back, noting the aforementioned nice, round hole in the pipe, I saw thick, black sludge the consistency of wet concrete blorp out of the hole. Do you remember the part at the beginning of the Beverly Hillbillies where Lester Flatt is singing "black gold, Texas tea" and there is a tiny spring of oil coming up out of the ground? That's about what this looked like, except the stuff coming out wasn't pretty like crude oil is. It was gritty, thick, slimy, and smelly and as I watched it burbling out of the hole in the pipe, I saw that it seemed to be gaining pressure!

In a flash of good old subconscious common sense, I hopped back out of the way as the little blorp of alien sewer-slime turned into a gusher of black filth worthy of a shoestring-budget horror movie from the eighties. As the pressure of the water in the basement floor and in the 50 upstream feet of pipe acted on the sludge, it quickly grew to a stream shooting 3 feet into the air and all of 6 feet horizontally. Although not aesthetically pleasing in any sense of the word, this display was immensely satisfying to witness. My relief at having vented the pipe was overshadowed only by my joy that I'd jumped out of the way of the gusher in time.

So now I'm beat, but the problem is "fixed". I say "fixed" instead of fixed since there is still an 8 foot trench in the yard filled with water and there is no reason to believe that the problem won't happen again further up the hill. What I mean by "fixed" is that the basement drains now. The whole thing won't be fixed till I've dug up as much of the clay pipe as I can (it comes out from under the basement under the cellar steps and then under a stone retaining wall about 10 feet away) and replaced it with PVC. It doesn't sound like a big deal and indeed it isn't. Well, it isn't complicated anyway- it's not a big deal in that respect, but after getting truly done-in digging 8 feet worth deep enough to only see the top of the pipe, I am not looking forward to digging up the whole 80 foot length of the pipe to a depth that will allow removal and replacement of the old clay pipe.

That can wait, though. I can't dig in the rain.

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