Country Living Series

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Plumbing woes

The first indication that something might be wrong with our plumbing was late last week.

It was early in the morning, before the rest of the family was up. I was doing a load of laundry. During the spin cycle, I kept hearing GLUG GLUG GLUG. What on earth could be glugging? I walked into the bathroom and heard the noise coming from the toilet. Lifting the lid, I saw big air bubbles coming up from the pipes.

Weird. But the washing machine worked fine, so I didn't give it much thought.

Then the toilet started acting up. Always capricious at the best of times, we had to plunge it after almost every use. Okay, doubly weird.

Then someone took a shower and the tub stubbornly refused to drain. This isn't anything unusual -- the drain often clogs -- but this time the tub hadn't drained after a full hour.

So Don snaked the tub. He has to snake the tub every few months anyway. Leaves a mess, but it always works.

Except this time... it didn't.

So the evidence so far: a toilet that bubbles when the washing machine drains; a tub that won't drain; and a toilet that needs constant plunging. The consensus? The septic tank is full.

Okay. Don called the septic guy and made arrangements for him to come out the next day. However this meant we couldn't use any of the facilities in the house.

And I mean nothing. We had plenty of water, but no way to drain it. This meant we couldn't use the toilets, the tub, the sinks, the washing machine, or anything else that required water to exit the premises.

Fortunately I had just washed the dishes, but we couldn't wash any more. Nor could we wash our hands (we used wet wipes). Braving the wind and rain, we used the barn's compost heap when nature called (one of the advantages of not having close neighbors). And we skipped brushing our teeth.

Meanwhile we had to find the septic tank. We had a general idea where it was -- just off the yard -- but didn't know specifically. So we got shovels and started digging. We dug holes here, we dug holes there, we dug and dug until it was too dark to see.

Don took over digging the next morning. He dug here, he dug there, all to no avail. Then he decided to try probing the ground to greater depths, rather than futilely digging in random spots. But what would press downward? He tried clamshells (too unwieldy). He tried a breaker bar (too big). He tried a well rod (too blunt). He tried brass rod (too soft). He finally hit upon an iron rod from an old wagon, of which he ground one end to a sharp point. This allowed him to hammer the rod into the dirt in various places and probe down to three feet.

After several hours, he located the septic tank. Success! Well, partial success. Next he had to locate the hatch leading into it. Using the iron rod and not a little sleuthing, he finally had the hatch located.

Next he had to dig it out. It was, of course, three feet down. Standing in the mud and muck, he dug and dug. (As an aside, I don't hear any feminists volunteer for chores like this whenever they complain about how men don't do enough housework.)

Finally he had a hole down to the cover. Because we've had lots of rain lately, it promptly filled with water.

Don spied a frightened little vole at the bottom. I took a shovel and gently scooped him up and released him. (Voles are annoying in the garden, but they're remarkably docile little critters.)

Finally, late in the afternoon, the welcome rumble of the septic pump truck was heard.

He backed his rig up to the yard gate and snaked his hose through the yard...

...and into the tank (you can see the tank lid on the left).

The pump operator was cheerful, friendly, and efficient. He had the tank empty in about fifteen minutes...

...then he was on his way to the next destination to rescue another desperate family (an unsung hero, in my opinion).

Delighted to have drainage back, I celebrated by doing the dishes and then taking a shower.

But wait! While in the shower, I heard the ominous sound of the toilet going GLUG GLUG GLUG.

Grrrrr. We looked out back and saw that the clean-out pipe was overflowing, indicating that there was a blockage in the pipe somewhere between the house and the septic tank. Don pulled the cap and tried snaking the toilet snake down the pipe, but nothing doing (the snake was too thin and too short).

Grunt. Back to square one, no drainage. Some dear neighbors told the girls they could come shower at their house. Meanwhile Don jumped in the car, drove an hour into the city and hit Home Depot for some plumbing supplies, and drove home again, arriving well past dark.

The supplies he got were a beefy fifty-foot snake, and a drain cleaning bladder (which attaches to a hose, snakes down the drain, inflates to the width of the pipe, and blasts out blockages as it goes). It was too late to fuss with this by the time he got home, so we went to bed with a clogged tub, dirty dishes, and unflushed toilets (back to the compost heap again, whenever nature called).

The next morning we uncoiled the snake...

...and Don started feeding it down the clean-out pipe.

When he thought he had sufficiently loosened up the blockage, he followed it up with the bladder.

Wheeee! At last the pipe was cleaned out!

...Or was it? I did a load of laundry and soon heard the ominous GLUG GLUG GLUG coming up from the toilet. We hastily turned off the washing machine and Don re-inserted the bladder into the clean-out pipe, snaking it as far down as he could, then blasting the water. We could heard it shooting into the now-empty septic tank. This time we let the water run, full blast, for five minutes before shutting it off.

And that seems to have done it. The facilities are working fine and we've heard no more air bubbles coming up from the toilet. It also gave us a DEEP appreciation for the wonders of working plumbing!

It also made me re-appreciate my clever and hard-working husband who got himself filthy on our behalf... and, not incidentally, solved our plumbing woes without having to call a plumber.


  1. (been there done that also)... But can you imagine what our grandparents? Said about the Ol outhouse?.... Hahaha ...
    I remember my dads, dad would say (I was very young) "There ain't no way I'm doing that in a man's house" ...

  2. hi. free advice,and that's about what it's worth.
    buy some potty chairs, about 40$ new.

    keep track of the date- and sometimes how wet the weather is- and call the septic man before the tank is full.

    you can arrange for him to come out on a regular schedule if he has a customer base for whom he provides that service.

    i have one potty chair and see them at salvation army stores sometimes.'
    i plan to get a couple more.

    considering your weather,it is better than going out in a blizzard.
    deb h.

  3. Betcha that septic hatch is well marked now.

    I love me some Don Lewis.

    He's the man. (And handsome, to boot.)

    A. McSp

  4. You might consider rerouting kitchen sink, shower, and washing machine lines into a gray water collection system, to reduce load on the septic tank. There may be legal, and certainly biological, issues involved, and that might be more plumbing than anyone wants to take on, but if it's possible given your situation, it could provide lots of extra garden water and reduce load on the septic tank quite a bit.

    Then again, given that you didn't previously know where the tank was, perhaps this isn't something you have to do all that often. I dread the day when we'll be forced to find our own septic tank...

  5. Check your grease trap! It's usually separate from the septic tank, between the kitchen and the main tank. It may not be causing your problems, but they do tend to need cleaning around the same time. We're lucky we got a full set of original plans and specs when we bought the house, with everything marked on the ground plan. We use them all the time.

  6. Dump in 10 pounds of cheap sugar every six months or so. Feeds and promotes growth of good bacteria that eats the "yuck". will help septic system function and save the trouble.

  7. Our tank worked just fine, ancient as it was (wood).
    What didn't work was right at the inlet.

    The wild Blackberry vines thought they had found El Dorado or or some such.

    On two (three?) occasions while in our mountain house, the roots of the vine blocked up the inlet to the tank.

    Our tank was only a foot or so below the surface, so those ambitious roots found their way to the tank - repeatedly.

    Finally, I went to war with the vines near the tank. We had plenty elsewhere - we just didn't want them anywhere near the tank.

    Clearing out the vines was a real chore and took months of going back time after time to pull/dig up plants, use RoundUp Brush strength - I considered a flame thrower.....


    Then we sold the place. Sigh.

    I miss the place, but I don't miss the septic system - OR the blackberries.

  8. We had the exact same problem. The toilet paper creates a rock hard plug in the line. You should have two smaller hatches on each end of the tank one for the inlet and one for the outlet. You should find both of those and make sure they are cleaned out. The plug was so hard I had to chisel it out. Don in Estacada

  9. Oh and you should dig up the junction box to the drain field and have the lines ran with the hydro jet also. Don

  10. Thank God for good men! And gotta love that vole.

  11. don't think the sugar trick will work...I have worked with septic systems, haulers and need to know that most are oxygen...with no oxygen, no good bacteria (or bad bacteria for that matter) all those remedies that are supposed to activate bacteria don't work.

    unless you have one of the newer designs which introduce oxygen and good bacteria into the tank, forget about throwing beer or other old 'remedies' into the tank......the bottom line: bacteria need oxygen, septic tanks have no oxygen..........

  12. So glad you got it all fixed up! Indoor plumbing is one of the great blessings of modern civilization.

    Julie G

  13. I just recently had to do the same thing myself. Well not the snaking this time. Generally speaking I get my tank pumped every three to four years and I have done it enough times that I have everything set up with cleanouts so I know where to dig.

    Ont he brightside when those city and county sewer people are at a loss with back upped drains at least with a septic system you can empty it yourself. It won't be fun but it can be done...

  14. Run boiling hot water and some Dawn dish soap through your lines on occasion cleans them out. Why Dawn? It cuts grease and it's used on wildlife to clean them after oil spills, so you know its safe for the septic too.

    1. I do that with my canning water now and again to keep the drains clean.

    2. This year my 86 year old mother had to deal with the same thing. However, she was on city sewer and the 65 year old tree roots (3-3" in diameter" had collapsed the old pipes leading to the city main. $14,000 later, it's finally working. She had to replace the pipes from the house to the curb, found that the city will not maintain their own lines, then had to replace the part from the curb to the main in the middle of the street. It was awful.

    3. This is actually pretty common, but most people don't know it. In many water districts, the pipes are considered "yours" once they split off from the main line into your property- not when they enter your house.

  15. I don't really agree with the comment posted above about getting your septic tank pumped on regular intervals, seems like a huge waste of money if you have a big tank that rarely fills up, which given you didn't even know where the tank opening was, obviously it doesn't fill up that often. We still have a cesspool with leach lines at my house, works great so no need to replace it anytime soon. And I will say you are nicer than me on releasing the vole. I know in southern Idaho there is a huge increase in the vole population this year and they are everywhere. I've already trapped 3 so far this year in one of my garden beds and know there are tons more in one of the others that I need to start trapping, those suckers are eating everything this year too: salad greens, kale, garlic, onions, its crazy.

  16. Dear Don & Patrice,
    We have had the same problems as you with your plumbing. We had no flushing toilet, either, so we got one of those big white 5-gallon plastic buckets and a package of white kitchen trash bags. Then my husband retrieved an old toilet seat we'd kept (for emergencies) and attached some small blocks of wood under it to keep it from sliding around. Voila! Makes a great toilet, and just the right height, too! We keep the bags and a few rolls of t-paper in it when not in use. --Deb in AZ

  17. Certain toilet paper is really bad on septic lines, and to much going down each time will cause the lines to plug. We remedied this by putting it into a garbage basket next to the toilet. The ratio of drop to the septic tank is not great enough to safely flush large amounts of toilet paper, so this saves us on plumbing calls.
    My sisters granddaughters plugged up their septic system with extra sheets of toilet paper, flooded the basement.

  18. Home Depot sells a product called "Root Kill" (or something)... it's CuSO4 copper sulfate. We use it as a copper supplement for our goats if they need it, but its main comercial purpose is that it kills roots that protrude into sewer pipes (and tank too, maybe?). There is also a company called Roto-Rooter here in FL that has a cutter head on their snake to cut away any roots. Roots in old pipe is a fairly common problem here in FL, I don't know if that is as much an issue in your part of the world.

  19. How long have you lived there? Just subtract a year or so and plan on having it pumped that often. My septic guy swore that flushing yeast would help. Yours just went a little too long and with no where to drain, the stuff just kept backing up. I had one pumped once and the guy found a hammer in the tank.

    I'd get a couple of dish pans along the way. You can always run water and dump it outside. Keeps the dishes and hands done anyway.

  20. Dear Patrice
    We sometimes get Rid X and I think that you are suppose to
    use it about once a month.

  21. Had a similar problem once on a septic system. Tank and drains were OK, but the vent pipe was plugged with a bird nest. Sure did slow down things draining.
    God Bless,

  22. Feminists can stop reading here. .. What is even better than a man who does whatever it takes to care for him family? A gal who appreciates him! Don and I share that blessing.
    Montana Guy

  23. What we do with country property, is to keep a map drawn showing
    where the septic tank and lines run. Also the water lines from the
    spring or well. Years from now or if someone else is doing the cleaning or line replacement, it is a great help to have a map and a locator marker. It also helps keep tractors etc off the septic tank lid.

  24. My grandparents, aunts and uncles who were on septics insisted on all toilet paper being put in waste basket (then was burned) instead of being put down toilet. It can't clog a pipe if it's not flushed, and if it does clog a pipe, it is like cement! It would certainly buy time between pumpings. We have a camper and must buy toilet paper that dissolves quickly or risk having a plugged tank. Unfortunately, most of us, do not like to use that kind of toilet paper on a regular basis.
    Not being able to use your plumbing will become a minor inconvenience compared to the cost of having to replace a drainfield (if you have one) and the cost of pumping a septic becomes cheap compared to permitting and replacement.
    It's expensive to pump more frequently, but cheaper in the long run; one of those ounce of prevention instances that we all grew up hearing about.
    I second the comment about the grey water system and hope to install one if we get to build another house.

  25. The plumber visited primarily to redo the mess that a previous homeowner left when they installed a hot water heater. Since I just purchased a new dishwasher, it made sense for him to install it. It's possible that it's easy, but I have other priorities!
    Kirkland Plumber