Wednesday, June 01, 2011

House Repairs: The Main Line

A few months ago, when winter was coming and the weather was turning colder, we had a main line clog. The main line is the pipe in a house’s plumbing that takes all the household water waste and sewage and sends it to the city’s sewer system. It is the only pipe that does this for the whole house. Everything that goes down the drain, or is flushed down the toilet, goes out under the house through this main line and into the city sewer.

yucky sink!Now imagine what happens when this main line has a clog, or a blockage. When you take a shower, the water goes down the drain, but underneath the pipe is clogged. The water has no place to go, and it backs up through the pipes. When you wash your dishes or your laundry, the water has no place to go, and it backs up. When you flush the toilet, the water has no place to go, and it backs up. Not a pleasant situation!!

tree rootsThere are different reasons why the main line might be clogged. Sometimes the roots of trees growing near the house might grow through the joins of the pipes. A join is where two sections of pipe come together. Tree roots function to provide the tree with water, so the tree roots naturally seek out sources of water. Toilet paper and other solid waste can then get easily caught in the tree roots. This causes a blockage. Unfortunately, this scenario is not unusual, especially in an older house like ours. An older house is more likely to have an older style of pipe that is more susceptible to this type of thing.

So we had a main line clog. The water was backing up in the sink in the basement. We couldn’t wash dishes. We couldn’t wash the laundry. We couldn’t take a shower. We couldn’t flush the toilet. If we did any of these things, sewage would back up into the sink in the basement. Actually, we had had main line clogs before, about every other year. So we tried what had always worked in the past: a plunger, a plumber’s snake, and chemicals.

plungerThe first thing we tried was a plunger – a basic tool that is handy to have around the house. It is a suction cup on the end of a stick. It is very effective for unclogging minor clogs, like when someone tries to put a few too many potato peelings down the drain. Since a plunger is a suction cup, it can be used to create a vacuum. The vacuum dislodges the blockage and sends it on its merry way, through the plumbing and out into the city sewer. Plungers work best when the clog is not that deep in the pipe. If the clog is too far away from the drain opening, then the plunger is ineffective. We tried using a plunger on the clog, but it was no use. There was just as much water in the sink as before.

plumber's snake going into main lineWe then tried a plumber’s snake. A plumber’s snake is another basic tool. It is like a metal rope or coil that can be fed, or inserted little by little, into the pipe. In the picture you see here, a man is feeding a snake through a special valve called a clean-out valve. The clean-out valve is the primary access that you have to the main line. A snake is used by ramming, or pushing forward and pulling back repeatedly, against the clog. This will help to dislodge the blockage.

plumber's snake with augerSome snakes may have an electric motor. Some also have an auger, or a type of drill, to cut through tree roots and other things that may be causing the blockage. Plumber’s snakes usually come in lengths of 25–50 feet, so they are more effective than plungers when the blockage is farther away. But if the blockage is out even further than the length of the snake, or if the pipe has become so narrow that the blockage simply cannot be rammed through, then a plumber’s snake is of no use, either. The plumber’s snake couldn’t budge our clog – the water was still standing in the sink.

So we had to resort to the big guns: chemicals. At the hardware store, you can buy a very strong base. This base reacts with fatty substances like grease or similar things. These are likely to “build up” or accumulate on the inside of the main line, very similar to plaque build-up in a person’s arteries. When plaque builds up in a person’s arteries, it can cause a stroke or a heart attack. When grease and other things build up on the inside of the main line, it can cause a clog.

So you can get this strong chemical and pour it into your pipes through the clean-out valve. Then you let the chemical sit overnight. This allows the chemical to work, and it will “eat through” the clog. Then, in the morning, you turn on the hot water and let it run for several minutes. This flushes out the chemicals and whatever was clogging the system. Now the clog is dissolved, and your drain flows freely once again. Like I said, these chemicals are very corrosive. They “eat away” at the pipes, so they’re not something that you want to use too frequently. But we had always managed to get things working again with this solution, and once every other year is not that often.

This time, however, the chemicals did not work. We tried two or three applications with little or no success. This clog was especially stubborn, and especially serious. We had no choice. We needed to call a plumbing service that specialized in cleaning out main lines. We looked online for a company that did that type of work, and contacted them.

The plumbing fellow came out the next day and took a look at our situation. He explained the basic reasons why a main line might be clogged. He also explained that this was not unusual for a house that is as old as ours. (Our house was built in the 1930s.) Then he explained that the chemicals were not very good for older pipes, because they were so corrosive. Using these strong chemicals could actually cause more problems later on.

diagnostic tool - cameraThe plumbing fellow took some special equipment into our basement. He used this equipment to try to pinpoint the clog and find out exactly where it was located. The special equipment was a type of camera attached to a long, flexible line. He fed the camera in the main line, and on the little TV screen we could see waste water and other stuff in the main line. But the clog was so bad that it was difficult even to see precisely where the clog was.

digging to find the clogIt turned out that the clog was outside the house. Actually, it was between the house and the city sewer that runs underneath the middle of the street. Later on we found out that some decorative shrubs contributed greatly to this clog. These shrubs were planted outside the house by the foundation, so they interfered with the plumbing pipes. But at the time we didn’t know that. We could only guess. The plumbing guy told us what our options were. We decided to have the plumbing fellow replace the section of pipe outside our house. That’s where the clog was. Also, the old clay pipes were broken or deteriorated, and needed replacing anyway.

external access to main lineAs long as the plumbing fellow was digging around our plumbing pipes, we also had him install an external access to the main line. Most houses are now built with such an access. But ours did not have one since it was built so long ago. This new external access would make it much easier for any future clogs to be cleaned out.

So we had our main line clog taken care of. But since the plumbing was so old, there was another potential problem: the old iron pipes in the house could fail to work. If that happened, we’d be back where we started. The old iron pipes would continue to deteriorate. Eventually they would fail, causing more clogs or other plumbing problems. We could be lucky and go for several years without any more incidents. Or we could be unlucky and have another serious plumbing problem within a month or two. No one can predict when these things will happen. But there was a strong chance that something would happen at some point. The plumbing fellow explained that the pipes should be lined with a special plastic coating. This would prevent further deterioration. It would also make the pipes practically as good as new.

Nobody likes to spend extra money, especially on something like plumbing or other house repairs. It would be more pleasant to take that money and go on a nice vacation, or buy a digital SLR camera, or something like that! But it was something that needed to be done, especially if we wanted to move sometime in the near future. A house with known plumbing problems is much harder to sell than a house without plumbing problems. So we decided to go ahead and have this other plumbing issues fixed as well. We set up a date, and the plumbing fellow came back on the agreed date to line our pipes.

Since then, we haven’t had any more plumbing problems :) . Whoever buys our house will be a lot luckier than we were. We took care of this major plumbing problem for him!


plumbing supplies said...

This is really informative. Most of rented houses or even secondhand houses have a lot of plumbing problems and I am glad that you have taken care of it your self.

Althea Tumlin said...

Kudos for trying everything you could think to do. However, the plumbers are better trained to handle these problems, so it’s a good thing you decided to call them in after all! Great to hear you haven’t had any problems since, but maybe you should consult an expert regarding the old pipes, and see if you can do something about them as soon as possible.

wordsmith said...

According to the fellow doing the repair work, the new lining is supposed to be just as good as replacing all the old pipes with modern materials. For what we paid to get the work done, it'd better be just as good ;) But the good news is that things should be set for a number of years hence.

Darcy Wallingford said...

Old houses with outdated plumbing system are prone to clogging and damage. The old pipes rust can clog the waterways and cause blockage in some of your water system. The best and more permanent solution to these problems is to replace the piping system with sturdy and quality pipes that we have today. Plastic and copper pipes are more resistant to rusting and breakage.

Darryl Iorio said...

Oh no! That was definitely a big problem! Well, you made the right decision to call a plumbing professional to deal with this problem, though it’s nice to know that you tried fixing it yourself – tells me that you’re not one to back down from challenges. If the main line clogs again, I think you should consider replacing it.

Ammar Sulaiman said...

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