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Blocked Drain? Whatever you do, Don't swallow!

Updated on January 13, 2017
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Among his varied other writing interests, Richard Parr aspires to creating interesting and inspiring stories about life.

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,, 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.


© 2011 Richard Parr


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    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 15 months ago from Oz

      @rayma ~ White vinegar and baking soda are an effective and environmentally safe way of controlling drain odours. Thanks for reading and leaving such a lovely comment. Blessings to you too.

    • profile image

      rayma 15 months ago

      well that was ominous from the beginning but I had to laugh and laugh - you told it so well! I'm in Indonesia and have the stench of evil coming up from the toilet which is attached to a septic tank outside. I'm very fortunate to have an indoor toilet but if I'm not really careful to keep water in the bowl when I bucket flush, that stench is always there. Having read some other comments, I might try the white vinegar and baking soda. Any reason why I shouldn't use these in my toilet?

      Thanks again for the great story, and looking forward to reading some other articles you've written.



    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 3 years ago from Oz

      @Frank ~ Thanks for stopping by and reading. It was fun to write.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

      that's pulling one up from the bottom.. I like the creativity too .. yeah voted disgusting but wonderfully written Frank

    • cashmere profile image

      cashmere 6 years ago from India

      You are a brave person to have chosen such a profession. I doubt I would be able to hold a plumbing job down for more than a day.

    • CASE1WORKER profile image

      CASE1WORKER 6 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

      oh yeuch, yeuch, yeuch! I can emphasise with what you endured. We lived in an 18thcentury converted hospital in Gibraltar and the drains blocked. The men with the rod came and basically all the black stuff ended up all over the kitchen, yeuch, yeuch

    • Johnny Parker profile image

      Johnny Parker 6 years ago from Birkenhead, Wirral, North West England

      Excellent. A hub that gets right to the bottom of the problem!

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Oz

      @Dexter ~ That's fine, laugh away, it was written in the hope it could bring a smile. You are quite right, though, at the time it was anything but funny. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment.

    • Dexter Yarbrough profile image

      Dexter Yarbrough 6 years ago from United States

      I certainly don't mean to laugh but the image you provided of the sewage coming at you and trying to get it out of your mouth at the tap is hilarious. I am sure it wasn't at the time!

      Very informative hub with a twist of humor - at your expense. Voted up, up and away!

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Oz

      @ScottHough ~ My thanks to you for such high praise. Glad to have found such an able writer as yourself, also.

    • profile image

      ScottHough 6 years ago


      I find your writing and presence inspiring. You do this medium the justice it deserves. This is hilarious! Wish I had found you sooner.


    • ACSutliff profile image

      ACSutliff 6 years ago

      Oh Parrster,

      I only wish I had visited you more often this summer. Now school's back on and sadly, I will have hardly any time for writing or reading during the week. Don't be alarmed if I seem to drop off the face of the earth. :)

      I would love a sequel, but I understand how it goes being busy. I'm patient. ;-)


    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Oz

      @Trsmd ~ If only I'd that recipe back then, I could have gargled with it. Thanks for stopping by, reading and providing the handy tip.

      @Beth ~ I understand completely, curiosity is a powerful drawcard.

      @TK ~ Thanks. Seems I've invented a new hub topic category: Horror Plumbing Stories. Thanks for the kind words.

    • TKs view profile image

      TKs view 6 years ago from The Middle Path

      Greetings parrster,

      I must say, this was not a topic I tend to do a lot of reading on, but your wonderful story-telling stlye kept me engaged all the way to the end. Good job

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 6 years ago from Tennesee

      Parrster, I confess the title did grab my attention! lol

    • Trsmd profile image

      Trsmd 6 years ago from India

      I use this to clear my kitchen drain all the time. pour about 1/3 cup baking soda into the blocked drain, put 1 cup white viniger in the microwave, heat to just under a boil, usually about 1.30 slowly pour the vinigar down the drain. follow with hot tap water. I have used it in my shower it works well there too.

    • profile image

      stessily 6 years ago

      parrster: More plumbing stories, please, and also about what you escaped plumbing to become in Oz.

      This tale and your "Hypochrondiacs step-by-step guide to illness" are tied for my all-time favorite humor.

      Sorry if I've kick-started your nightmares but facts are stubborn things, even when unpalatable (heh, heh).

      I'll be reading and re-reading this, along with "Hypochondriacs", again and again.

      Voted up+across the board cuz the second reading is still as outrageously hilarious as the first time!

      Kind regards, Stessily

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 6 years ago from Oz

      @Stessily ~ I am most happy to say I can no longer recall the taste of sewage. And thank you so much for the information regarding "infinitesimally small droplets make their way into your mouth and down your throat" (deep sarcasm). I think you may have just kick-started my nightmares again :)

      And thank you for the vote ups; they, and you, are appreciated.

      @Amy B ~ Thankfully my health remained intact after the ordeal Amy, though my mental health may have taken a nosedive; I think I developed a mild phobia of sinister sucking noises :)

      Thank you for your lovely comment and encouragement.

      @tlmcgaa70 ~ Bucking horse into manure, now there's a story waiting to be told. Yes, I have several other plumbing stories that may make there way onto HP... but are you up to hearing them :)

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

      BTW, did you figure out what happened with the forums?

      @AC ~ My lovely friend AC. I do hope you are doing well. How is the book marketing going? Yes, I may do a sequel to this story. SO much to do, so little time. Thanks for reading and commenting, you're a gem.

      @Beth ~ you made me blush. I have now amended the title so as not to mislead seekers of raunchy Plumbing stories... then again, maybe I'd get more traffic. Glad you enjoyed, and thanks for commenting.

      @Grace ~ How are you gracious Grace? Yes, this story probably should have a censors note for the squeamish or visually imaginative. Over the years I've had rapt audience to this and other of my plumbing stories, there is something about them that hold people to the end.

      God bless.

    • UlrikeGrace profile image

      UlrikeGrace 6 years ago from Canada

      Oh my gosh! I am so visual....this was horrendous....but your story telling was delightful! I'll never look at a toilet bowl the same...I am glad I live on the flat prairie! I followed you right to that horrendous ending...finally I could see what was coming...and still I couldn't stop good Parrster...even thought it was gagging! Bless you my brother...Love Ulrike Grace

    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 6 years ago from Tennesee

      I love this hub. But for a few moments I thought you were alluding to sex. Still, it's hilarious LOL

      And Ernest! I remember the commercials he used to do!

    • ACSutliff profile image

      ACSutliff 6 years ago

      What a fun and (forgive me for saying) disturbing story. I love the way you tell it. Made it impossible to NOT picture every moment. Great writing!

      I have to say, I'm interested in seeing a sequel story about your next job.

    • tlmcgaa70 profile image

      tlmcgaa70 6 years ago from south dakota, usa

      lol...and i thought diving face first off a bucking horse into a pile of horse manure was bad...i think i will take the horse manure over people poop any day! that last image was.....yeah, gross. lol. thanks for sharing your delightful plumbing adventures....any more hidden gems?

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Complete irony that you created a masterpiece on the subject of sewage. Your piece, although related to poop, is anything butt!!! Extremely informative, hilariously comical, and deadly serious stuff. Did you get ill following this worse possible scenario (other than you initial reaction to this calamity)?

      Thank you for the thoroughly "engrossing", diabolical trip where no man wants to go. Brilliant!

    • profile image

      stessily 6 years ago

      parrster: Graphically hilarious yet also hugely informative! I learned a lot about plumbing during this horrific reminiscence! That last image is perfectly gross, that is, both perfect and gross! My sympathies for that experience. I hope that you're at the point where you no longer have a tactile or palpable memory of the sewage, just a visual memory, which is bad enough!

      I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think that even when you fight against swallowing, infinitesimally small droplets make their way into your mouth and down your throat. :-) (I hope that I'm wrong about this, though.)

      Thanks for sharing, once again in your wonderful, humorous style.

      Voted up + useful + funny + awesome + beautiful + interesting

      Kind regards, Stessily