Sunday, November 16, 2008


When I was a kid in school in South Africa, studying Latin, I was delighted when I learned the word plumbum, lead. What I found so delightful was that we get our word plumbing from it, because the Romans made their pipes from lead (which may have contributed to the decline and fall of the Roman Emp.). Of course, that was years before I became a homeowner.

Alternative title for this post: After 40, everything collapses. When we moved into our house, it was a youthful 4 years old, and everything seemed perky and firm. The house is now 40 years old, and it ain't so perky. We started having problems with sewer-line backup via the drain in the basement quite a few years ago, so I guess the house was in its 30s at the time, which shouldn't be old for a house. The main sewer pipe from the house is clay, though, which was common at the time the place was built; it can be damaged by ground shifts or settling. We were warned that the pipe needed to be dug up and replaced, but the quoted price for such a job made us decide to put up with periodic invasions of our basement by ghastly water.

The most recent time was the last straw, though. Mr. Rooter came over to clear the pipe and ran a camera through it. That showed just how many breaks there were in the line. So we bit the bullet and agreed to have the line replaced. That took a week, involving breaking up part of the sidewalk and part of the street, and a backhoe digging a very deep trench from the house to the street. (The house sits above street level, so the sewer line is quite a way down.)

While they were here, I had them do some other fixing up inside the house that has needed to be done and that I decided I'd rather pay someone else to do than do myself. For quite a while, the trap in the basement floor drain has not been holding water, and I asked the Mr. Rooter guy if he thought the trap might have a crack in it. The Mr. Rooter guy said it sounded like it, but that replacing it would require digging up the concrete floor around the drain. I gave the go-ahead because the water in that trap is what keeps sewer vapors from coming up into the basement, and lately they have indeed been coming up. So they jackhammered away, only to find that the metal pipe from the main sewer to the drain was completely corroded away and even non-existent in places. The plumber said he's seen pipes in much better shape in century-old houses and speculated that there might be something in the soil that corroded the metal.

So they had to keep digging up the concrete and dirt along the pipe till they could find a non-corroded part that they could hook the new (PVC) pipe to. Now that's all replaced, along with the floor, and we've cleaned up the basement once again, although at least this time we were cleaning up dirt and dust, not the effects of filthy water. It smells better down there than it has in years!

They did warn us that it's possible that the main line itself is also corroded, although they ran the camera through it and couldn't see anything, so it could be okay. (I.e., the metal line inside the house, not the clay line outside that they just replaced.) At some point, we'll have to have someone dig up more floor and check, just to be on the safe side.

The delights of homeownership. On the bright side, I can remind myself that an Englishman's home is his castle, and not even the King's might can enter without the homeowner's permission. Oh, wait, that was dug up and removed a while ago, wasn't it?


TGirsch said...

Hey, at least you have a basement! Here in Memphis, most of the homes have slab foundations -- no basement, no crawl space -- so all the interior plumbing is buried under the concrete foundation, and ANY plumbing work involves busting up concrete. And if we get a sewer backup, well guess what?

I suspect I'll need to replace our sewer line (and possibly supply line) before too long -- my house, like yours, is a little over 40 years old, and I've got five mature trees on the lot, with all those root systems wreaking havoc...

David said...

Houston, where I was trapped for 1,000 years, also had houses on slabs and no basements. Fortunately, we rented there, and the house we rented was new.

So if there's a backup, you can't have someone run a deplugger gadget through the line from some entry point? Or have a cleanout installed outside?

TGirsch said...

Oh, there are outside cleanouts, so that's not the problem. The problem is that if sewage backs up into the house, there's no basement for it to go into -- it ruins my house (it's a single-story). Fortunately, I've never had it happen, but there was a story about a subdivision where it happened to a bunch of houses about six months after I moved in here. They were showing the raw sewage in houses and yards. It was awful just to look at on TV; I can't even imagine what it must have been like for the people who had to live through it.

David said...

I didn't realize that slab construction was used that far north. In Houston, I was told it was because the water level was so high and the ground so saturated with water. (Just like the air!) Slabs are standard all over the Gulf Coast, except for older buildings that are up on pilings of some sort.

I'm surprised that that's also the case in Tennessee, or is there another reason it's used there?

TGirsch said...

I don't think it has to do with the water table. It has to do with the fact that the ground around here is all clay. You're lucky if you've got an inch or two of topsoil, and it's all clay below that. So excavation and removal of that dense, heavy earth becomes quite expensive. Plus, a LOT of the houses around here seem to have been built on the cheap, even back in the late 50's and early 60's, when my subdivision was built. (I've seen dates ranging from 1958 to 1961 for my house's construction -- nothing consistent.)

David said...


In Houston, I was told that the ground was so saturated with water that if you didn't keep your swimming pool filled all the time, it would float up out of the ground and you'd find it sitting on a flat surface.

I didn't have a swimming pool, so I couldn't test that. It does sound urban legendish.