*I asked for this post after venturing from the house twice and finding water bubbling up from two intersections, then reading in the paper that people are flushing shredded t-shirts. What the heck, even people? So I thank the Walshs for providing their expertise- SAH*
Does It Flush? A Primer by Bill (and Caitlin) Walsh-
In these perilous days of calamity and toilet paper shortage, many of us face a question that we, in our nation of prosperity and plenty, have never faced before:
What can I flush down the toilet?
A number of us have faced it anyway–as landlords, the number of things we’ve pulled out of various pipes and septic systems is nothing short of amazing. The power of human ingenuity pales next to the power of human wishful thinking. But it’s spread like never before. The toilet paper-starved masses are looking to their commodes with a look of consternation and hope: Paper towels, newspaper, magazines… these will work as toilet paper, in a pinch. Can’t I flush them, too?
So let’s start with the Comprehensive List Of What You Should Flush Down the Toilet:
- Human Bodily Waste
- Toilet paper
End, done, finito. If it’s not on the list, you should not be flushing it.
That said, because of certain… Common Habits and Dishonest Advertisements, shall we say, perhaps we should make a non-comprehensive list of things that definitely should not go down the drain:
- Baby Wipes
- Menstrual Pads
- Paper Towels
- Little Green Army Men
Tampons are a really really big one. To the point that Dad always has a question to ask when a drain’s been snaked: “Did you find the mouse?” (Between the long squiggly “tail” (made of non-biodegradable nylon) and a week’s worth of sewage treatment, that’s what they look like.) If the answer’s no, you’re probably going back. Tampons do not flush. Do not flush tampons. Throw them in the trash.
But what about baby wipes? No. If they say they’re flushable: no. If it’s really covered in baby poop and you don’t want to see it again: no. Flush it and you will be calling us.
Now, both of these are at least of a material theoretically capable of degrading eventually (strings notwithstanding). Condoms? Forget about it. You will definitely be cleaning those out of your system sooner or later.
But that leaves a question: Why? What happens to your waste after we flush it? Let’s look into that.
First, it passes the trap in the toilet. This is a curvy piece just below the toilet, deliberately smaller than the pipe, designed to make sure anything that gets through can get through the pipes. When your toddler flushes a pencil, it gets stuck here.
This curvy piece also causes an air seal that prevents your toilet from stinking.
After that, it’s a three- or four-inch drain line, which is mostly smooth but (since nothing is perfect) has burrs inside that can snag things that shouldn’t have been flushed. (Like the tail on a tampon.)
Finally, it goes to the main, which is Not My Problem. But that doesn’t mean it’s nobody’s problem. Here’s an article on fatbergs I found: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-46836867
Moving past that: Say the Bad Thing has happened. And maybe you don’t want to call us. (I mean, if you’re calling me as a handyman, let’s say it’s midnight on a Sunday… well. The bill won’t be small.)
What to do?
First, you have to figure out where the problem is. If it’s the sink trap, then it’s pretty easy. And it pretty often is! Except… we’ve already said we caused this problem by flushing. So let’s go to Part Two, when the problem is the toilet.
We’ll try a closet auger first. This is is a small metal snake, sort of like a really long spring. If the clog is still in the toilet unit itself, this’ll do it, and it’ll do it in a few minutes. Which is fantastic! Only… if the clog was in the toilet itself, you probably could have gotten it out with a plunger. So it’s pretty much never this easy.
So we go into the basement and look, with a thousand-yard stare, at the drain system. (Don’t have have a thousand yard stare yet? Don’t worry, it’s coming!) What you’re looking for is places where you can get in, places where the system can be opened. This is called the clean-out–a threaded cap placed in some parts of your wastewater pipes to allow them to be cleaned.
I want you to understand at this point that if the toilet hasn’t been flushing–and, regardless of when you noticed the problem, it’s probably been stopped up for a week–then everything you’ve been failing to flush… is in this pipe you’re about to open. Every. Single. Thing. I’d love to give you tips on how to avoid bathing in it once you get the pipe open (I can pretty much guarantee it’s over your head.) If you find out, let me know; “get a raincoat” is as good as I’ve come up with. If it isn’t midnight on a Sunday, maybe you can get a full-body suit to shield yourself. They’re called Tyvek Jump Suits and sold at Northern Safety, or possibly Lowe’s. They’re not your size, they’re the least stretchy things known to humankind, and they’re hot. Honestly, I’d just bank on taking a shower after. Multiple showers.
Also… the cleanout may or may not come off. That’s right, a poop shower is literally the good option. The bad option… is that the pipe breaks. Off. And falls on the floor. With a resounding crash. Because a lot of old-house sewer pipes? They’re cast iron. They weigh ten pounds a foot when they’re not full of effluvium.
(Don’t be standing under it.)
So let’s say you got lucky. The clean-out opened up, you accepted your excrement spa day with grace and aplomb.
You still have to unclog the pipe. But how?
The first thing is what we call “bagging it.” There’s a rubber garden hose attachment that, when attached to a garden hose and stuffed into the pipe, pressurizes the pipe and (hopefully!) forces the clog to break apart. It works! Sometimes! But a lot of times, the clog develops a hole rather than going downstream. The pipe won’t pressurize, and you’re up shit creek. Or, you know, not.
The next thing is Mr. Rooter, first name Roto. This is a minimum of a 150 pounds of angry, manure-encrusted machinery that wants to hurt you. Badly. And then get the cut infected with everything that’s grown in sewers within the rental area through the last year. This is a machine that, when you rent one, they give you a pair of heavy-duty gloves to go along with it. And won’t accept them back when you’re done. This is a clue: Wear them.
Then we get to using it. My grandfather used to have a saying when something was visibly being difficult. That saying was “Trying to stuff spaghetti up a wild cat’s ass.” This is trying to stuff wild spaghetti up a dead cat’s ass. The machine is stronger than you. The snake that goes in the pipe is a tightly-coiled spring. The tip binds against every protuberance inside the pipe. And coils up the spring. And makes it pop in random directions. And spring back out of the pipe. The outside of the spring occasionally gets snagged and creates a razor sharp burr. A burr you need to grab a hold of. While it’s spinning. (That’s a big part of why you need gloves.) It may have to go in there a hundred feet, one painful, manual inch at a time. It may have to go in there that far ten times, with different tips on it.
Oh, I guess I should explain tips.
There’s The Penetrator (which looks like the spade from a deck of cards), The Extractor (an open spring that will pull things back out), The Root-Cutter (a round sawblade. Those rusty cast-iron pipes will frequently admit tree-roots at the seams), and The Chopper (a pair of tines that poke forward for shredding toilet paper and such.) Congratulations, you’ve just gotten acquainted with the crappiest superhero team ever.)
And that’s it! In all my years of landlording, I’ve only ever had one clog that didn’t respond to some combination of these methods. (That one was in the sewer main, and officially Not My Problem.) But don’t give yourself a pat on the back yet: We still have one more thing to deal with.
Well, no. I misspoke. You have to deal with cleanup. I’m going to go grab a beer and my decades of unresolved sewage-related trauma and go over there. Enjoy!