Wednesday, June 19, 2013
STINK STACK ADVENTURES
Lighting candles to Saint Cloacina again. We never put her statue away around here. For a few months there we neglected her and were sorry because we flunked the sample tests on the town’s sewage lagoon during the cold months. Now that the candles are properly lit, we’re passing the tests and have stopped receiving warnings. The thing is that cold "bugs" don’t eat shit. So we have a new engineering scheme for warming and moving the water in winter.
The state is watching small municipal water and sewage systems VERY closely, so much so that one of Valier’s workers spends almost two full days a week sampling at given intervals and in certain ways, labeling, and sending the results to the state, which must be allotting major money in terms of time and persons to analyzing them and reporting back. The reports go up on the post office bulletin board. We are VERY nervous about the contamination of our ground aquifers and with good reason. Frakking, even without the possibility of injecting chemicals bad for humans into the watershed, is meant to break open rock formations, which can change subterranean waterflow patterns drastically. Springs stop.
A friend got a lesson in water flow "after usage" (sewage) when a naive young roofer shingled over the waste standpipe, AKA the septic system stack or more plainly, “the stink stack.” If fluid is leaving a piped system “tree,” it pulls air behind it and pushes air ahead of it. If a vacuum forms, everything stops. Waste stacks (I call it “the gasper”) doesn’t DO anything except let air in and out and considering the content of the sewer pipes, the "out" air stinks. The top end is one of those mysterious pipes through the roofs of houses.
There are two systems to consider. One is the house-by-house pipe “tree” (one half “innie” and one half “outie”) and the other is the entire town sewer system which works by gravity except for some low spots that have to have “lift stations” (pumps to move things along). The water system is powered by the height of the water towers -- the water pumped up there and then pushing down through gravity. Towns on hills put their water tanks at the top of the hill instead of using stilts. For sewage, of course, the flow must also go down and Valier is on just enough of a gradient to let gravity do its work except for a few pockets that were once swales. There are no houses built-on those lots because of the expense of the lift-station.
Behind the water tower and under the long descending slope of the prairie uplifted on the west of town, east of the mountains, by the heaving up of the Rockies from underneath, there is a steady flow of water from the snow on the mountains. At one time the underground gravity pressure created artesian springs (bubbling up and even spraying) out onto the prairie, but those are far and few now that so much water is being used and so little is falling as snow. Valier has several wells, all dependent on pumps. They're working well.
But my own little branch of the town sewer was suddenly producing ghastly stench. The worst fear was that the sewer branch to my house had broken. $1,000 to hire a backhoe so as to fix it. Leo, on the village staff, was hot to dig. I began to do research on sewers, thus my sudden extensive knowledge. I found three wise men to advise me: Roger, who is the thinker on the village staff; Paul, who does property maintenance in Idaho; and Corky, whom I’ve known since he was a little kid. (His father helped us build the bronze foundry in the Sixties.)
Then the evidence. My neighbor across the street also got a whiff, though not as much as me. It was coming in the waste-water line of his washing machine so running a load of wash got rid of it. There must have been a lot of stink in the whole line, but my “gasper” stack was a suspect from the beginning. It is cast iron which means it can rust shut. The angle where it turned from vertical to horizontal had previously sunk and been propped up by sticking some boards under it.
At that time I was warned if they slipped out, I’d have problems because water would again collect at the elbow and block air, which is the way the P-traps in the drains under sinks work. But it was in a place under the floor where the crawl space -- which is a deep hole on one end -- would barely let a normal person skinny through. In the night I had a brainstorm and drafted Corky, who brought up his tool box and cut a hole in the floor right beside the gasper. The pipe angle is okay. And now I have a trap door that gives me easy access to the pipes in the bathroom.
Roger’s idea was to check every drain in the house to make sure that in warmer weather the traps hadn’t dried up. So I went around with my watering can to fill them up. Paul suggested a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil after adding the water to slow evaporation. People in the past have suggested filling p-traps with antifreeze in winter if the house is not occupied, but this is hard on the lagoon bugs. NOT recommended.
In fact, when I took out the washing machine in this house (I use the laundromat at the county seat.) the drain pipe was left open except for an old t-shirt stuffed into it. In fact, I’ve never looked at those pipes from underneath, but I poured in water enough to form a seal, added peanut oil (hope it isn’t allergic), and devised a cap from a glass jar. This morning there were no smells. I hope this keeps working.
I have a plan for the future. From Google advice, I see that I can take out my stink stack from inside the house: just saw it off. I’ve found a thing called “Durga valve” which replaces the need to vent outside because it closes whenever air tries to escape through it but allows ambient air to enter. They’re cheap and well-tested, so I'll cap the waste stack with it. The hole in the roof already leaks around the stinker, so patching the hole its removal leaves is a good idea already. I’ll report results in August.
Around here many people built their own houses in the early days -- obviously before there WERE any town-piped water or sewer lines. There are still a couple on septic tanks. Electricity and telephone lines were also late. (Places like Helena and Butte had them as soon as it was known what copper wires would do). I don’t think it’s unfair to say that optical fiber service is incomplete. I don’t know about microwave services since I don’t use them, but I read in the paper that cell towers are still far between and contractual reciprocity among the operators is fluid. Fluid. Moving. Carrying info. Interceptible. Interdictable. Infrastructure.
The point of regulating water and sewer is to control disease, esp. microbes. But now water is life-itself and the focus has moved to toxins. We’ve resolved most contagious diseases except the air-borne flu and the blood-borne HIV. The biggest problem with contact microbe transmission (fecal/oral) is failure to wash one’s hands. Some things you can control without equipment, just a little thought. And a bar of soap.