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It’s 1914 – do you know where your sewers are?

June 28, 2010

We have discovered that our building has LOTS of piping everywhere. And over the expansions in the 1920’s, we know that toilet rooms have been constructed in at least three different areas on just the first floor alone. While the water supply line to the new apartment will be new from the source, we needed to verify how & where we can tie into the existing sewer. That is done by a plumber and a “scope” – basically a camera with lights on the end of a snake line that sends a picture back to a computer. But they can’t send it through toilets or smaller drain lines – access is needed through a cleanout.

We have blueprints from the 1928 (the last) expansion by Southwestern Bell. They only cover the architectural plans – structural and mechanical details are missing. But the basement drawing indicated a new 6″ cast iron sewer line running north-to-south on the eastern side of the building. And a small “C.O.” note on the drawing told us that that there should be a clean out accessible in one of those gross rooms in the basement. Our first visual inspection didn’t reveal anything near the ceiling, but there were boards, a door, and general muck that could be hiding a cleanout at the floor level. Not one to be afraid of a challenge, we decided to move all the mucky junk and look for a cleanout.

Sue having some fun in the creepy room.

It wasn’t that bad – at least it’s not too hot down there. Though I wouldn’t touch anything down there with a bare hand.

No cleanout found anywhere! What the what? But the drawings SHOW it that way! How could architectural drawings ever be wrong? 😉

We DID find a large 6″ cast iron line near the ceiling, but it was obviously our line for the roof drain, and no cleanout – it just went through a wall and then into dirt. It’s possible the sewers shown on the drawing on the east side all connect together somewhere in the dirt beyond the wall, but we couldn’t tell.

So a couple of weeks ago, I met Joe the plumber at the building to do a preliminary investigation to see IF they could get a scope through somewhere and how much it would cost. After a tour, they couldn’t guarantee that they could get through but they’d give it a shot. We had at least least ONE cleanout upstairs, and there were two abandoned sewer stacks in the older part of the basement.

Then a week later I took the day off to meet the plumbers down there.

They started in the original Ladie’s Rest Room because there’s now a stack with a cleanout in it. Unfortunately, that’s also where we moved all of our belongings a few weeks ago – to clear out the “Red Room” for the new apartment. This stack is where the toilet and sink on the second floor are connected and those are working fine. Joe put his scope in the line, and it went pretty smoothly for a little while but then it was getting harder to push further. He asked me if we could hook up some water to run into the cleanout. The closest water connection was in the dock, so I rigged a couple of garden hoses and turned on the water. Joe said that the water acted like a lubricant for the scope head.

In the meantime, we had a friend helping us with some demolition. He actually started the day before, taking down some metal ductwork. His presence was part of the reason I was taking the day off, to help him with any larger or heavier objects. So I was checking in with him every few minutes.

Eventually the plumbers were able to get over 80′ of line in the pipes, and the good news was that the line was clear, there were no cracks, and water (and later sewage) was running clear through. The BAD news was there was no place that this line was visible in the basement – it appeared to be either embedded within the concrete structure or cavities of the addition, or it was all in the unexcavated dirt (It’s not a full basement.) Remember, our goal for this whole fun day is to find a place where we can connect our new apartment sewer line. And if we can’t see it, we can’t connect to it. Well, at least not without some MAJOR excavation.

Joe has another thought – perhaps by running water down the roof drain we can see if that water intersects the line where the camera sits – if the camera then sees water then we know they’re connected. Getting water up to the roof was another challenge. Joe didn’t like the pressure from the dock faucet, so we had to connect to the utility sink on the second floor – even better because it’s closer to the roof hatch.

Then Rikita popped in too (see this post to read about our introduction to Rikita) – she wanted to help, but we told her that we were making a big mess and it was really dirty work, and her summer clothes and flip-flops were not enough protection. After making a scrunchy frowny-face, she also wanted to tell us that she was going away to Oklahoma for the summer. So she wanted to able to help before she left and today she wanted to “get really dirty”. But Joe the plumber needed me – so Rikita would have to wait.

Back to sewer lines: After 30 minutes of running water down the roof drain, no sign of it anywhere. Joe concludes that it’s a separate line to the alley. Not a big loss, because technically we can’t connect to it anyway – the city no longer allows sewer and storm in the same line. (But they used to…)

So – we still don’t have a place to connect our new apartment sewer line.

Joe heads for the abandoned sewer in the older part of the basement. (This cleanout (and the missing stack location) is our preferred sewer location in the basement because it’s closest to our new apartment location.) He has to take a cold chisel to get into the cap – it’s probably not been unscrewed in 75+ years.

Within 5 minutes – more bad news – debris blocks the path of the camera. Dang.

I was back visiting with our helper friend (let’s call him Franco) and we were looking at a closet full of silkscreen ink that we inherited with the building; we were planning to demolish the closet soon, and I had posted the ink on craigslist (giving it away for free), but the dude that wanted it wasn’t coming for a couple of days. Not wanting to move the ink twice, (once to demo the closet, a second time when the guy shows up) I called the guy and asked if there was anyway possible that he could take the ink today (soon). He said no problem, he could come right away. Franco worked on some other things for a while.

Back in the basement, Joe found an identical cleanout about 10′ to the north of the other clogged line; he breaks that one open, and CRAP – same bad news. Joe starts looking around the basement for other plumbing locations. There’s a vintage urinal in the men’s room – he asked if it work – I said “Yep – used it many times already!” But the line was pretty small in diameter and the camera won’t fit. In the adjacent toilet stalls, there are waste lines in the wall that have been capped over with concrete (Actual toilets are elsewhere.) Joe asked if I wanted him & his team to keep working and trying to figure this out – they could break open those concrete caps and see where they go. (He keeps asking me that because they are charging on an hourly basis. We haven’t found what we want yet, and we may never, so there’s eventually a time that you stop looking.)

I pondered over other options – basically if these guys don’t find a sewer line we can use, Sue & I are screwed. Even if they leave and come back another day, we’re still back to the same place. So I tell them to keep going. And it was time for me to check back in on the upper floors. Rikita was getting restless, so I told her that she’d hafta go home and put on some real shoes and preferably some long pants. She took off. By now the ink guy shows up – I show him the three different ink storage closets and he can take his pick.

Back to Joe: just as I got down there, he’s got a big hammer and starts slamming it into the concrete plug in the wall. After a few blows it cracks apart, and he’s able to clear out the chunks and look into the opening. After pulling out some wads of newspaper, he tells me the bad news for the THIRD time that day: there is too much debris in the line. I stuck my hand in there and it was full of rust and dust.

Without asking, Joe hammers into the second stall. Same results.

Great. Time for a break to think things over. And now Franco is down in the basement looking for me – the ink guy wants to talk to me. Ink guy tells me that he can’t take ANY of the ink – it appears it’s all solvent based and without proper ventilation and careful use, it could kill you. He apologizes that he can’t take any of it, and advised that I be careful about who takes it. Apparently he’s pretty scared of it, and I can appreciate that, but you can get equally messed up by common household chemicals and cleaners. And anyone that spent any time taking apart and cleaning a carburetor, knows you gotta have some ventilation. So he left and it was time for me to get back to Joe.

So me and the plumbers are sitting around the basement contemplating the options, which seem to be in the range of zero at the moment.

I asked Joe where the other line on the east side exited the building. (This was the good running line, but with no visible connections.) We went upstairs to the dock area and he pointed to the spot where they located the camera head (it has a transmitter in it, and they can use a receiver from above to find it and get the depth.) He said the sewer line was about 30″ below the slab.

The utility tunnel suddenly came to mind – I was betting that the line was accessible or visible in the utility tunnel. But I was NOT prepared to go spelunking down that tunnel today – plus I didn’t have a hazmat suit.

But it sure would be great to know if that’s a possibility for connecting before these guys leave us today. Just as I was evaluating my current attire (shorts and a sweat-soaked t-shirt) and determining what I’d need to add to it for crawling through unidentified sludge in the tunnel, Joe gets a light bulb over his head: “Tom, I have one final idea… If we can get water to the basement, maybe we can run it in the abandoned lines and I can use the camera to push the blockage through…” Sounded good to me! No tunnel crawling!

I was going to start gathering hoses up when Joe yells to me “…and we need to use the second floor water, the pressure from the dock faucet sucks…”  So I needed extra hoses to make that distance. During my visit “topside” and connecting the hoses, Rikita has returned without much better attire, and since I sorta promised her that she could help, I should find something for her to do. But it needed to be something fairly easy and out of the way of anything messy that Franco may be up to.

Rikita helping out

There was a lot of linoleum covering the floor in the red room (where we’re building the new apartment) and it needed to be removed. Sue & I were planning to pick up the floor scraper on Saturday. (Same thing we rented in November – click here for photo.) But Rikita was going after it with full force – maybe she’d get it all done for us!

So – back to Joe in the basement. The stress of us possibly not having an easy sewer connection was only compounded by what was turning into a circus on the upper floors. Maybe it wasn’t so circusy, but I was still feeling like a ringleader. I was certainly running around all over the place for several hours – I even made two trips to the roof.

Meeting again with Joe in the basement – I was a little worried to hear that he might have the FOURTH bad news of the day. (disregarding anything from topside that was going on.) But I found him in a cheerful mood – he said the water lubricated everything enough, he was able to use the camera as a ram and push through all of the debris. Water was flowing!

He used his divining rod (okay, it was actually that fancy receiver thing) to locate the camera head through the basement floor, and he was able to figure out the path of the original sewer. It went in a completely different direction than the “newest” 1928 sewer line. He was able to confirm the line was clear all the way to the sidewalk (where our responsibility ends) and gave the the line a “good shape” grade. He said it looked like there was junk on the insides, but that was due to “inactivity” for the last 75 years… Once we got it going again, (meaning sewage running through it), it would be fine.

So here’s the end of this long tale: after many dead-ends, and what seemed like a hundred interruptions, we can hook up our new apartment sewer to the closest basement connection – everything we hoped for!


And here’s a final addition, just for Michael – because we know he’s the only one we know that would be interested in watching a three minute video of sewer pipe inspection: Watch the inspection video on YouTube. Surprisingly, we are not the first to post a sewer inspection video!  (If you watch this, it’s funny – Joe the plumber even corrects himself in the beginning of the video – he says “house” first but then says “uh, the Building… excuse me…”)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    June 29, 2010 8:00 pm

    Hi Tom,

    Mike watched the video. He says that the white lines in the pipe are indicative of where water has been sitting in the pipe for a period of time (indication of previous stoppages), and the pipe appears to have a groove in the bottom of it, which will catch paper and other solids. Suggest using Angel Soft paper only – NO CHARMIN, COTTONELLE, or QUILTED NORTHERN, or you will be seeing a LOT of Joe.

    If you want more detailed information, feel free to call him after 5:00 EST.

    Good Luck!

    • Sue permalink
      January 2, 2012 4:31 pm

      I have to thank you guys for the input on this post! I was at Target and forgot which brand was or was not ok to use in our very old pipes. I brought up this page on my phone! Disaster averted.


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