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Holy Crap; Redux.

March 21, 2011

Late last summer Sue & I wrote a post about needing to be flexible with our weekend plans – be ready for the unexpected. Back then, we had a schedule set for other tasks, but a curve ball was thrown at us at the last minute and we had to react quickly and remove some kitchen cabinets from a house that was to be torn down.

This past weekend, Sue has been working on getting our kitchen stuff out of storage and organized into the cabinets. While she was out Saturday morning volunteering as a judge for CANstruction, I thought to myself: I can get a head-start on the door trim and the remaining bathroom tasks. I’d also scheduled Charter to come and install our internet service and cable television.

I got a call from a robot informing me that the installer was running late. So I took the opportunity to investigate the basement and how the installer could run a cable from the outside to the basement, then I could have better control over where we pop up NOW (and in the future) for different cable locations. I found the abandoned 3-phase electrical conduit and spent some time cutting away the conduit through the exterior wall.

Since I was in the basement a lot, I was up & down in various areas, going from the apartment, to outside, back to the basement. Then, at one point while I was at the north end of the basement, I heard loud gushes of water. Surprised, I look at the south end where they came from – okay – no worries – I just ran a load in the clothes washer and it was the water getting flushed down the PVC drain. But as I was heading back upstairs, I looked again and saw huge puddles of water, around the water heater and further south near a floor drain. Water (sewage?!) was backing up from the floor drains!

It slowed rather quickly – I noticed the washer was done flushing, and the drains stopped upheaving. Crap.

Holy Crap.

I went up to the apartment and checked the washer – there was still a rinse cycle left so I went back to the basement and I was going to wait for the next gusher. A few minutes later, I heard the rinse water being flushed into the PVC. Seconds later, gushes of water splurted out of the floor drain near the water heater. I found a towel and wrapped it around the pipe sticking into the drain and held it tight – only to look south and now a little geyser was pushing out of the next floor drain. Crap!

There was no way to turn off the water upstairs, so I just had to wait it out.

Plumbers needed to be called. When Sue got home, I told her what had happened while she was gone, and we decided to call the same service we used back in the summer when we needed the sewer lines scoped.

I mentioned to Sue that the Charter installer was running late. He showed up minutes later. Moot point. Except now he became part of the clown show that was about to reveal itself, as we had a plumber soon to arrive to a big ass building with a big ass sewer problem, a cable installer challenged because he asked “So who owns the REST of this building?”, and a dog who was just becoming comfortable enough to bark her head off at anything that moved.

I spent the next hour walking around with the Charter guy. He didn’t talk much; just looked a lot. (I didn’t know this, but he had called two of his supervisors because he was unsure what to do.) After two hours, he finally pulled his truck around to the alley and actually started running cable.

Then the plumber arrived. I explained what happened, the history of our building and project, and he asked if I knew where the yard vent was. I did, we looked at it, and he poked his head down it and said “You see what I see?” I said “Looks like a bunch of leaves…” (about 6 feet down). He said “Yeah, leaves on top, but there could be more causing a blockage further down.”

The yard vent - 10" diameter

He got out his big auger, and tried to clear it. He said he could feel all kinds of junk in the vent. I told him that the cover doesn’t fit well and comes off easily – leaving it open for anyone to drop stuff in there. (It’s right next to the sidewalk.) He couldn’t get through it with the auger – it was packed too tight.

He switched to an “arrowhead” bit – a little smaller and more like a drill. He got that through the pile-o-crap, but said that we still needed to remove the crap.

So he got out a long pipe with an elbow on the end and shoved it down the vent and started fishing the junk out. He was able to snag some plastic bag full of, well, let’s say it looked like dirt. We could hear glass – so he just smashed it to break it up. He also brought up a plastic bottle and a flattened aluminum can. Another 20 minutes and he’s got another bottle and a cheetos bag.

He stops and says “I could sit here for hours and charge you my overtime rate…” (it was a Saturday) “but I recommend we call the pump truck to just suck all this out.” He also pointed out “Look down there – see there’s actually a PIPE that someone threw down there. Not sure how I can grab that.”

Time for the Charter guy to come outside and re-enter the scene: He’s done, but when I ask him “So do you have instructions for the DVR?”, he’s thrown for a loop. Really? He digs around in his truck for a while. Ten minutes later he tells me that there’s a “help” button on the remote. That should give me all the help I need. (Right… and you’ve all heard that Charter is leading the race for customer DIS-satisfaction?)

Whatever – I got bigger problems…

An hour later, the plumber has called the pump truck guy, we’ve negotiated a price and worked out the schedule. I preferred that they come the next day (Sunday) rather waiting four hours for the same day (Saturday). He said that the pump truck was SOOOOO loud, that he advised they not start earlier than noon to avoid pissing off neighbors. Noon on Sunday it is.

Now he is gone for the day. But I couldn’t leave it alone. I got a flashlight and looked down the hole. “Is that a SNEAKER in there?” I thought. “And that looks like a 2×2 piece of wood…” What the what? I started imagining several scenarios. Was this years of neglect? Did this happen just in the 8 months since we had the line scoped? Or was it a malicious act by someone that really wanted to mess up our sewer?

So I spent the afternoon fashioning several different types of tools to fish out the crap. They all needed to be about twelve feet long – fortunately, BAB is full of junk like that. Sue came out to snap a pic. I’d gotten a good collection started in the box.

Fishing for crap

Yes, that’ a sneaker in the box. Plus cans, bottles, bags…

I was determined to remove as much as I could. I removed about three feet deep worth of crap, and stopped when my tools wouldn’t grab or snag anything left. Plus it was time to clean up to go to friends for dinner.

I pulled out an amazing archeology of lost belongings; okay, some of it was just trash. I lifted up: a 4′ steel pipe; a left-foot sneaker; a plastic hockey puck; a right-foot sneaker; plastic bottles; aluminum cans; a wiffle ball; rocks; a 2×2 piece of wood, LOTS of trash bags, metal lath, and the sole of a right-foot sneaker. There was at least that much and more that I couldn’t grab that I’d have to leave for the next day when the pump truck arrives.

Debris removed from the vent

Sunday morning – no apartment water usage allowed cuz it would just end up in the basement. Dang – that means no shower for me, and I really like my showers. No shaving either – and I hate to go unshaven. Fortunately, we had the old toilet and sink still working up on the second floor – those connect to a different sewer line. Still, that’s a crappy way (and CRABBY way) for me to start my day.

To kill some time, I started sanding the wood putty on some door trim. Then they showed up – and DAMN it was a HUGE truck! It’s not a septic sucking truck – those are smaller. This thing was designed to suck up CRAP!

This BAT is bigger than our BAT...

It took them a few minutes to get things rolling, the hose has a big boom that need to be lowered and set in position, prepare other tools, and then set the motors in idle ready for them to turn up the volume.

Set up to suck

Like a giant shop-vac

They started by sticking the vacuum tube down into the vent. It went in just about six feet until they realized they needed to enlarge the ground opening as well as remove the top 2′ piece of glazed pipe. They brought their own shovels and got to work.

Making the hole bigger

They stopped after a few shovels and the top piece of clay pipe was loose enough to remove. But before they removed it, they decided that it would be better to suck up the dirt around the pipe BEFORE they pulled it out, to avoid a lot of dirt and rocks falling into the hole.

I didn’t know this, but their sucking machine was so strong that it could even DIG into dirt and remove it! They just stuck the metal tube on the earth and it sucked itself down and pulled up dirt. Pretty cool! (Why did they bother bringing shovels???)

Digging by sucking

The plumber told me that this thing was so strong that if your hand got stuck inside of it, you weren’t getting it back. And just so happens, a little while later, when he was looking into the hole, the tube sucked onto his leg just above his ankle. Even though it was much larger than his ankle and air could suck around it, he still couldn’t remove it with his other foot. While he was trying to force it off with his free foot, I pulled will all my might on the hose. It took both of us to pull the hose off of his leg.

They lowered the hose into the vent and cranked up the volume on the suction. It got pretty loud, but you could still hear the trash, rocks and anything else in the vent getting sucked up.

Super sucking power

It took them a few more times of sticking the hose in, moving it around and up and down, then pulling it out and looking down the hole.

After three times in & out – they paused and said “There’s a cast iron vent cover stuck at the bottom.” They tried getting it to stick to the bottom of their tube with suction power, but it was too heavy. They needed some other tools, and tried their simple pipe with an elbow on it. I’d brought out the tools I crafted the day before, and they liked the one with little fork tines on it. They stuck it down the hole and were able to stick the tines into the drain holes, and pulled it up a few seconds later.

Vintage drain cover extracted

Another round of suction and they think they got everything removed. We could see the sky reflecting in the water at the bottom – that was a good sign. But they wanted to  see a big GUSH of water from inside so I went to the apartment to fill up the clothes washer, turn on faucets and flush the toilets. Because of the distance it would be a minute or so until it would be visible. We waited five minutes. Nothing.

So I went to the basement – it was all backing up!

I rushed to kill all of the water flows in the apartment. Then out to the plumber and explained what happened. He wasn’t too concerned: “We’ll just auger our way through it from the basement.”

Well, he was right, and 30 minutes later and an auger stuck into the new cleanout, the floor drain at the south end of the basement started sucking the water back down.  All plumbing was flowing well now. The plumbers took off and we felt better that we could shower and wash clothes again.


Except, we still have a great big mess at the yard vent.

Home Depot and Lowes do not sell large vent pipes like this, so I would have to call a commercial plumbing supply. And, instead of buying large glazed clay vent pipe (IF you can find it) I was going to have to rig up something on my own.

I ran out at lunch Monday to buy a 10′ long piece of Schedule 40 PVC (unfortunately the minimum length), and a big ass cap that I would convert to a vent by drilling holes in it. (I couldn’t find anyone with a “yard vent” that large.)

Big Ass Cap fits on my head

Monday evening’s task: get the new vent pipe sticking out of the ground.

Easier said than done: even after the plumber removed the damaged & cracked top piece of clay vent, the remaining section (about 2′ down) was also beat up and the lip broken in several places. My plan was to carefully seat the new PVC section on the remaining lip, and then seal up the voids on the outside, and then pour gobs of concrete around the outside to seal it all in place.

Not wanting to have ALL of the fun by myself, Sue helped out tonight; her first task was to dig away the dirt below the broken edge of the remaining clay pipe, so that the new concrete would flow below the edge and encase all of the existing clay vent.

Not exactly the "gardening" she loves...

To help align the new PVC over the old clay tile pipe, I attached some lengths of 1×2 wood pieces on the inside of the PVC, attached only at the top so that I could unscrew them later from the inside, after everything was set up.  Maybe there’s a better way but it’s the best I could think up while I was driving home.

New vent pipe section with "stabilizers"

After adding a sealant material on the rim, just to keep the junk out while the concrete would set, we were ready to place the new PVC section. If you notice a bunch of screws sticking out from the inside, those are meant to act like anchors into the concrete, so that when we need to pull and remove the cap, the PVC pipe will stay while we tug on the cap. (We did a test fit and it’s really really tight – it’s meant for pressure after all.)

Aligning new pipe with old pipe

Once the new piece of PVC was aligned, we needed to goop some sealant and mesh on the outside that would hold back the concrete. (Over the voids created by the broken vent lip.)

Mixing concrete is usually easy, unless you lose your good ol’ concrete mixing tub. We used to have one, and when I was buying the bags of concrete, I looked at the $5 tubs and thought “Nahhh, I’m sure we can find the old one…”

Nope… so Sue dug up a shallow plastic tub and it was pretty tiring mixing the batches of concrete.

The light wasn’t that great so I’ll minimize the low-quality photos. Here’s one of me tossing concrete into the hole around the PVC.

Shoveling concrete

It took two 80-pound bags of concrete to seal it all in. Fortunately, we had clear visuals to the inside of the vent so we could confirm that the seals were holding well and no concrete was flowing to the inside and down into the vent. (Wouldn’t THAT be a kicker: fill the sewer with CONCRETE?!)

All finished, Sue asked me: “So WHY exactly are you troweling the surface of the concrete?” (Because it’s going to have dirt on top of it…) I didn’t really have good answer, but in reality, after three days of CRAP interfering with our schedule, it… just… felt good.

New PVC vent section encased over old clay vent.

What’s left? Rather simple compared to everything before… 1) unscrew the wood “stabilizers” and remove them (hopefully not dropping them down the vent!); 2) drilling holes in the big ass cap and securing it to the vent; 3) adding sand/gravel dirt around the vent to make it drain properly and look nice.


As I started this (long) post, I referenced a similar weekend last summer when we were thrown a “curve ball”. It ended in our benefiting with free kitchen cabinets and more.

Not so lucky this weekend.

We’ve thought about how far we could be on the apartment wood door trim (probably done) or the final touch-ups on the paint. I think the best way to look at this vent stoppage issue is that we’ve  taken care of some long-awaited, though unknown to us, deferred maintenance.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Maurine permalink
    March 23, 2011 3:50 pm

    Tom, sounds as if you have been indoctrinated into the Pruchnicki family mantra, “If any job is a simple job—it won’t be!” Or, “If something can go wrong, it will!” Ask Bob about his many house repair jobs. Glad it’s finally, and hopefully, fixed and done with. Mom

  2. Kevin at 807 permalink
    March 23, 2011 3:46 pm

    First time reader of your blog. Very interesting. I live across the street at 807. Knew something was going on over there, but not quite the scale. Good luck on your adventures. I’ll keep “stalking” you through your blog. 🙂 PS – a friend of mine used to break the windows there with his friends all the time back in the 70s. I’ll make sure he doesn’t do that any more.

    • Sue permalink
      March 24, 2011 11:55 am

      Any chance that your friend is missing a hockey puck and some sneakers? We’d be happy to return them!

  3. Mom Peterson permalink
    March 22, 2011 9:22 pm

    Gee, I better light 10 more candles!!!
    I’m sorry you had to work so hard, but you did good!!

  4. Sue permalink
    March 22, 2011 11:58 am

    While all this was going on, I had a friend over helping me to get my closet set up. We were rearranging my shoes while Tom was dealing with sewer sneakers. That didn’t improve his mood.

  5. dby permalink
    March 22, 2011 10:36 am

    Wow, and I thought my replacing a blown out hose bibb at 10 last night was a chore…

    • Tom permalink
      March 22, 2011 10:48 am

      Sounds like you need to start a blog!

      • dby permalink
        March 24, 2011 10:48 am

        Blog? No thanks.

        I REALLY hate plumbing. I’d rather mess with a live breaker box than solder pipes.

  6. Brian permalink
    March 22, 2011 9:13 am

    Wow.. An entertaining story of crap, pipes and major amounts of sucking… Sounds like a Jones adventure… Glad you got it fixed. I wonder what other little surprises are in your future?

    • Tom permalink
      March 22, 2011 9:15 am

      Well, there’s still the TUNNEL in the basement that we haven’t explored yet!
      thanks Brian

  7. Susan permalink
    March 22, 2011 7:50 am

    Mike’s going to LOVE this post!

    • Tom permalink
      March 22, 2011 9:01 am

      Maybe he can shed some light onto why someone would throw sneakers down the vent!

      • dby permalink
        March 24, 2011 10:49 am

        Because it was there. If there’s a hole, some kid will come by and throw crap in it.

  8. rick permalink
    March 22, 2011 7:41 am

    Wow, it sounds like you guys had an exciting and expensive weekend.
    At least you are taking it all in stride.

    • Tom permalink
      March 22, 2011 8:58 am

      I would also add “exhaustive” and “enigmatic”…


  1. Sewer Redux 2 | B. A. B.

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