Sunday, July 27, 2014


For a month I’ve been lighting candles to St. Cloaca, patron of the water closet.  The plumbing of this old house is dubious enough, but then the crapper flapper began to leak.  That’s the gizmo in the tank on the back of the toilet that refills the bowl.  The bowl continued to work fine, so all I had to do to get by was use a bucket to sluice the contents through to the sewer.  But it was not particularly convenient and summer visitors, esp. the female ministers, could hardly be expected to do it, though there was nothing unsanitary involved.

Though I had bought books on repairing all the systems in a house (plumbing, electricity, insulation), I’ve discovered that YouTube is a great resource for the little dilemmas of life.  There must be twenty videos of various lengths, each a plumber describing what to do about a crapper flapper leak.  I knew I had a good one when the man kept talking about cloacal mocus, though when I tried to research that slimy buildup, it turned out that he might have meant cloacal mucus.  The cloaca is the messy place on sub-mammal creatures (usually fishes) that excrete all unwanted icky stuff through one aperture.  The tank is clean water -- so “cloacal” is not accurate.  In fact, it turns out that part of the reason my flapper had deteriorated is that I had grown fond of those big tablets one throws into the tank water just to be sure about germs.  Chlorine deteriorates rubber, which is what the flapper is made of.

The top part is the ball cock.  All toilets are male. (!)

Old-fashioned toilets had a metal arm inside the tank with a big rubber bulb on the end.  It's called the "ball cock".  If the water level was not ideal, one bent that arm so the bulb floated lower or higher.  It controls a water intake off to the left.  When the lever on the outside of the tank is pushed, a chain inside pulls the flapper up and lets the water through to the bowl.  Then it “flaps” down to seal off that pipe top. When the water rises high enough, the floating bulb shuts off the intake.  

If the flap fails to seal the pipe top, the water continues to leak through to the bowl in small enough quantities that sometimes it’s only detectable by putting dye in the tank and checking after a while to see whether the bowl water shows color.  If that flapper leaks, the water level in the tank will gradually sink and the water intake will turn on.  Mysteriously in the night, water will be running.  Most people don’t notice until they see their water bill.  A remarkable amount of water can escape.
The float on the tube at the left replaces the ball cock.

So off to the hardware store in the county seat.  I dislike the local one because a clerk there loves to play the Montana game which is demanding what people think they’re doing and then instructing them, not necessarily accurately.  I had watched the vid about the twenty different kinds of flaps for different ages and kinds of toilets, then bought a “universal” kit with a “five minute” fix.  It included a modern water feed which is a float on a kind of stem -- no arm-and-bulb -- and a sort of silly putty ring to put on the top of the leaky tube.  Since it was a brass tube with a rough upper edge, I bought a little box of “plumbers abrasive sandcloth” which is just a neat little roll of sandpaper that you can tear off as needed.  Carefully following all advice, I thought I had the problem solved and assured the lady minister it was safe to use the facilities.  

Wrong.  The silly putty didn’t stick.  I must have done something wrong.  Back to the hardware store but they don’t sell just the ring of putty -- I’d have to buy the whole kit again.  So . . . Amazon.  This time it was a different brand, Corkee instead of Fluidmaster, and it came with a hard plastic ring and a little tube of silicon sealant to stick it onto the top of the brass tube.

Everything was proper, the top of the tube was definitely sealed -- and the water inlet STILL kept coming on -- not often and not much, but still . . .   A day of twiddling and messing around.  At some point I had two flappers on chains (that’s what fastens them to the lever outside) and draped one over the overflow tube to get it out of the way.  That’s what did the trick.  I think it was because it made the attached chain pull straight up instead of a little sideways so that when the flapper came down, it was centered.  I will NOT ask anyone for advice.  It’s against my principles.  Unless the advice is via YouTube.

But my other principles and practices are to consider the big picture.  The local big picture, which the locals ought to be figuring out instead of throwing temper tantrums, is the stuff AFTER the toilets and other drains.  First, no one in the beginning of the town a century ago thought of storm sewers so town drainage is poor; second, our soil is largely very fine gumbo that expands when it’s wet and contracts when it’s dry, changing volume so drastically that no house in town is straight except when the ground is the wetness it was when the house was built; third, when weather is severe, our town sewage lagoon doesn’t work.  At thirty below the “bugs” (bacteria) don’t work and who can blame them?  So we’re looking at a very expensive system of covers for winter.  If we fail our testing levels of e coli, et al, the fines are also pretty steep. 

It is the state that sets the standard for sewage lagoons and their goal is to make sure the water has been sufficiently sterilized to let it travel on down a little creek without exposing anyone in that drainage to contagion.  The state can move the standard up and down; lately they’ve been moving it up.  There is trouble on the way: filtering for toxins, including heavy metal and herbicides, and removing pharmaceuticals.  Already experiments show that it is possible to test city sewer effluent and know what the consumption level of illegal drugs is in the town as a whole, but now scientists are worrying about LEGAL drugs, particularly since such a high proportion of aging Valier people are on insulin, blood thinners, heart meds, and so on.  Maybe Viagra.  Not so much birth control pills.  Testing for and removing pharmaceuticals is VERY expensive.  No one knows what they do to downstream life.  Nor do I know what happens to our sludge, which can’t be used on fields if it contains heavy metals.

There’s lots more to find out.  Like who it is who sneaks their cesspool pumpings into the town sewers so that strange things are found floating in our lagoon.  We do allow the honey wagon to unload -- or did.  We were all relieved when the crop duster moved his operation out of town so there were no longer big tanks of herbicide at the highest point in town.  The grain elevator, which is technically out of town, is using our sewer system, so unknowable amounts of grain sneak in.  Our small population is enough to justify having the post office, but not to offer efficient enough PO service to get our lagoon test samples to the state lab before they become useless.

Lately I’ve been reading articles about the problem of public defecation in India, where it is usually confined to “waste ground”.  When it dries, “untouchables” rake it into piles and burn it:  the book, “The Jewel in the Crown”, talks about the smell.  There are public lavatories -- that is, open to the paying public but privately owned and who knows where the sewer goes?   The result, it seems, is children burdened with infection so that they are stunted and dull.

In most places the problem is about overpopulation producing too much byproduct.  In Valier the problem is that there are not enough people paying into the system to meet the standards set by the state.  What I want is one of those electrically fired toilets that simply burn up feces.  But then I’d have to get photovoltaic units to make sure I have electricity, since our service is not entirely dependable.  And still people have a fantasy about idyllic country living being cheaper!

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