Blocked Drain? Whatever you do, Don't swallow!
That least glamorous of trades, plumbing, is indisputably the most needful of all. Doubt me? Try living without your toilet for a week.
Yet, nonetheless, it lacks that common appeal carpentry enjoys. For, as we know, plumbing caters to the business end of, unarguably, life’s most foetid impulse.
That said, advances in technology have been kind to the poor plumber, while not just reducing, but eliminating that messiest of mankind’s problems, our...um, well, our eliminations.
The modern man’s requisite bowel motion requirements have become almost a thing of beauty. Unlike times past where alley, street, or unused corner of the basement were acceptable dumping grounds (and often in the company of others; if only rats), in a typical developed country, the answer to natures call is provisioned via a well appointed private throne room. Basic accessories now include: reading material, picturesque wall calendars, soft twin-ply paper (or bidet); and all within easy reach of that pinnacle of plumbing engineering, the flushing toilet.
Although absent of mention from the annals of most histories, I can only guesstimate what the modern loo has contributed to the advancement of civilised man. No doubt quite magical to early users, it surely elevated Plumber status overnight. Of course, the general tolerance towards poop has plummeted proportionally. The once commonly seen, heard, smelt & shared experience an activity now confined to small closets with locks; as well as now a subject raised only by the drunk, trashy mouthed and... well, plumbers.
But, what happens when it all stops working?
Behind all that floor and wall mounted porcelain elegance lays what can only be called a nasty, icky, heinous place – the Sewer of our eliminations.
It has one job: to take what you put in it at one end and deliver it as far away as possible...
However, even the simplest tasks can go awry, and none with quite the disgusting results of a blocked drain.
It is on these occasions we call that bravest of all tradesmen, the local Plumber.
Eight years I was a Plumber, servicing the city of Wellington and it's surrounding Boroughs in the Land of the Long White Cloud; New Zealand. That was twenty-five years ago. Yet my most colourful stories still come from that period of life; and it is one of those stories I share with you now. A story I have titled;
Whatever you do, don't swallow
Wellington, what it lacks in breadth it adequately makes up for in mountainous topography; its densely packed hills rising steeply to 300 mtrs (1000ft). Its main roads and industry hug the valleys, while most of its residents live at an elevation well above sea level.
Why am I telling you this. Well, this story is a plumbing story and a basic principle of plumbing science is that for pipes to carry away unwanted waste they must have a regulated fall from inlet to outlet.
Few things can challenge this principle quite so solidly as a mountain. And this is why Wellington's sewer system consists of a number of pumping stations to help overcome the problem. I won't tell you what's required when one of those pumps needs servicing, use your imagination. However, this story is not about those pumping stations (we'll save that one for another day). This story is about a section of sewer that became blocked at a university accommodation facility; to which I was dispatched to resolve.
Let me now divulge some plumbing secrets -'tradies-tricks'- of troubleshooting a blocked drain; remembering this was some decades ago.
To Unblock a Sewer
First: Ascertain the problem
In this case it was that all the toilet bowls were filling when flushed, but not emptying. A common problem that plumbers regularly tackle.
Second: Ascertain where the blockage is occurring
This can be the tricky part, especially in an old city like Wellington. As I said, most of the city was built on hills, with the drains often running hundreds of metres down hillsides before meeting up with the main street drain.
When I was a plumber most of the cities drains were ceramic; clay pipes with spigot connections rendered together with mortar. Over the years many of these pipes become inaccessible due to changes in landscape, renovations, newer buildings, driveways etc.
In this particular story I was forced to access the drain about one hundred metres downhill of the university dorms.
Third: Locate the exact whereabouts of the drain
This often required a trip to the council to check drainage plans. Then it always required digging. Drains in New Zealand are buried four to six feet deep. However, like I said, landscapes change over time; sometimes I'd have to dig a lot further before hitting pipe.
On this occasion I was lucky. Finding the drain at the six feet mark I began widening the hole to give myself room for the next phase...
Fourth: Accessing the drain
There is a certain foreboding that comes with accessing blocked drains, as you never really know exactly what's going to happen next. Therefore the secret is to be prepared.
Now, as said, I was one hundred metres downhill of the dormitories; with no idea at what point the drain was blocked.
Why was that importance?
Well, think of it this way. If the drain was blocked lower down the hill from my hole, then the drain would be full of sewerage from that point up. If I broke into the drain in such a scenario, the pressure of one hundred metres of backed up sewerage would attempt to escape through the hole I just made. This can create quite a geyser I can assure you, capable of shooting raw sewage many metres into the air; as well as filling my newly dug hole in a matter of seconds.
At this point I need to raise another “preparedness” task that all Wellington plumbers followed: The escape route. You just don't want to be stuck in a hole rapidly filling with other peoples poop... Eewww!
The route normally consisted of steps dug into the dirt walls of the hole, allowing quick & easy exit when required.
Now getting back to the drain being discussed. Knowing whether the drain was blocked at the section I had dug up, or not, required simply tapping the drain gently with a hammer handle. An empty pipe sounds hollow when struck.
I struck the pipe.... it resounded hollow. The blockage was uphill from my position. It was therefore safe to access the drain pipe.
Now, with ceramic pipes, access is gained with a hammer and a star chisel (at least, that's the way we did it in my day). You first drilled a small pilot hole with a masonry bit and then gently worked the chisel around, widening the hole until it could accommodate the drainage rods.
Fifth: Drainage rods
Of all plumbing tools, I loathed drainage rods the most; smelly, slimy things that they became over time. Each rod was approximately 1500mm in length, with a thread spigot at one end and threaded socket at the other. As one rod was pushed its length into the drain, another was attached; so on and so on. The first rod generally had some sort of attachment fixed to its leading end. In this case I had a claw; a double helix spiral of thick steel prongs useful for prying apart blockages.
In full body overalls and wearing thick rubber gloves I began working the rods into the drain.
Sixth: Unblocking the drain
And this is where it gets exciting
I think I was up to rod fifteen when I struck the blockage and began working the claw. This entailed a 12” Stilsons wrench that was used to forcibly rotate the rods in a clockwise direction.
Now, when a heavily blocked drain begins to clear, you can generally hear it. As the blockage dislodges it makes sinister sucking sounds. This was my signal to start pulling those rods out as fast as I could before high-tailing it out of the hole.
And this is where my story comes to its gruesome end.
You see, with the last of the rods out, and the the gurgling crescendo of the descending sewerage getting louder, I turned to clear the zone. At which point I snagged my foot in a tree root and fell flat on my back. Simultaneously two things happened:
- The loosening blockage reached my section of drain, passed it, and immediately a fountainhead of dark raw sewerage spewed from the hole.
- I, fallen on my back and desperate to escape, watched the geyser with stunned mullet and open mouth expression .... WHY DID I HAVE TO KEEP MY MOUTH OPEN!!!
Covered in sewerage, I managed to escape the hole and, vomiting and spitting, ran for all I was worth. I remember the one thought repeating itself over and over, "Don't swallow, whatever you do, don't swallow". Finding the hose tap of the nearest building, I turned it on full bore and lay under it until I believed every residue of sewage had been blasted out of my mouth.
I still have the odd nightmare about it.
Shortly after I gave up the plumbing game and immigrated to Australia where I became... no, wait, that's another story.
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© 2011 Richard Parr