Tackling Plumbing


There are two things I dread as a homeowner; electrical and plumbing issues. I don’t like the thought of “zapping” myself; the mere thought of water cascading across the floor, or spouting from busted pipes makes my stomach churn.

A week before Thanksgiving, our toilets began “gurgling.” Without being too graphic, there’s nothing worse than toilets not flushing efficiently and as they were designed to. With visitors anticipated, I needed a plumber, pronto.  Of course, the week before a holiday is never a good time to find someone with plumbing skills; in fact, there’s never a good time to find a plumber  (or an electrician) to address a quasi-emergency.

When in doubt, go online and Google. It’s amazing what you’ll find when you Google “gurgling toilets.” My research narrowed the issue down to three possible causes;

  • A clog
  • Septic issues
  • A blocked vent pipe

The septic issue is one we’ve dealt with since we’ve lived here, which is now approaching 25 years. We don’t have town water or sewer; we have a well and a septic tank. Septic tanks occasionally require pumping, and we have been faithful. We had this done as recent as 18 months ago, so I was baffled that our symptoms were similar to previous times when the issue was solved by having the septic tank pumped out.

I watched a video about “snaking” a toilet to address a clog. I decided to purchase a “snake” from my local hardware store in Lisbon Falls. Aubuchon Hardware is a terrific locally-owned option for pretty much anything you need that’s household-related. Why hit the big-box when Aubuchon has it, right? I preach local all the time, so I walked my talk.

The process of snaking seemed to provide some relief. I also attempted a couple of other “home remedies,” like baking soda and vinegar, rather than harsh drain cleaners, mainly as a preventive measure.

With Mark home, and our holiday draining requirements greater than normal, the “gurgles” continued during Thanksgiving and afterwards. By the weekend, I’d had enough and decided to take matters into my own hands. It was time to push past my plumbing phobia.

Saturday, I decided to drive to the Bath Y for an early AM swim. My swim felt great and on my way out of town, I decided to stop in at Rogers Ace Hardware. Rogers has been a fixture in Bath for nearly 150 years. They are Bath’s equivalent to Aubuchon in Lisbon Falls. They actually may be a bit bigger. It was also Small Business Saturday and I had to pick up a couple of things household-related that I knew Home Depot had, but I was determined to steer clear of the “box-cutters.”

Browsing the store, I found a section specializing in septic products and supplies. Just like at Aubuchon, if you stand in any aisle for more than two minutes, someone’s going to come by and ask, “can I help you.”

How many of you remember the jingle for Ace (the co-op that Rogers is a member of), “Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man?” The employee who offered to help was well-versed in septic issues. In fact, I’d call him an “old-timer” in the best sense of the term. He told me I was wasting my money on the product I was considering. When I described my issue with the “gurgles” he immediate said, “it’s your vent pipe.”

As I mentioned, I’m no plumber, but I figured out how my two toilets interact. They are connected to what’s called a drain-waste-vent (DWV) system. In speaking with Mr. Ace Hardware, I was now fairly positive that this was my issue. Here’s a basic Plumbing 101 description of the DWV (from Wikipedia).

The venting system, or plumbing vents, consists of pipes leading from waste pipes to the outdoors, usually through the roof. Vents provide a means to release sewer gases outside instead of inside the house. Vents also admit oxygen to the waste system to allow aerobic sewage digestion. Vents provide a way to equalize the pressure on both sides of a trap, thereby allowing the trap to hold water, which is needed to maintain effectiveness of the trap. Every fixture is required to have an internal or external trap; double trapping is prohibited by plumbing codes due to its susceptibility to clogging. With exceptions, every plumbing fixture must have an attached vent. The top of stacks must be vented too, via a stack vent, which is sometimes called a stink pipe.

Venting and making sure my toilets can “breathe” are important elements at the JBE compound.

My biggest fear was that I’d have to climb onto the roof and visually inspect the pipe for a clog. I don’t like heights and I don’t like the thought of falling off my roof. Here’s where it started getting interesting.

Years ago, I climbed up into my attic to inspect for rodents. We had a squirrel infestation. While roaming around in what is basically a crawl space that allows you to stand up and walk around in the middle; you have to exercise caution because if you don’t feel for and find the ceiling joists/trusses to step on (sometimes called a “rat run”), you can come down through the sheet rock. It’s also dark, so you need lighting.

Getting into the attic requires effort and some athleticism. The only access we have is through a trap door in our upstairs bathroom closet. This involves taking everything off the shelves, removing the shelving, and then going up a ladder and pulling yourself up through the trap door.

As I mentioned, having dealt with squirrels and bats in the past, it’s never an experience I relish. However, I knew that I needed to see if my system was properly vented, or if I had a vent at all.

Armed with a trusty LL Bean headlamp and a drop light, I had enough light to commence my investigation. It wasn’t difficult to locate the venting.  Here’s where it gets weird and where I learned a valuable lesson or two.

My attic visit several years ago led to the discovery that the vent pipe never went up through the roof. There were sections of PVC lying on top of my insulation. Being ignorant of how all of this worked, I thought the vent was merely to provide air to the attic. I’m embarrassed to reveal this in a public forum (face is red). I cut the pipe to the proper length and pushed it up through the gasket/opening in the roof. The vent pipe was actually sitting on top of what was the vent pipe, but it was capped off with a rubber cover. I had no idea about all of this 10 years ago when I first discovered it.

I now thought back on that visit to the attic, as I made my way to the spot where I hoped I’d find something resembling a drain vent. What I actually found, now that I knew what to look for was vent pipe that had been capped-off. I recognized that I would need to remove the rubber cover and open it up. The cover had an adjustable clamp, which was easy to loosen with a flat-head screwdriver. The cap pried off with little effort.

What I find amazing is that the original plumber subcontracted by the builder left it this way. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he capped it during construction and intended to come back to it and forgot to. It’s obvious that no one bothered to check it, including the codes enforcement person who inspected the house back in 1989. I’m guessing that he never went into the attic, or at that point, the capped-off vent was buried by the insulation.

My task became to join the two ends of pipe so that my vent pipe was actually being vented through my roof. This required making a cut in the rubber cover (using a drill and a sheetrock knife) and retrofitting it as a connector. I was able to do this and reinforce it with other materials I had in my plumbing bin in the basement.

I’m happy to report that our toilets are working like a charm. There is no more “gurgling” and the entire project cost me $0, mainly because I visited a local hardware store and had the good fortune of finding a knowledgeable employee.

Here’s another lesson learned, one that’s been reinforced a number of times over the past 10 years, or so; not all “skilled” tradespeople know everything, or even do good work. The second lesson learned is, don’t assume the “experts” have everything worked out.

Trusting the pros left our house with an inefficient and improperly functioning system for more than two decades. Because I made the effort to figure a few things out, received some validation, and was willing to investigate, our system is finally set up to work just like it was designed to.

I’m still nervous about plumbing (and electrical), but I’m more willing than ever to bring some DIY sensibility to minor household problems. I also realize that it is probably important to tackle some of these smaller projects on my own.

2 thoughts on “Tackling Plumbing

  1. Yep.

    In 2004, I had the entire roof re-shingled. Roofing inspector came by, signed it off, never walked on the roof that I remember, left.

    Leaks began almost immediately, but routing maintenance seemed to take care of them.

    Now two roofers and the manufacturer of the shingles have all said independently of each other that the roof was put on wrong, there is no repairing it short of a new roof, and the entire roof (shingles) is sliding off the roof, a half- to an inch a year.

    I’m glad you were able to fix your wonderful American craftmanship (I never encountered lazy, incompetent work in Europe, although I’m sure there is some, somewhere). However, the rubber seal where the vent stack goes through the roof often dries out and leaks. Given the age of your house, you might want to go ahead and replace it (resealing all around it) as soon as weather permits.

    • LP,

      That totally sucks!! It is sad that craftsman (if you can legitimately call them that) lack a sense of doing a job well. I mean, it’s not like most of them give away their services.

      I’m very much in favor of more young people learning a craft, but even more, learning that honest work must also accompany it. Of course, as the old adage goes, “you can’t teach what you don’t know.” If honesty isn’t part of a mentor’s tool kit, it’s hard to pass on to a mentee.

      Thanks for the vent gasket/seal tip. I will replace it in the spring as a preventative measure.

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