M. Giant's
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Sunday, January 29, 2006  

Plumb Stumped

You know the urban myth about how water spirals down the drain in one direction in the northern hemisphere, and in the other direction in the southern hemisphere? Recently we learned what it's like to live on the equator, where it just sits there.

Oh, the sinks drained just fine. It was the bathtub we were having problems with. We have a little plastic strainer in the drain that's supposed to keep our hairs from going down and clogging it up after our showers, but apparently that only postpones the inevitable.

This has happened before. Every couple of years or so, I'd just dump some highly toxic chemical down the tub drain, exchanging a few layers of plumbing for another period of reliable drainage. And then I'd have to do it again. It only works to a point, though.

I also own a plumber's snake. Actually, it sort of came with the house. We found it under the basement stairs when we moved in. Unfortunately, it has proved to not be narrow or flexible enough to ream out anything tighter or twistier than a subway tunnel. Thanks, Dr. Jellyfinger. That's another one we owe you.

Even a wire coat hanger twisted into a probe has limited efficacy beyond that first hairpin turn in the drainpipe. I might occasionally fish out some sad little hank of unidentifiable matter with the makeshift hook, but it never makes a difference.

The one thing that did work, the last time our bathtub drain stopped up, was to haul my shop-vac in from the garage, stick the end of the hose under the stagnant surface, press it against the drain opening, and turn on the juice. Last time, it worked like a charm. If only I'd remembered to put the top of the vacuum on tightly enough to prevent sheets of brackish sludge from flowing over the sides of the tank behind me for about five minutes without my realizing it, it would have been an unqualified success.

I put off trying the vacuum again this time, not only because I didn't want to make another mess, but because it's such a pain to drag that thing in from the garage, and then drag it out again when it's full of dirty water. And it is full of dirty water when I'm done, whether I vacuumed it from out of the tub or from off the bathroom floor. I guess I could just dump it back out into the tub, but something about that seem counterintuitive.

Rather than bringing in the shop-vac, it was much easier to do what we did instead the weekend of the 14th, which was to bring up a plastic bucket and bail the standing water out into the toilet after every shower. Did you know the toilet flushes itself when you do that?

Soon, however, the novelty wore off. And with four-cap week coming up, we knew we weren't going to have time to build a second bathroom any time soon. Trash was starting to put together a schedule in her head whereby our showers would always be at least an hour apart in order to give the tub time to drain. "Hey," I told her, "it's not like I mind showering while standing ankle-deep in your runoff."

"If I hadn't minded before," Trash said," I would mind now."

So that weekend, I broke out the shop-vac. I even remembered to get the top of the vacuum on tight this time, in order to ensure maximum containment and minimum rug-ruining. The tub was still empty from its most recent bailing, so I sucked out the bit of water that was still standing in the drain. Then I ran a little water into the tub, and tried sucking the clog up along with the liquid. All I sucked up was water, with just enough of the clog to give it a little color. Better yet, I had somehow brought the drain from being 98% clogged to being 100% clogged. If I'd had the humidifier in M. Small's room running, the water level would have actually gone up.

So I went downstairs to see how hard it would be to take apart the whole drain assembly from below and clean it out piece by piece. I did that with the bathroom sink a couple of years ago, and that had gone great except for the fact that I'd encountered a smell that forced me to take the rest of the day off. How much more difficult could the works beneath the tub be? They certainly couldn't be smellier.

I took one look at it, saw that it all appeared to be welded together, and remembered why I'd resorted to the shop-vac in the first place the last time. And then I decided to call a plumber.

Just like drains, there appear to be some myths about plumbers. It's not true that it's impossible to get one at your house at a convenient time, as long as you're going to be working from home all day on a Tuesday. I called at eight in the morning, went to work on my third 24 recap, and let the plumber in six hours later. Nothing easier. As for another popular plumber-related myth, this one wore overalls.

I turned him loose in the basement and went back to writing, ignoring the alarming, expensive-sounding banging that was coming from below me. At one point, once I figured he'd had a chance to assess the situation, I decided to swallow my apprehension and go down there to ask him how much it was going to cost us to not have to drain our tub with a pail. "Just a ballpark," I said.

"I don't do the billing," he said, "but I'd guess about eighty-five."

"Hundred or thousand?" I cringed.

"Dollars," he assured me.

So that was a bargain. After a while the banging stopped, and he came upstairs to see how the drain worked now. I wish I could tell you which way the water swirls, but it drains faster than we can fill it up, so there's never enough water to swirl anyway. I don't think that's been the case since we moved in here thirteen years ago.

I thanked him and he went on his way, saying the company would send me a bill. "Now you can start clogging it up again," he cracked on his way out. I don't know if plumbers are supposed to be without a sense of existential futility, but if they are, then that's a myth too.

So now when we shower we have to actually wash our feet, instead of just sort of letting them soak. And M. Small is a little disappointed, because his little baby bath rests on the bottom of the tub instead of floating now. But he's adjusting. He'll be even happier when he's old enough to understand that even though I hired a plumber when he was a year old, he can still go to college.

Best news of all? We still haven't gotten our bill.

Today's best search phrase: "M&M poisoning." Hey, I think I have that. The main symptom is that you get really fat.

posted by M. Giant 8:14 PM 9 comments


I lived in a house last year that was over 100 years old. The bathroom upstairs (the only bathroom in a 5 bedroom room house) was old and the pipes were horrible. The bathtub would clog up A LOT. What worked for us in a pinch (a plumber told us this) - taking off the overflow drain on the side of the tub, stuffing a towel in the hole to create suction, and then using a plunger on the drain. You'd be surpised how well that works on old clogged pipes.

The plumber also said that drano and things like that are the worst thing you could pour down a drain.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at January 30, 2006 at 6:51 AM  

I'm impressed; where I live, you have to call a "sewer service" to deal with a clog, before the plumber will even come out and look at your problem. I discovered this the first time I had plumbing issues (two days after we moved into our house), and 12 years later, my mind is still boggled.

By Blogger Dimestore Lipstick, at January 30, 2006 at 7:29 AM  

that was so funny I lol'd (and i hated just typing that) several times. consider yourself bookmarked.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at January 30, 2006 at 12:17 PM  

I had the same problem a few weeks ago, but amazingly, the person/plumber/amateur carpenter who put in the trap on my tub actually anticipated the problem and not only left it exposed in the basement, but put a little screw-off cap thingy on the bottom of the trap that I was able to remove by hand. 100% fixed!

By Blogger Joanne, at January 30, 2006 at 3:52 PM  

Congratulations! We live in a 120 year old house, so I can say with certainty we have replaced/repaired plumbing in every toilet, sink and tub and we STILL have issues. In fact we just found two cracked fittings over the weekend.
It's nice to know that sometimes people actually solve plumbing problems and for only $85, well that's some sort of miracle. Way to stick it to the plumbing "Man".

By Anonymous Anonymous, at January 31, 2006 at 8:23 AM  

I plunge my tub. It is really disgusting when the "clog" or whatever comes up and then I have to pick it up with my hands and throw it in the garbage, but it has always worked for us.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at January 31, 2006 at 10:26 AM  

How on earth do you get M. Tiny to still sit in a baby bath? My kid revolted and we had to start letting him bathe in the entire tub at around 9 months or so.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at January 31, 2006 at 12:59 PM  

You'd be surprised how many plumbers have that existential futility. That's because materials used to make plumbing have to be such that water is not absorbed by them, and all those materials are naturally oleophilic (according to my plumbing guid). So yeah, no matter how many times you clog a pipe, as long as any kind of oils are going down that drain, eventually it will clog again.

Yeah, maybe I do read too much. I'll be going now.

By Blogger Sleepless Mama, at February 3, 2006 at 7:51 AM  

I live in a 90-year-old house in south Minneapolis and when I bought it about 2 years ago, I have to put Drano in the bathtub every 3 weeks or so. I got one of those little metal strainers that, as you said, postpones the inevitable. Then my father came to visit me about 4 months ago, stuck the hose of my itty bitty vaccuum cleaner down the drain, and produced some kind of plastic thing which apparently was dropped in there by the previous owners. Haven't had to use Drano since. And also I'm starting to wonder if the previous owner sold the house not because of the loud losers in the rental house next door, but because she didn't have a father who said "You don't need a plumber! Where's your sweeper?..."

By Anonymous Anonymous, at February 4, 2006 at 8:32 PM  

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