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Sewage Seepage: A Homeowner's Horror Story

Updated on April 12, 2013
Some minor seepage ... okay, it wasn't so minor.
Some minor seepage ... okay, it wasn't so minor.

A few years ago, our septic system started acting up. “Throwing up” is a more accurate description. Let me take you back to that day ...

I go into the basement with a full load of laundry and see a huge puddle of gray-black water around the drain for the washer, as if the basement has struck oil. Naturally, I think there’s a problem with the washing machine.

A fifty-dollar service call later and I learn that my washing machine is fine. “Probably your septic,” the guy from Sears says.

“Can you fix whatever’s wrong?” I mean, you’re here, right?

“No sir.”

So I call Pipe Master, and a short, hunched-over man who claims to be the master of pipes comes over to look at my little indoor lake. “It gettin’ bigger or smaller?” he asks.

“Bigger.”

“That ain’t good.”

No kidding.

“Any trouble with your toilet or shower on this level?” he asks.

I haven’t even looked in the downstairs bathroom. “Not that I know of.”

Pipe Master raises his eyebrows.

“We don’t use that bathroom that often,” I say.

“Let’s check it,” he says.

I lead him down the narrow hall to the bathroom. I crack open the door and get a whiff of sewage so bad that I start coughing. I open the stand-up shower door and see a layer of brown ooze on the tiles. I pop the lid on the toilet and see it has filled to the brim with black water.

“But no one uses this bathroom,” I say.

“It’s all connected,” Pipe Master says. “I’ll duct tape that shower door for you.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Just in case it fills up again.” He points to a sludge line on the shower door. “Looks like it got up to four feet at one time. I’m surprised the seal held.”

I now have a new definition for “nasty”: sewage four feet deep in a shower stall.

He whips out a roll of duct tape and seals the door. “How old is this house?”

“I don’t know, fifteen, twenty years old, I think.”

“Shouldn’t have no iron pipes then,” Pipe Master says. “They went out in the seventies. Might be terra cotta. Never can tell till you get a camera down there.”

Skip the history lesson and just fix it.

“Now you might have Orangeburg pipes,” Pipe Master says. “You know if you got them?”

Orangeburg pipes? How would I know? I didn’t build the house! “No.”

“Better hope not,” Pipe Master says. “They’re basically laminated tar paper, and they’re failin’ all over the place nowadays.”

Great. I may have tar paper pipes. Whose brilliant idea was that? Even a child knows you can’t use paper cups for very long.

“You got kids, right?” Pipe Master asks.

The mounds of toys you had to step over since you’ve arrived didn’t give you a clue. “Yes.”

“They flush the toilet every time?”

I hope so. “Yes.”

“They take lots of showers and baths?” Pipe Master asks.

What do you think I’m running here? Your house? “Of course.”

“Well, um, you might want to cut back on all that and go easy on the laundry for a while till this is fixed,” Pipe Master says.

Say what? “How long will this take?”

“Can’t say for sure,” Pipe Master says. “You see, you might got you a root growin’ down into the main water line, so you’ll need you a rooter, and I ain’t got one.”

What good are you then? What, you just duct tape showers and call for reinforcements? “Um, who has a rooter?”

“Master Rooter.”

Of course. This is such a scam. What one “Master” can’t fix, the next “Master” can, but you still have to pay the first “Master” for his trouble. I’ll bet they all work for one “Master” company and share the profits from my MasterCard.

My kids are stank, I am ripe, and the house smells like sewage though I have lit every candle I have, even ones without a scent. I go through three boxes of wooden kitchen matches and four packs of incense sticks, and the house still stinks. Even our dog stays away from the house.

But when Masters Rooter and Tooter (they wear no name-tags) show up three hours late the next day, the lake in the basement has vanished.

Rooter and Tooter stare at me as we look at where the lake used to be.

“It was here for the last two days,” I insist.

“I don’t doubt it,” Rooter says. “We can see the dirt rings.” He nods at the washer. “Gotta run the washer a bit, get the water to come back up.”

“Pipe Master said not to run the washer,” I say.

“You coulda done you some loads,” Tooter says as he turns on the washer. “Right ‘bout now we have to fill ‘er up agin ‘fore we kin git rid of it.”

Make a fresh lake of sewage to get rid of a lake of sewage. Oh, that makes sense.

This is a snake, and this man is neither Rooter nor Tooter because he is clean.
This is a snake, and this man is neither Rooter nor Tooter because he is clean.

So Tooter runs the washer until a pond seeps from the drain in the floor, while Rooter wheels this contraption down the basement stairs. It looks like a metal garden hose wrapped around a wheel.

“This snake,” Rooter says, “is a hundred feet long.”

Is that supposed to mean something to me? “Really?” The man is proud of his snake.

“Yep.” He fastens what looks like a metal claw to the end. “This baby’ll knock out whatever’s causin’ the blockage.”

“And then it will be fixed?” I ask.

“We’ll see,” Rooter says.

Rooter’s snake, though loud, is especially limp, however. He has to use three different claw attachments before the pond sucks itself back to wherever ponds of sewage go. Yes! I can do laundry, I can shower, I can bathe my children—but mainly I can flush my toilets!

“What’s the damage?” I ask, and I whip out my checkbook. They were only here, what, half an hour? Fifty bucks tops.

“Two hundred,” Rooter says.

I hesitate. “Two hundred ... dollars?” All Rooter did was feed the snake down a pipe. They used my electricity and my sewage! I ought to get a discount! If it weren’t for what I supplied, they couldn’t do their jobs!

“Yes, sir,” Tooter says, “but if you join our lifetime warranty plan, it’ll only cost you one-seventy.”

I smell another scam coming. “How much is the lifetime warranty plan?”

“Seventy.”

Gee. That makes two-forty. What a bargain. “How long do you guarantee what you’ve just done?”

“Sixty days,” Tooter says.

I hope none of us gets diarrhea for the next two months. “And how long is the lifetime warranty plan?”

“Six months,” Tooter says.

“Excuse me?”

Rooter smiles. “The lifetime warranty plan gets you extensions on our regular warranties.”

“Why’s it called a lifetime plan then?” I ask.

Rooter looks at Tooter.

Tooter looks at Rooter.

I look at the basement ceiling.

“Just is,” Tooter finally says.

“I’ll have to think about it,” I say.

“Oh,” Rooter says, “we’re gonna have to come back tomorrow.”

Why? The water’s gone. “Tomorrow?”

“Yep,” Rooter says. “Gotta shoot a camera in there, find out what was so hard to poke through. Right muddy, which usually means a breakage. I’m hopin’ it was just a root, but you never know.”

“You can’t put the camera in now?” I ask.

“Too much water in the line,” Rooter says. “Can’t see nothin’.”

“Oh,” I say. “So you think it might be a breakage?”

Rooter nods. “Hope not, but it’s a possibility. We’ll know for sure once we check out the video.”

“So it’s not completely fixed,” I say.

“Nope,” Tooter says.

I bite hard on my pen. “What are we talking, here? A couple hundred more?”

“Oh, no charge for what we gotta do tomorrow,” Tooter says.

“I meant”—I start tasting ink—“in a worst-case scenario, what will the damage be?”

Rooter shrugs. “Hard to say.”

If it’s hard for him to say, then it will be hard for me to pay. “Five hundred?”

“Could run ya a thousand,” Tooter drawls. “But if you have the lifetime warranty plan, it’ll only run you about seven hundred.”

That made no sense. “A thousand dollars for one pipe?” That pipe had better be made out of twenty-four-carat gold.

“Most of the cost is for the backhoe,” Tooter said.

Oh no. There would be a tractor destroying my yard.

“Y’all got gas heat, right?” Rooter asks.

They’re going to dig up my yard. They’re going to mess up my grass, my flowers, my rose bushes, my tree ... “Uh, yeah.”

“That could get complicated,” Rooter says, “but don’t worry.”

Easy for you to say. “So can I at least do laundry now?”

“I wouldn’t do it just yet,” Rooter says. “Can you wait one more day?”

I am wearing my last clean pair of pants. “I guess I’ll have to wait.”

The next day, I watch a camera attached to the snake zip through my sewage line, Rooter pointing out all the pipe’s faults. “Got you a bend there ... nothin’ major ... might be a root there ... root-killer will get it ... another bend ...” The camera splashes into some water. “Whoa.”

“What is it?” I ask.

He cranks the camera forward until it shoots out of the water. “You got you a belly there.”

“A what?” A body?

“A belly,” Rooter says. “A belly is a stretch of pipe that’s sagged and full of water. And it’s a long belly, longest I seen in a while.”

“Is that bad?” I ask.

He nods. “Paper and solids collect in a belly over time, and that’s probably what backed up the whole shebang.”

That means the “mud” Rooter hit the previous day wasn’t mud. My definition of “nasty” has risen to a new level.

He cranks up the snake until it stops. “There’s the end of it,” Rooter says. “Your line ain’t broke.”

Thank You, Jesus! “Is it Orangeburg pipe?”

“Nope,” Rooter says. “Terra cotta. You’ll be fine with that kind of pipe. Terra cotta pipes are made to last.”

Thank you for Italian pipe! “Um, how do I keep this from happening again?”

“Well, you could replace the line entirely,” Tooter says.

That isn’t going to happen, at least not for sixty days.

“Or you could flush the terlits more and do more laundry to keep the water moving,” Tooter says. “You see, your modern terlits don’t push enough water to get rid of the waste. You might could have your kids hold the lever down longer.” He smiles, three green teeth visible. “Least now we won’t have to jackhammer your basement or dig up your lawn.”

I have since instituted the following rule: “Be nice and flush twice.” I also do smaller loads of laundry in a full washer.

That belly under my yard is never going to get any rest.

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