Thursday, October 20, 2016


Saint Cloaca is an invented persona for good luck with your plumbing.  This time the problem was that the toilet flushed reluctantly and made the drain in the shower bubble, though no water came up — nothing was flooded.  My devotion in the war against dysfunction is watching YouTube with as much time and intensity as any college course.  But it’s a heckuva lot more fun.

For instance this first YouTube about all the crazy stuff one “incredible” particular toilet could flush — gummi bears, dog kibble, little toy soldiers.  I don’t know what the difference in design is, but observation shows it works..  
incredible toilet   by St. Thomas

Then there’s the aesthetics of the presentation, this one using background chanting by the kind of singers used for advertising jingles.  

And this video is part of a whole category called “How Things Work” whose “patron saint” is Rube Goldberg.

I was also rewarded by sitting through a demonstration of a toilet that had been cut in half right down the middle and a sheet of plastic applied to the open halves so we could see colored water flow through — two colors.  It explained how the siphoning action works.

How things work is the key to plumbing.  Twice earlier my “soil stack”— or central big pipe for drawing in air that goes literally through the roof — had sunk, because it’s resting on the ground at the bottom end. Very primitive. I had the idea that was the problem again this time, but I didn’t want to crawl under the house (the bathroom has far less crawl space that the rest of the building because it is an “add-on” and one must go through a small gap in the added-on foundation.  At one point I cut a trapdoor in the floor in the yard-square passage between the bathroom and the closet where the sanitary stack goes up and at another point we cut the soil stack itself and inserted an interval of PVC.  

I tried calling plumbers.  There are very few ACTUAL trained, certified and insured plumbers.  There is no list of them — the Montana Union of plumbers didn’t answer their phones any more than the plumbers would.  They universally hate small old houses with impoverished owners.  

None of the people in town who supply construction had any suggestions, but plenty of kibitzers had “cousins” who “did a little plumbing.”  I tried one of them in the last emergency and he brought the world’s biggest roto-rooter, took up the toilet for maybe the third time, and found no obstacles.  I paid over $300 and was told afterwards by all the curbside experts that one should NEVER roto-root “orangeburg” sewer sections (I’ve got about ten feet of that left) because it rips up in the insides and collapses it.

Finally I stopped at the Shelby plumbing supply place and the clerk there gave me the name of a plumber who answered his phone.  He’s booked solid for the next week or so, but we made an appointment for Sunday evening when we would develop a war plan.  In the store a local rancher became very concerned with my problem, particularly the possibility that I might die from the sewer gas (yes, indeed, a real danger!) esp now that it’s cold and the windows are shut.  He had replumbed his own house, and he was just about to make up his mind he should come home with me.  It’s technically illegal for anyone but the owner/occupant of a house to do plumbing in it, so I escaped.

Back to YouTube and this time I asked it what to do with human excrement if your only toilet won’t work.  I gasped through accounts of what NOT to do, like what some low-rent characters have done in old apartment tenements.  Uneducated but associating poop with fixtures, they filled the toilet to the rim, then the sink, and finally the bathtub.  Then they fled in the night.  Sometimes this happens in cities under bombardment.  Aaauuuugh.

I discovered that thanks to hunters, there is a commercially available alternative.  So you go to your hunters’ supply store or online and buy a little kit that includes a bucket, a seat that fits onto it, and heavy-duty plastic bags with secure closures.  Hunters are required to pack out their poop from camps.  Here’s a deluxe version.  

This is quite easily improvised at home once you think of it.  The problem — like a lot of things — is THEN what do you do with your bag o’poop?  You cannot put it in the garbage.  In theory, it should be buried at least a foot deep away from human habitation.  I think in reality the answer is “don’t ask.”  

But I kept asking about the plumbing system.  Heating systems, esp. when something is burned to generate the heat, need chimneys that vent smoke and gases outside.  BUT they also need access to air in order to burn, so venting IN is an important as venting OUT.  Water systems are the same.  Because that “soil stack” or main cast iron 4” pipe does two things: carry in fresh air and vent out sewer gases, our attention goes to the stink rather than the need to take air in.  But if no air comes into the system, the water cannot leave.  

My shower drain was serving as the stink stack.  I decided that my main 4” pipe had sunk again, which means it forms a p-trap at the bottom where water accumulates and prevents air intake.  We put a rock under it the first time and a board under it the second time.  (I hire muscle.)  One can see the top of the stack where it’s outside the roof so can judge from that about the sinking.  It only takes an inch or so.  This means that the seal around the pipe is broken, but my shingles are so old they’re fragile as potato chips and putting weight on them makes them shatter and tear loose.  I just ignore the seal for now.
Back to YouTube.  Now I discover a nifty little thing called a “riser clamp.”  You clamp it around the vertical pipe just above the floor and it prevents the pipe from sinking.  Also, it gives you something to hang onto to lift the pipe from above the floor.  So I go to the hardware stores in Valier and Shelby to buy such a clamp.  They don’t have them.  So I go online and order one from the first supplier I come to.  A nice lady calls me back and says they can only be ordered in amounts of 500 at a time.  We agree to cancel.  Next I get an email with one of those pesky surveys with twenty questions about how I liked my riser clamp and whether the nice lady was nice enough.

In the meantime I’m still watching YouTubes.  An aggressive plumber comes on in one and practically shouts into the camera, “EVERY FIXTURE MUST HAVE A VENT.”  Every fixture with a drain must have a vent and every vent must have a p-trap, which is a little p-shaped bend in the pipe that holds water to keep sewer gas from rising through it.  Every vent must have a p-trap except the toilet, which is invariably the first fixture up the pipeline from the water. 

I ponder this.  I draw little diagrams.  Finally it dawns on me.  The REASON you don’t have to put in a p-trap for a toilet is because the p-trap is BUILT-IN, except they call it a siphon.  Now I cast suspicious eyes on the toilet.  Ever since the town put in a fourth well — and it was hard to find a place that would access underground water — the water has been harder, more full of minerals.  I get a little white crust on my faucets and the toilet bowl has become a big problem to clean.  I even tried the thing about leaving a cola in it overnight.  (Didn't work.)

So I thought, maybe crud is blocking the p-trap/vent INSIDE THE TOILET.  This would explain why the roto-rooter never found an obstacle.  I bought a $25 jug of CLR and for the next 48 hours I poured in a cup of the stuff, let it sit until the next time I needed to pee, then flushed and plunged heck out of it.  The shower drain went crazy.  But I kept it up until the jug was empty.  Eventually, the good old siphon action under the bowl came back, I renewed the shower drain by taking a shower, and now everything is back to normal.

I lit a candle for Saint Cloaca for smiling at me and keeping me working on the problem.  I called the real plumber, named Joe, and cancelled our war conference.  He’s a pretty nice guy with a good laugh, but I didn't tell him about Saint Cloaca.  

If you want your kid to have a secure future, send him or her to plumbing school.

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