We’ve encountered several plumbing projects since buying the house that were not part of our planned renovations but rather part and parcel of living in an old house. We had the pinhole leak in our hot water pipe, the replacement of our bathroom faucet, and the abrupt collapse of part of our kitchen drain, and I didn’t bother chronicling the recent kitchen faucet swap (the cheap faucet we bought when we moved in started leaking and we got a less cheap replacement). All of these were sudden and unexpected, but the basement drain problem was not. It had been progressively worsening for some time and we had been progressively ignoring it. Well, no longer.

Emily

Emily

Almost two weeks ago our daughter Emily was born (explaining the brief gap in new posts). We’re very excited to have her with us, but it means we’re back on the cloth diaper regimen, which brings me back to the basement drain. Let me explain how our sewer is set up. Our house has two sewer systems: the black water sewer that serves the toilet, tub, and bathroom sink and drains via 4″ cast iron pipe into the city sewer, and a gray water sewer for the kitchen sink and laundry that drains via a 2″ cast iron pipe, increasing to a 6″ clay pipe under the basement floor where it picks up a couple of floor drains before heading into the catch basin in the back yard, where it is joined by gutters and the patio drain. From there it can drain into the city sewer as well. Chicago is one of the bastion cities of combined storm and sanitary sewers. The catch basin is a combination grease trap and local water reservoir to help the city handle the water volume during heavy rains. So we have a manhole behind the back porch (under our grill) and a big brick vault about seven feet deep.

Starting at some point several (six?) months ago, when we ran the dishwasher or the washing machine, water would violently spray out of the top of the drain for the washing machine in the basement. To prevent this, I removed a small pvc screw plug from the basement floor. Now water didn’t spray out, it simply welled up out of the floor and drained to the other floor drain in front of the washing machine. This, in turn, also eventually filled and backed up. Then, during the melt from all the snow this past winter, water started to fill the landing at the bottom of the basement steps, about 6″ deep. Sarah put some bricks into the water to use as stepping stones to get into the basement. It was getting pretty bad.

Removed plug: better than spraying water

Removed plug: better than spraying water

I bought a drain snake, and then I bought a bigger one. As if the problems hadn’t been bad enough, because we’d now be washing cloth diapers, I really didn’t want the water backing up anymore. The water was also pooling at the base of our (very expensivenew hot water heater and I didn’t want it to start rusting.

Previously repaired connection

Previously repaired connection

I bought a cheap USB camera on a 45′ cable to try and figure out what was under the floor. I researched old Chicago sewer systems online. After running snakes down various pipes and floor drains for two days straight, Sarah cut off the already broken PVC fitting just above the floor while I rented a power drain snake from Home Depot. Having direct access to the clay pipe meant that I could now confirm my fear: the snake was pulling up thick, goopy, mud. That’s a fairly sure sign that the clay pipe under the floor has either separated or outright collapsed. Since I wasn’t prepared to start jack hammering the basement floor, I just snaked all the drains as well as I could, put together new PVC connections (including a clean out) at the base of the drain pipe, and called it a day.

New and improved connection

New and improved connection

So far, nothing has backed up since then, so our efforts were not entirely in vain. I still need to clean up all the mud down there. However, I’m not convinced that our current state will last as long as we were hoping. We’re planning to dig down the whole basement floor and replace all of the underground plumbing at the same time. My current timeline put that a ways out (aka years). It may turn out that we can’t wait that long.

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