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BAB takes a leak

August 5, 2016

About a month ago I was walking the dogs right after a rain, and approaching our back alley, I hear an unusual water splashing sound.  Lo and behold, a huge stream of water is squirting out the back of BAB, out of the downspout just below a copper patch I added earlier this Spring.

After initial delight and humor in this, I processed the mechanics of what was happening, and it explained a LOT.

About a month after I installed the copper patch, I was in the alley and saw that the entire patch was dangling off to one side by two screws. I thought something must have hit it really hard on the inside or the outside to pull it away like that. (Sorry no pics.) We were going out of town in a day, and it was about to rain, so I quickly found some self-tapping screws and managed to straighten the bent parts of the copper and reattach it, just in time, as it started sprinkling on the last screw.

But this “little fountain” explained now why the patch came off before, AND it gave a better explanation on the leaks we had inside the wall.

The entire downspout was plugged. Blocked. Constipated.

There was a column of water filling up in the whole downspout, and there was a weak point somewhere in the middle and the pressure above was squirting it out. And on a closer look, I could see that the sides of the copper upper half of the downspout had been bulging from the water pressure.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to fix this yet, and honestly it was a low priority.

And then a couple weeks ago, I found the reattached patch blown out again. I figured I better take care of this soon. Best I could determine was that debris from the roof projects had gone down the chute and plugged it up. Fortunately, I knew that at least the upper half of the downspout was clear – as I could see daylight from the blown out patch location to the scupper above.

I called the same company we hired to do our sewer scoping when we started our apartment renovation – Joe the Plumber did such a great job, I wanted him back. Over the phone I explained the situation, and I said I was planning to cut an access hole at alley level so that they didn’t have to get on the roof, or a ladder, to put a snake into the downspout; I wanted to know what size I should cut the hole based on their equipment.

They called me back after reviewing the photos I sent and basically said they didn’t want to risk breaking our really old cast iron downspout so they turned down the work. But he said Joe the Plumber had left and started his own company; and might want to do it. I called them, explained everything, but was awaiting their call back after they’d review the photos and talk over the technical parts.

Who knew that you could have such a unique situation that contractors offered money say: “Uhhhh, no thanks.” Yeah, we’re kinda used to that.

So I decided that tonight after work I was going to cut that access hole, in the event that the next day I could get a plumber/rooter to come out and clear it.

The downspout - a rectangular section goes into a round boot.

The downspout – a rectangular section goes into a round boot.


My plan was to scratch out a 4-1/2″ x 6″ rectangle, drill big holes in each corner, and then use a cut-off blade in an angle grinder to connect the dots. I would figure out the cover/patch for this new hole later, and I had a few ideas.

I started with a 1/2″ drill, but it must have been dull because 5 minutes barely made a dent. I found a sharper bit. It worked better, but still difficult to make any progress. It’s been terribly hot and humid, so on a break in the dock, I found Sue had come home and I asked her to help with applying the cutting oil. With her help which allowed me to keep drilling, it took over ten minutes to drill one hole. We were both astonished to see that the cast iron was about 1/2″ thick. I began drilling the second hole, but my bit had dulled and didn’t work well anymore, so I abandoned the four-corner hole idea and would just overcut the corners.

The cuts made for the access hole.

The cuts made for the access hole.


I was worried that if the piece broke free it might fall inside; without knowing where the blockage is, it could mean the piece falls far down and out of reach.

Those worries were unfounded because as soon as it was free, the cast iron rectangle fell outward and onto the alley. What was revealed was amazing.

Tightly packed blocked downspout!

Tightly packed blocked downspout!

It might be hard to tell from the photo, but the entire downspout was packed full of crap. I wasn’t sure yet what it was, but it looked like everything possible from the roof – sand, tar, pitch, roofing felt, leaves, gravel, sticks and so on.

This explains why I smelled melting tar while cutting the hole. I really just imagined that the insides of the downspout had a COATING of tar/pitch, I had no idea I’d also be cutting into blobs of pitch.

Using a small pry bar, I just started whacking at the mass to pull it out. But first I placed a bucket just below to catch everything. Hopefully this was not 12′ high section of junk… The blockage was just as I described – layers of everything. YUK!

I worked upwards first, and after a few inches the materials became lighter and less compressed, and was mostly leaves, sticks and black sand.

Moving downward from the hole location became more difficult, it was like digging in the wet sand at the beach but instead of hitting the occasional shell, it was ALL shells (and sticks and roofing pieces) and I had to loosen the mass, stick my hand in and grab the junk out, repeat over and over.

And then I hit what seemed like a hard level that I couldn’t scrape/dig up anymore.

A hard maybe-impenetrable surface...

BEFORE: A hard, maybe impenetrable, surface…

That last photo is hard to tell what it is, but I just stuck my phone in the hole and took a pic. Remember it and compare to a photo at the end of this blog post.

At this time, I have serious doubts that this is leading to anything good. We don’t know how deep the sewer main is in the alley, and this pile of crap could be ten feet down. And if it was THIS dense, I’m not sure that any rooting equipment could get through it. Sue had come out and commented that we will likely be abandoning this downspout location when we opened the wall for the garage phase, and I was seriously thinking we might have to do that re-route sooner than later.

I had to use a larger crowbar and a small sledge hammer to break into that crust. An inch at a time. It made sense – this lower material had more pressure on it from above, so deeper layers were denser layers. Every once in a while I’d examine the blobs to see what they were – mostly black sand, pitch dust and roofing layers – and with the heat we’ve been having, the sun would cook these ingredients, melting any tar/pitch into a fine hard pack.

Reaching into the blackness.

Reaching into the blackness. (Sue’s finger over part of the lens.)


The mess from inside the downspout.

Upon whacking the crowbar, with surprise I felt it punch through and felt loose – like it landed in a void. Really? Could there be a bottom? I stuck my hand in and pushed aside debris and I could poke a finger through and I could tell there was a void. But wait – maybe that’s just a pocket of air.

I scraped out all the loose stuff, and then then felt around. (Not only was it now past sundown, but it was down in a dark hole. So even if the sun was out, I wouldn’t have been able to see down there.)

Wiggling my fingers around, there was definitely a hole in the middle, at least 3″ diameter, 3″ deep. Hopefully not just an air pocket.

Loosening more junk, and pulling it out, I could feel a very large piece of roofing felt, which seemed to be folded up right at the transition from the rectangle to round pipe. It took some serious prying but I was able to pull it out.

A LARGE hunk of roofing - possibly the start of this problem.

A LARGE hunk of roofing – possibly the start of this problem.

It would only take one large piece of debris like this to start a blockage in this downspout – the inside surfaces are very rough and can catch a lot of material. And once I pulled out that large hunk, everything else seemed small and I could now feel the full and clear diameter of the round pipe below. Rejoice!

So wut the heck? How did this happen? It must have been from our fall roof project. When we had our roof demo party, I made certain that the scupper was blocked from debris falling into it.

The scupper blocked with a board...

The scupper blocked with a board…

My guess is that the sandblasters pushed a lot of this stuff off the roof during their cleanup. Less likely, is the roofers when they powerwashed the roof to prepare for the new material. (But they seemed more cognizant of what they were doing.)

The good news is, I was able to clear out everything. I would say that the blocakge was a combination of the improper debris going down the downspout, with the transition shape – the rectangular downspout transitioned to a SMALLER round pipe, which created small “shoulders” that could catch and hold debris.

You can see them in the next photo.


The “after” photo – the debris cleared out.

Sooooo, now I can reattach the patch higher up for the second time AND make something to seal up this new hole, and hopefully, this entire leaky thing will be over for a long time. Again.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Peterson permalink
    August 5, 2016 8:27 am

    Must feel nice to have a “relatively easy” fix at times Tom!

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