Haven’t written in this blog for awhile.
Setting the scene
As you may know, I used to go backpacking with a young woman who now owns a house bounded on three sides by Acadia National Park. It’s on a major travel route, but that means nothing – for nine months of the year you could have a picnic on the divider line and not need to move for passing cars. It’s rural, in other words.
The house was renovated a few years back and the septic system includes a leach field that is uphill from the house. This is key to grasp the outcome of the story. In order to move the sewage to the leach field, there is an uphill pumping system. The simple act of using the bathroom includes the defiance of gravity, an immutable force of nature. This is a high point of American technology. What have we, as a civilization, come to?
Also, this particular young lady’s boyfriend is an electrical engineer whose parents were “back to the land” – self-reliant, do-it-yourself home repair devotees.
Finally, she never goes into the cellar. Ever.
“It’s spooky down there. Creepy.” Last winter, she got through four months without going down there, not even one time. Low rumblings would emanate from there and she imagined a monster of some kind. And put the sounds out of her consciousness.
Three months ago I did go into the cellar, and cleaned out the “French drain” on the floor – the small trench on the edges of the floor that channels rainwater out a pipe on the downhill side that used to connect to the old septic. The boyfriend hooked up a de-humidifier. Finally, after a year of roofing, wiring, digging, painting, and updating, we were getting to fix up the systems in the cellar.
Dogs and humans
And did I mention her old nickname? “The Human Bloodhound?” along the left-to-right spectrum of possible human genetics, her olfactory nerve is to the extreme right, probably exceeding the sensitivity of some unfortunate canines that might be on the extreme left (the low end) of the smelling ability of dogs. As a species, the survival of homo sapiens stopped relying on the sense of smell long ago. But sometimes the smell-gene expresses itself – no, bestows itself– on a person when you least expect it. I’ve previously advised her that she could be famous in the perfume industry or perhaps as a cigar tester or wine expert. To say nothing of working at an airport sniffing out drugs or bombs. And of course, the sense of smell is nothing if not cultivated and trained.
On to the story!
I got a call at 9:32 PM
“The toilet is backed up.” an unspoken urgency filled a pause….. I need a knight in shining armor, is what she really meant.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
I exist to serve. It was easy for me to get into my overalls, say goodbye to my two dogs, and hop in the pickup. I was at her house in eight minutes. I live for opportunities to prove my manhood, just like this!
Actually, it was more like this:
I’m an old Jedi. I’ve been to the Dark Side – working with sewage – and I will happily impart my wisdom. If I was going to need to jump into a septic tank, all that armor would sink me to the bottom faster than I could breathe…..
So, just call me “Obi Wan.”
Without too much ceremony, we got to work.
Plunging made no difference. Then she told me the story of how there was a previous blockage in which the boyfriend showed her how to hook a piece of pvc pipe to the exhaust port of an Electrolux vacuum cleaner. “let’s try that.”
One problem? her own Electrolux was broken. She knew a friend in Ellsworth. The kind of classy person who would own an Electrolux, queen of all domestic vacuum cleaners. The kind of person who vacuumed every Saturday morning with joy of Electrolux ownership in her heart. The kind of person who would lend her cherished Electrolux to a friend in time of desperate need.
Took an hour to go back and return. She stopped by WalMart and got a “plumber’s auger” as well.
“They don’t sell snakes any more.”
“That’s okay, I know how much you hate snakes.”
The auger was not long enough, or there was no blockage. On to the Electrolux!
This was new ground for me, with newfound respect for the Electrolux brand. By this time we were on the phone with the boyfriend ( a man, really…) and I was giddy with excitement. I’ve been on many an offbeat home repair project but this was the best ever!
“This is the sort of stupid challenge that you and I normally only deal with on a backpacking trip somewhere,” I said. “Remember the time we hiked three miles to Horns Pond in the pitchblack dark? We had a flashlight but never checked the batteries.”
“Spare me the stories. I have to work in the morning.”
I wrapped a rag around the last few inches of the pipe to make a seal when we blew the air in. We had to hold our fingers on the sink drain and vent so the air didn’t just simply loop through. After five minutes of serious air-compressing, we stopped…. and the toilet bowl water started to bubble back at us like a cauldron of mordant soup.
“It’s like a mud volcano in Yellowstone!” I said but the toilet was still blocked.
It was now time to go to the cellar. We had no muncke wrench (I know for a fact there were two at the house of the lady in Ellsworth whose Electrolux we just borrowed).
“Do you want me to get the Reader’s Digest Home Repair Book?” she asked sweetly. (it’s what I’m always advising her to study).
“Very funny. It’s a tool we need now, we don’t need any stinkin’ books.”
Oh well, I MacGuyvered https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/macgyver a C-clamp and pressed it into service.
I told my sidekick ” You may want to stand back. There’s going to be a bit of water coming out when I do this.”
The cap came off and about forty gallons of sewage poured out in a torrent. Bits of – ahem – refuse? – floating in the pool on the floor.
“Hey do you remember that one?” I asked, sweeping the water with my foot.
Here is where the odor comes in. When you open a sewer pipe, you get sewage. The room filled up. And the Human Bloodhound got a cross-eyed look on her face like it was smelling salts ( which it sorta was).
“I’m so glad you don’t smoke. This amount of methane could blow us to smithereens. Say, do you recall the time we started that small forest fire at Cooper Brook Falls?”
“Oh look, it’s all going down the French drain. aren’t you glad I fixed that?”
Yes, it was gushing freely out the horizontal pipe, and just as freely down the floor drain. “I don’t even know where the other end of that goes.”
Then I realized that she was in a small state of horrified shock.
“We can’t have this smelly stuff down here!”
“It’s the methane, not the sewage. I’m so-o-o glad you don’t smoke. There’s enough methane here to blow the entire house into Somes Sound. They would posthumously investigate us like terrorists….”
Then, ” Well, if you want to pick up some of the bigger clods of shit, go right ahead, but I think they’ll be just fine getting washed down the French drain.”
She started to reach down there then thought better of it.
After the deluge, I used the auger to go backwards up the pipes in the direction of the toilet. no blockage. I was proud of how I got it past the severe angle, but this fine point was lost on my one-person audience. Then we brought down the Electrolux and tried to blow it on the end of the horizontal standpipe.
Obviously, the problem was further downstream. That could only mean, the pump designed to propel sewage uphill to the leach field was malfunctioning. By this time we were back on the horn with the boyfriend, who was home in Bangor.
He and I discussed the amperage of a 220v pump, the state of the alarm (hasn’t worked in at least a year), and the brownout that accompanied a severe rainstorm last week. It was curious that the outlet where we tried to plug in the Electrolux was not working. hmmmm…
I love those kind of manly conversations. “We’re really bonding over this now, it’s a privilege to talk sewage with you at 11 PM on a weeknight,” I told him. He offered to come down though he was an hour away.
Now we realized the possibility that the pump together with the de-humidifier had blown the circuit.
We tested the outlet, plugging in a lamp but the light in it stayed dark. So – the breaker box.
The breaker box!
Ahhh, the breaker box. It has not occurred to me until that exact moment that the toilet was backed up due to a flipped breaker! I normally focus on the plunger, not the breaker. Until this exact moment, I have taken gravity for granted when it comes to sewers. I ran upstairs and sure enough, #13 was in the halfway position, along with one other.
Resetting the breaker produced no particular meritorious effect. Like the Cubs game, elation turned to despair for just a moment.
We ran an extension cord and plugged in the uphill pump power supply. Expecting a hum that did not arrive. Finally, out to the yard. We removed the concrete cover to the pit where the pump was. Lots of turds floating on the surface. No particular sound of any pump humming along. Should I look for the pump?
“It’s the Devil’s Soup.”
Not a step I wanted to take….. of all the indignities, ending the evening by actually fishing around in a vat of sewage, was too much.
“Don’t make me jump down into there,” I pleaded. “Not at night.”
I told her I was at the end of what i could do, even with backup from an electrical engineer, and said we would need a plumber.
She looked at me with clenched teeth.
“My boyfriend grew up in a family that did their own repairs and never ever called a plumber.”
“By the description you gave me, that’s because they probably didn’t have indoor plumbing.”
It was time to go. I advised her to leave the cellar doors open to disperse the gases.
“You’re my hero.” she said as I left.
“I am here on earth to serve you. Nice to re-unite with my old backpacking team. do you remember the time we…..”
“Enough.” she stopped me cold.
I got back home and the dogs were happy to see me. A short walk in the woods at 1 a.m., and we settled in for the night. Life was simpler when we didn’t have plumbing.
Stay tuned for the follow-up.
Update: The boyfriend arrived the next evening dressed in black from head to toe. He brought a current-checking gizmo.
We determined that the pump was drawing too much current on startup.
We gazed into the cold cauldron of sewage hell, and fished around with a stick to see if that was where the pump resided.
We decided that the septic needs pumping. We will first need to figure out the location of the septic. I looked at him.
“Digging at night, on a guess as to where the septic tank may be? with a man dressed in black? and no moon? It has the feel of robbing a grave.”
And so we agreed it could wait another day.