TL,DR: I snaked the shit out of the sewer yesterday afternoon and it’s all good now. And beer.
I just can’t figure out how the sewer works. In theory, it’s a pipe that carries water from a drain to the the city sewer line.
In actual fact, though, there are several drains, one leading from the kitchen sink, one from the basement sink, and one from the floor drain in the basement. There’s also a toilet in the basement. The drain from the kitchen sink and the basement sink converge at the top of the sewer stack before it ducks under the concrete floor. The floor drain meets the sewer stack somewhere underground. So does the toilet.
When the basement sink backs up, the floor drain is okay. I know because I usually siphon the backed-up wash water from the sink into the floor drain. The toilet gets sluggish, but it still drains. Only the sink completely stops up. I’ve tried to diagram how the three sewer lines might come together and work this way, but no matter how I do the mental gymnastics I can’t figure it out.
I used to unblock a blockage by forcing water through the pipes under pressure. This worked well for a while, but it doesn’t work so well anymore.
Some time ago I bought a sewer snake, thirty feet of tightly-coiled steel with a hook at the front end that I could force down the sewer pipe. Working it back and forth is like working a pipe cleaner through the stem of a pipe. In theory, it should clean the sewer out the same way, although it should be noted that the snake is only three-eights of an inch in diameter, while the sewer pipe is at least three inches in diameter. It might be closer to six.
If I had to guess, I’d say the blockage has to be a big gob of grease because there weren’t any roots or hair or another tangled-up mess caught in the hook on the end of the snake when I pulled it up. The sink drained fine after I used it, but the toilet never really improved. Sometimes it flushed fine, sometimes not so fine, and sometimes it wouldn’t drain at all unless I plunged the hell out of it. It didn’t make sense to me, but as long as the sink was draining I was okay with it.
When the sink began to back up again this week, and the old trick of blowing it out with water under pressure was absolutely no help at all, I got out the snake again, but was gobsmacked when that didn’t work, either. The blockage was more than thirty feet along? Then how does the floor drain still work? And the toilet?
I was not about to let this beat me. I went to the hardware store and bought a fifty-foot sewer snake. They had seventy-five-foot sewer snakes on sale, but they were mounted on motorized drums and were priced at more than three-hundred dollars. I’m way too cheap for that, even thought the motorized thing made my gadget lust twitch.
I’m not sure what happened at the checkout. The guy scanned the other items I bought, then held up the sewer snake and said to me, “There’s no price on this.”
I shrugged. “I think it was sixteen dollars and change,” I said, not knowing why he was pointing this out to me. Did he expect me to go back to the shelves and get the price for him? If he did, why would he take my word for it? What if I came back and said, “Oh, my mistake, it was on sale. Four ninety-five.”
He stood there for an awkwardly long time holding the sewer snake while I wondered what he would do. Eventually a woman came hustling up the aisle to ask him what was wrong. I assume she was a supervisor or manager of some kind. He pointed out to her that there was no price on the sewer snake. She turned to me and, pointing behind her, she asked, “They’re in the aisle on the other side of that wall, right?”
“That’s right, yes,” I answered.
Another awkward pause followed as they both stood looking at me. I couldn’t read their expressions. They might’ve been waiting for me to apologize for grabbing one without a price tag, or for me to go get one with a price tag, or they might’ve been trying to figure out how to suck out my brains through my nose. I couldn’t tell. At last the woman turned and hustled back up the aisle and disappeared behind the shelves where I found the sewer snake.
She didn’t come back for five minutes. The checkout guy could hardly figure out what to do with himself. He clearly felt uncomfortable just standing there doing nothing, but if there was a way to put my checkout on hold and scan the next customer’s purchases, he couldn’t figure out how to do it.
When the woman came back, she held up her hand, her palm toward her face, and asked me, “What was the price on it?”
What’s this? A guessing game now? “I think it was sixteen dollars and change,” I answered.
“Okay, it’s this one,” she said to the checkout guy, pointing to something, presumably the SKU, that she’d written on the palm of her hand. Computerized checkout but they couldn’t look that up in the database.
Back at home, I shoved all seventy-five feet of that snake down the sewer pipe and worked it back and forth, flushed the sewer with water, and worked the snake again before I pulled it all the way out. This is by far the uckiest part of the whole enterprise. The first time I snaked a sewer, I made the mistake of simply pulling the snake out. What do you do with a snake that’s covered over its entire length with black, stinking goo? I sure didn’t know. What a mess I made of the basement that day. What a lot of cursing I did. I learned to leave the water running so most of the gunk would get washed off the snake on the way out, but it’s still a pretty nasty proposition.
I ran water for about ten minutes down the newly-opened sewer before I shoved the snake down the drain again and did the pipe-cleaner dance some more. Then, just to make sure the path to the sewer was as clear as I could make it, I took apart the trap under the sink to make sure there was nothing in it, and I snaked out the pipe it connected to before putting it back together.
There. That ought to do it.
I threw all the bath towels in the wash machine, set the fill to MAX and crossed my fingers. The washer drains in to the basement sink and the sink is just big enough to hold all the water the wash machine can chug through in one complete cycle. After the wash cycle I ran downstairs to check on how it was draining: Okay, so far. Then the rinse cycle finished up and it was still draining okay. I ran another load and it was okay, too.
Cleanup was worst. It always is. I cleaned off the snake as best I could by rinsing the gunk off it, then leaving it to soak in a sink filled with water and a cup of bleach for half an hour. Then I rinsed it off again. In all this rinsing and washing and rinsing, after all the snaking and flushing and snaking, I got a lot of gunk and sewer water on my arms and hair and Oh My Goodness it even splashed ON MY FACE! There was a lot of spluttering and a frantic rush to the sink in the brewery to flush my face with clear water when that happened. After I cleaned up all the hardware and tools and rinsed off the floor, I peeled out of my dirty clothes, burned them and stood under a scalding shower until I felt almost normal again.