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Septic System Insurrection

08/25/2014 @ 9:29am

All homeowners are familiar with a few inescapable truisms. Among them are “a roof never leaks when it isn’t raining,” and “the kids always choose to drink neon-red Kool-Aid the day after you install a new white carpet.”

A maxim that my wife and I experienced recently is the one that goes “it’s never a good sign when the plumber shows up with both an excavator and a jackhammer.”

We have lived in our farmhouse for three decades. During the entirety of that time, we have never made it more than a year without discovering that water is standing over the basement drain. Except it’s never all water. Yuck!

During our long-running war with our septic system, we have engaged an army of drain-clearing mercenaries. Each stormed our basement with their modern pipe-cleaning weaponry; each eventually declared victory and gave us the all clear. And the drain would inevitably re-plug some months later.

I often attempted to open the pipes with a hand-powered sewer snake, but that only elicited high levels of frustration and anger and the muttering of innumerable imprecations. It’s a good thing that we don’t keep dynamite around the place.

When the sewer plugged yet again last summer, we decided we’d had enough. It was time to exercise the nuclear option.

We called our local septic guy, who came out with his backhoe and replaced our septic tank and drain field. When he had finished, my wife and I danced a little jig on the fresh dirt. Ding-dong, the wicked witch is dead!

Or so we thought.  

About a month ago my wife said, “I think I smell something icky in the basement.”

“That can’t be!” I replied. “We fixed that once and for all!” But my wife is never wrong about such things.

So we summoned a plumber who has a high-tech camera system that can snake its way through sewers. I felt like a Mission: Impossible team member as I watched the spy cam footage of our underground pipes.

The problems included a “T” where there should be a “Y” (the plumber who originally installed our pipes must have been dyslexic) and a piece of corroded and cancerous-looking cast iron pipe. It’s a mystery as to why the original plumber put in that one section of iron pipe. Perhaps it’s what he happened to have on his truck that day or maybe he had been burned in a credit card scam and no longer trusted plastic.

The solution involved replacing some of the plumbing beneath and outside the basement. As the clamor of the excavator and the jackhammer crescendoed, so did our apprehensions regarding the amount of funds that were disappearing from our checking account.

It was one of those sweltering summer days when outdoor conditions were similar to those found in a steam bath. Sweat trickled and formed creeks, streams, and mighty rivers. And that was just from me watching the plumbers! It was probably a lot worse for the two guys who were doing actual the work.

I hunkered by the trench that had been excavated beside our foundation and peered into the depths. One of the plumber guys was at the bottom, using a shovel to locate the sewer main. It dawned on me, not for the first time, that work is fascinating. I can watch it all day.

As the plumber hacked at the dirt, I made valuable suggestions regarding such things as the length of his shovel handle and his shovel-handling techniques. The conversation soon became markedly one-sided, so I went inside to see how the jackhammer guy was doing.

His methodology showed promise but was sorely lacking in finesse. Good thing I was there to offer advice about how he needed to ascertain that the bit was at the proper angle before he pulled the trigger and that things would go much faster if he had a hefty beer gut to rest atop the jackhammer. Sadly, most of this sage advice went unheard due to the racket of the hammer.

After a good bit of digging and jackhammering – all while ignoring my wise counsel! -- the plumber guys finally uncovered the rusty chunk of pipe that had been the ringleader of our septic system insurrection. The plumbers chained the conduit to their excavator, hoping to dislodge it from the spot it had occupied for the past half-century. The cast iron tube responded by shattering into pieces.

The plumbers paused to assess the situation. Anger and frustration were at high levels. Imprecations were muttered.

“I just want to say one thing,” I offered helpfully. “Dynamite!”

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