Does It Flush? A Primer by Bill (and Caitlin) Walsh

plumbingproblem

*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?

…yeah. No.

So let’s start with the Comprehensive List Of What You Should Flush Down the Toilet:

  • Human Bodily Waste
  • Toilet paper
  • Soup

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:

  • Tampons
  • Condoms
  • Baby Wipes
  • Menstrual Pads
  • Paper Towels
  • Little Green Army Men
  • Newspaper

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.

Cleanup.

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!

127 thoughts on “Does It Flush? A Primer by Bill (and Caitlin) Walsh

  1. A friend of mine told me she had to fire her house cleaner because she kept flushing her gigantic overnight maxi pads down the toilets in her 1950s built house, after repeatedly asking her not to do so.

    Not that it’s ever ok to flush a pad, but old plumbing and old toilets make it worse.

    First world, pre-pandemic problems, I know, but this reminded me of it.

  2. That’s a very wordy way of saying “call your local 24 hour plumber and offer him all of your money.”

  3. In line with this post; I know it marks me as a pedantic annoyance, but it bothers me when I see a sign in a bathroom that reads “please only flush bathroom tissue in the toilet”. What? No bodily waste? Isn’t that sort of the POINT? And no water? How does THAT work?

    *grumble*mutter*

    1. It’s like the “Employees must wash hands” signs in retail and restaurants.

      EVERYBODY needs to wash hands. Even Karen…

  4. I don’t normally c4c, but this seems like a good exception…

    (Hey, maybe I can get my darling husband to come play now that he’s been published here…)

  5. When dealing with a stopped-up and over-flowing toilet, the first thing (even before calling for help) is to turn off the water for the toilet.

    No, it didn’t happen to me. It happened to a former neighbor (in the apartment complex) who banged on my door asking for help.

    After turning the water off, I left the mess for the annoyed maintenance man.

    God only knows what she tried to flush. 😦

  6. You forgot to mention the “hot water in a bucket and Dawn dishwashing liquid as a chaser” method. Freaking magic.

    (Doesn’t have to be Dawn, but that what I have used.)

    That said, hot water and dish soap is more about natural goo, bits of hair, etc.

    1. Switching between detergent and soap can work, too.

      Our three year old boy is now terrified of draining the bath– because it was draining slowly, so I grabbed one of those cheap “snakes” that is a super-sized ziptie that’s had Vs cut in the sides to make barbs, and pulled out about half a pound of hair-and-gray-goo.

      So now the drain “rawr-s” (I think he means roars….maybe) when it drains, which is terrifying.

      1. We used those zip snake things… I think at our previous apartment. Useful, certainly better than dealing with taking plumbing apart; but also, blegh.

      2. Yup younger daughter had long (mid back/waist length dry) curly hair. Its still curly but shoulder length only as she has to work and maintaining that mane was nearly 2 hrs a day. In Junior high she had the young girl cleanliness fetish. You would NOT believe the hairballs I had to fish out of the girls bathtub/shower. Looked like some new ginger sewer rat had invaded our pipes.

        1. Get a tub shroom. They work wonders. It’s basically a hair trap for your drain, but it sits down IN the drain. You pull it up every couple of days to a week, and literally just pull the hair off of it. (It tends to wrap around, so it just peels off like an o-ring.) And, since it’s a tall doohickey with a hole in the top, even if the bottom portion is totally clogged, water will still slowly drain.

          I have never used the sink version. Don’t really need it there. Stainless steel seems… less accommodating, though.

          1. That was 10+ years ago I don’t think I ever saw a tub shroom then. She does have a tub shroom for her apartment. Both she and her roomie have medium length curly hair so it’s still an issue but it’s their (and the landlord’s) issue not mine now 🙂 .

    2. Too much Dawn and not enough hot water behind it will ALSO clog pipes. I had a tenant who discovered the method for doing this.

    3. A couple of ounces of granulated lye usually works, if it can be delivered to the trouble spot. Zep Crystal Heat drain cleaner is mostly lye.

      Then there’s this stuff called Liquid Fire that comes in a red jug. It’s mostly sulfuric acid, and it WILL unblock your pipes. DO NOT use it if you’ve tried lye! Unless you’re really into toxic, caustic geysers shooting out of your drains.
      ———————————
      Susan Ivanova: “You’re saying just because I’m holding this right now, I’m Green Leader? But I’m human!”

      Former Green Leader: “Rules of combat older than contact with other races. Did not mention aliens. Rules change…caught up in committee. Not come through yet.”

      Susan: “Bureaucracy. Ya gotta love it.”

    1. I grew up on septic.
      Grandma’s was some screwy thing done in the …. 18th? century? So about once a year, if not sooner, it had to be pumped out.
      My parents is “vanishing septic” meaning it gets SOMEHOW filtered, and absorbed by the soil????? (I’m wondering how all that works here?)
      Anyway, never needs to be pumped out. And we could flush TP.

      1. Grandma’s was a cistern (closed tank, probably a small one). Parents’ is a modern septic system (big tank with drain lines going off into percolating soil). That modern septic should also have the tank pumped every few years; otherwise the non-degradable debris (eg. remnants of toilet paper, fine nonsoluble particles from dirty clothes, etc) will eventually fill the tank past the level of the drain pipes, and it will stop working. That can take 20 to 50 years, depending on the size of the tank and the extent of the drain field, but then you’re looking at a very expensive renovation or even total replacement, especially if the drain lines have also filled up. Also, this will help keep ahead of the roots that often get in at the joints, and if left undisturbed will eventually fill and clog the system.

        So pump the damn septic tank once in a while, and save yourself a lot of grief.

          1. Dirt from clothes is probably the least of it. Toilet paper does not entirely biodegrade, and eventually the leftover fibres become a heavy sludge that fills the tank. This is normal, but does need regular removal, cuz once it gets into and clogs up the drain field, you’re screwed. It’s helpful to occasionally flush a packet of yeast, or commercial digester (sold for the purpose), but not a total substitute.

            I’ve seen septic systems that folks believed never needed pumping… solid all the way to the top and even backing up into the toilet.

            1. Maybe parents had it pumped since then? I don’t remember pumping while I lived there but that was 14 years? I guess it depends on the size of the tank.

                1. If mom had a say. I’m the PALE and MILD version of mom when it comes to “don’t tread on me” and “you and whose army? Oh, that army? Those are rookie numbers, and I can take them.”

        1. The rule of thumb around here is to pump the septic tank every seven years. At the church, somebody used laundry detergent for something (no idea what for, bathrooms and a sink in the kitchen area) and the less-than-skilled drain-cleaner ran the rotorooter into the tank. The ABS down-elbow was much the worse for wear–fixable with fiberglass and hot showers afterward.

          Also, we rented the the parsonage, and the renters thought it was a great idea to pour bacon grease down the kitchen sink. I didn’t have to deliver the gentle, kind, but thorough asschewing that came out afterward. I don’t believe Mrs. [redacted] liked us after we told her that the first cleanout was free to them, but the next came out of her pocket.

          One local trick is that people cover the septic tank completely, so finding the tank and the opening is a lot of fun. (For various levels of disgusting, frustrating work.) We have an exposed lid at the house, and I keep traffic cones on that lid and the RV dump access after I had to repair the latter. A septic tank at the edge of the drive can be a problem in winter with that setup.

          1. ours as a kid was buried, but dad knew where the top opening was. The one time we had to pump it out while I lived there (age 5 to 18 and iirc I was a teen), dad dug down, and the vac truck guy was impressed when dad hit the center of the cover (service showed up a bit early so we weren’t fully ready) by lining it up from memory. I just had to fill it back in. For some reason dad didn’t trust me digging it up.
            Thinking back, my memory is odd, I remember the first house, sorta (moved out when I was 1, I remember dad making the septic system for the new one, it was next door) and the second, very well, but I don’t remember the act of moving to the new house down the road. I remember it being backed in (trailer house).

          2. Pumping recommended every 3 years around here, but 1) that long northern winter slows down digestion to the point of not working, and 2) we get a lot of invasive roots (Siberian elm and cottonwood, mostly).

      2. Most of the systems I’m familiar with are designed to filter into the ground– but it also depends on having healthy microbes to break the waste down, and not putting too much hair down the system, etc.

        I try to avoid dumping bleach into our system and about twice a year I’ll dump yeast, sugar and warm water down the toilet. Shocked the heck out of the realtor when we sold the El Paso house and it didn’t need pumping. (Especially since a lot of the folks down there are…ah… very enthusiastic about you needing their services.)

        1. Yep, yeast and a little starter fuel is useful. It’ll still eventually need pumping, because not everything digests, but it’ll take longer and there won’t be so much dense crud down there. (Also helps if the system gets enough water passing through it.) Of course every time you crap you throw an, um, assload of microbes in there, but yeast probably attacks a different set of wastes.

          1. Showering daily, using the food disposal only to keep the dish washer from clogging up, and not risking poisoning the cats with automatic toilet bowl cleaning tablets probably helps, too.

          1. It honestly works fine if you just dump a little packet of yeast (or a tablespoon, or a “meh, that’s some microbes!”) into the toilet, same or half of sugar, and flush it. The powders have to be at least mostly melted so they don’t stick, but it’d take some effort to avoid that.

            If you’re dealing with someone who needs a Great Secret to Magically Clean the System, you fluff up the way you’d wake up inactive yeast. (Warm water, sugar, let it start bubbling.)

            Thinking on it, it would probably work BETTER with a sink, since that’d bypass the usual chlorine tablet in the toilet issue…..

            The only purpose is to get enough microbes into the septic to overcome anything that might be killing them off.

            I’m still boggling at the idea of needing it pumped in less than two years, when the ground temps in El Paso are so *perfect* for yeast growth.

            1. So… my fermented kraut would have the same effect on the septic system as it does on my waste disposal system? Interesting………

      3. If you land perks, your septic tank will work. If your land won’t perk, then the county isn’t going to want to give you a permit to install a septic tank; i.e., you can’t build a house there (until or unless there is an alternate method of septic disposal, which would be some sort of county/muncipal sewer line). The perc test is, I think, actually a perculation test. My parents had to have a drain field installed, meaning they had to have perforated black plastic pipes, three of them, buried in the ground. I’m waiting on a helpful neighbor from down the road to come clean out the ditch that had to be dug before the land would pass the percolation test.

        Anyway, that’s the rural North Carolina version of how it works.

        Oh, also, the man* who comes and pumps out your septic tank needs to run a cable back up the line to get that last little bit of toilet paper that is stuck or else your line between the house and the septic tank will be stopped up and you can pay the plumber to fix it when your toilets back up again.

        (*Notice how even “real feminist” don’t complain about inequality in the male/female ratio of plumbers and septic tank pumpers? It’s because women aren’t stupid. This is the definition of “a dirty job that someone has to do.”)

        1. My cousin’s “roommate” is a plumber. She’s not what one would think of as a female plumber except maybe on tv’s Home Improvement.

  7. I have never quite grasped out culture’s failure to modernize our toilets. From the simple step of abandoning the tank in favor of the industrial input pipe to the addition of sensor technology to determine the amount of water required for the bowl to clear there seems much on-the-shelf technology available to improve our fundamental plumbing.

    Heck, for a small fee at a building supply box store you can purchase and install yourself a multi-tier flush valve, enabling a “half tank” setting for purely liquid waste. Returning to our prior LARGE tanks and installing tri-level* flushing apparatus would seem a simple adjustment, if only our regulatory masters would permit it.

    *tri-level: #1, #2 and “I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it”.

    1. The bathroom in our house is *tiny*, or I would have installed a urinal while redoing the plumbing a few years ago…

      1. At our house, I wish we had the room to add a bidet. Family member has digestive issues, and even toilet paper in volumes necessary to clean up after those issues can clog a toilet. As I know all too well.

          1. Agreed, I put one in years ago and miss it dearly when I travel. Also good for times of, uh, intestinal unrest, to avoid undue abrasion.

          1. I know that “jet” merely means “emitted in a stream” but nonetheless shrink from the idea of pressure washing my privates.

      2. Saw a video of a visit to Penn’s house. Showed a convenience closet containing a sink and a urinal. Penn said something along the lines of ‘I’m not sure why you need both a sink *and* a urinal . . .”

        1. Ahh the Fenway Park Seventh inning solution, Using the Sink. Yes it happens, yes I’ve seen it, hell no I haven’t done it I was brought up better than that. The men’s rooms tend to overflow at the 7th inning as there is a slightly longer pause between innings (seventh inning stretch common across all MLB I think) and that is the last time alcoholic beverages are sold. So everyone is out to relieve them selves and get to the concessions before the 8th inning starts and the beer ceases to flow causing some ensuing panic in some inebriated attendees. This is particularly true if the score is such that extra innings are likely (beer is NOT reopened in a 14 inning game).

    2. A complicated toilet seems like an invitation to urgent problems at inopportune moments…

      There’s a fine line between ‘if it works, don’t fix it’ and holding on to obsolete tech through inertia.

      1. A few years back the Japanese had problems with toilets catching fire. The wiring was rated for 10 years and it was year 11. There are problems with being on the bleeding edge of toiletry.

          1. You haven’t lived till you’ve tried to use a Japanese toilet with only Japanese instructions. Harrowing

            1. Guess I’ve been lucky – only spent @ five hours total in Japan, transitioning through Narita airport on my way elsweheres.

              1. Narita airport was kinda meh, tbh. Went through there on our way to Saipan in February. Haneda airport was kinda luxe: went through there in September, when we took a vacation to the country. The fancy modern Japanese toilets are kinda fun. The traditional toilets are glorified holes in the ground. NBD if you’ve ever camped at a primitive site, though.

    1. Our rental house has a basement that someone had once started converting into an apartment. You can tell exactly where they stopped … when they realised they had no way to flush a toilet into the septic line, six feet overhead.

      (Yeah, there exist pump systems, but this was entirely an amateur project using whatever was lying around.)

      1. This reminds me of a part Bill told me but I left out because it interrupted the sentence too much–the pipe is probably over your head. If it isn’t, then it’s under pressure: expect a fountain.

        (Kinda wish I had been able to fit it, because it’s kind of an evocative image.)

    2. Oops, typo in the required fields:

      I had a tree root problem in a house in California, where the cleanout was ill-suited for the root. The rooter guy dug outside the house and uncovered a spot where the cast iron pipe had been pierced and a piece of metal and mortar covered it. He recommended that I do an ABS access that straddled the hole. (Cut enough off an ABS Tee so it would fit over the iron pipe. A bag’s worth of concrete sealed leaks and kept it in place.) I don’t recall if the handy access had to be used later; the tree was about 10′ from the line.

      1. I had a tree root problem in a house in California, where the cleanout was ill-suited for the root.


        Our home up north had the same problem. Tree right over the sewer from the house to the main sewer. Sewer clean out? Was the downstairs basement toilet. As we found out to our dismay. Never could run washer, dishwasher, or take shower, at the same time. We had fun stuff come back up into the downstairs bathroom (1/2 bath).

        When we bought our current house it was septic, with the tank under the wood deck, & backyard was t he drainage field. Then we were forced onto the new sewer that came into the area (hey we didn’t have a problem with the concept). We were rather forceful on our opinion on where the lines between the street main & house needed to go. As well as the clean out. Both the bathrooms have a straight shot, once they get past the toilets, to the house main to the street.

      2. Wasn’t / couldn’t a piece of copper wire run down or alongside the sewer line to inhibit root growth? That’s what was done with the drain lines my parents had installed. Of course, it’s probably all or mostly corroded away by now.

        1. I dumped a good four pounds of Root-X (granulated copper sulfate) around the joints where my new ABS sewer pipe connected to the old cast iron, and where it tied into the city branch pipe. I buried another couple of pounds around it where it passes under the front porch. Out, damn roots!

        2. I don’t think that was customary in California. The tree was right next to the sidewalk, and the walk was adjacent to the street (no patch of grass between them), so over a third of the root structure was covered by city-owned pavement. I lived there 8 years, and think I only had the rooting done once.

          The next place had a similar sidewalk/street setup, but there were no big trees in the front yard to cause trouble. No trouble in the 17 years I lived there.

          When I had a trench done for the pumphouse water and power up here, somebody (plumber, I think) ran a length of insulated copper wire down the trench, but that was as an antenna to locate the pipes in the future. No seams for roots to pierce the PEX water line, so not likely to have trouble. The trench goes between a couple of pines, but the old water line was near some other pines with no ill effect.

  8. Thanks be, I have never dealt with a toilet problem that bad (worst thus far being the flaw in the porcelain that allowed paper to snag leading to . . . a new toilet). However, the rolling disaster that started with someone else’s green scrubbing pad, a lasagna, and the garbage disposal was impressive (kitchen AND bathroom dis-assembled to get everything sorted out. Had to wash or dry-clean all my clothes after the guys said they wouldn’t have to break the sheetrock and then did, plus cement dust, plus opening doors they didn’t need to so the dust got into my computer and printer . . .) Please do not put half a pan of lasagna down the garbage disposal. Just don’t. That’s not what it’s for. Thank you.

    1. That was on advantage of backwood living. The culinary disasters could go out in the woods. Something would eat it. That something mighty be one of the hardier fungi, but…

      The problem what that disposal method, is of course, bears. Bears are best… elsewhere.

        1. I do not recall anything that could not be removed from the pan, but I presume that had sandblasting been a requirement the loss would have been considered minor.

  9. Years back I had a kitchen drain back up. I tried everything that I could think of including a small snake on a drill, then gave up and called the plumber. The roto-rooter did not work. He had to haul out the high pressure water jet. It was EXPENSIVE! Turned out to be from putting onion trimmings down the garbage disposal. Did not do that again.

    1. Banana peels are worse, tho usually they’ll knot up the disposal first.

      We hatesssss garbage disposals, and won’t have one in the house.

    2. We live in a turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th) row house that has been converted into three apartments, one on each floor; it has small pipes with some right angles to get out to the mains in the street. The upstairs neighbor once put 1/2 an onion down the disposal and it backed up our kitchen sink. The plumbers came and I ran upstairs to ask her not to use the kitchen sink until I gave the all clear. The plumbers had to go get some part and left for about an hour. Within 15 minutes of their leaving, more water started coming up out of the sink, ending up with an inch of water on the floor. I ran back upstairs to ask her again to please not use the sink. Her response? “Oh, I thought it was all fixed.” When the plumbers found the onion, I went back upstairs once again to ask her not to put big pieces of food down the disposal. The landlord also sent out a letter to that effect. Fortunately she moved out soon after.

    1. I have no clue. But we haven’t had major rains and only one so-so snow storm, (light. Only so so for spring) but we have had FOUNTAINS at all sorts of intersections….

    1. I’ve never tried flushing ’em… but the dissolvable ones can half-dissolve and turn into glue.

      For fun with your hypochondriac housemate, dump silicone desiccant into the toilet just before they use it. 😀

    2. Yeahhhh….no.

      Freshman year, second semester, one Sunday evening I walked down to the communal restrooms/showers in the dorm and found a group, including the (female) Head Resident clustered inside. That seemed unusual even by the late 70’s standards of that University.

      Seems that some super genius tried flushing Styrofoam peanuts down all of the urinals. I was not party to the discussion between our floor’s Resident Assistant, Head Resident and others where calling Campus Maintenance had been discarded as an option, but one of the guys had a tool kit in his room and was using a big pockin’ wrench to try to open what they thought was the clean out on the urinal.

      Something didn’t seem right, so I popped out to the hallway to see if the maintenance closet with the shutoffs was open. Nope. “Hey, has anyone turned off…” WHOOOOSH! “Never mind”. Stuck my head in, two guys were trying to get the cut off bolt (whatever it’s called) back on against full water pressure (not apparently a useful activity). Our RA took 5-10 minutes had run down 9 flights of stairs to get the keys to the maintenance closet and run back up 9 flights of stairs (would have been faster to use the elevators but logical thinking wasn’t on the menu that night) to turn off the water.

      By that time the hall had flooded 3-4 doors each way (I was sticking towels down to keep the water out of my room). The Head Resident looked like a drowned rat having a melt down, the super geniuses were reassembling the “clean out” and running the tool kit out to a car to hide as much evidence as possible, and most of the residents were ROTFL.

      Since the “adult supervision” (Head Resident and RA) were deeply involved, no reports were written up, Campus Maintenance showed up the next morning to repair the urinals, and we got a new carpet on our floor hallway (which pissed off the golfers as they had to rebuild their putting strategies based on the contours of the new carpet).

      1. We had a backed up sewer line in our basement dorm hall. We didn’t get new carpet, but linoleum. I recall the event was commemorated on that year’s tee shirt. I think I passed on the shirt. That was a pretty straight-forward problem. The hard to diagnose problem of low hot water pressure turned out to be a *partially* stuck valve. There was enough flow for hot water at the sinks, but not enough hot water for a good shower, unless you rigged up a rope the the adjacent commode and flushed. Instead of getting scalded as normally would happen, you would get a sudden burst of “hot enough” water. This was in a fifty-year old WPA (Works Progress Administration) built dorm.

  10. Noooo, not soup, unless suitably soaped first. Soup often contains fat, which is more than happy to glom onto the pipes.

  11. I’ve had epic bowel movements that required the plunger. Once, shortly after moving into a place, I had to get the landlord to use the snek. Never anything worse than that.

    Apparently my parents trained us well in toilet etiquette.

    TP is meant to break apart. Pretty much the opposite of anything intended to absorb water, like tampons, pads, paper towels. Children need to be taught early what does and doesn’t flush well.

    1. You know the thing that’s currently baffling me? The photos I see of parents posting that their children have chucked entire rolls (PLURAL) of toilet paper into a bathtub of water, with toys and all.

      I… just… can’t. I’ve a thing of drilling into my kids ‘not a toy’. Granted, it’s a bit of a hit and miss thing with the stubborn Little Miss Kitty I have right now, but…

      I’d cry. The stress would be that snapping point where I’d just sit on the floor and cry.

  12. Growing up, we were mostly broke. Neither Mom nor my sister had any talent for “handyman” so I became one at about age 8, with a copy of “how things work in your home, and what to do when they dont” (-great- book) House was a 150 year old thing built and added to by various residents. Country house, so “to code” was notional at best.

    At 12 I had to deal with all that plumbing stuff. Note: if one of the clean out ports is on the floor, covered with mesh to act as a drain to the flood prone basement, things get nasty when the septic system stops systeming. Especially with storm runoff running in, not out.

    After repeatedly “rootering” the clogged pipe via that floor-port, I had driven whatever was clogging it thirty meters down-pipe to the trap at the end of the driveway. Inspecting the end-of driveway trap to try to find out what was clogging it (after excavating about a cubic meter of damp clay to get to it) , I found a two and a half inch inch hole in the access port to the six inch terra-cotta sewer pipe (careful young Padawan plumber!).

    I saw the “root” in the port. Scrounged a saw with a thin but stiff blade, and started cutting up the “root”. I pulled two inch sections out, wondering “what the hell is growing in this pipe?” Clue, the root tip was kinda nicely rounded off. No bark. Whaaat? I finally got to the head of the (BLEEEEEP)Ing -mop- that had somehow gotten loose in the flood and floated into that damn clean out port turned into a drain with he rotted out mesh.

    It’s a -mop- right? They squeeze down right? Brace feet on either side, fish the stump of handle out into the port. Grab it crushingly with vize-grips and pull. Hard. Harder. Put your legs and back into it kid …. POP!

    Did I mention being downhill about a meter from the basement floor? That had standing echhh! water in it? Downstream, between the septic tank junction and the leaching field across the street? remember “POP!”?

    I was quick. As I spring up with the now free mop head I saw the geyser forming and I continued to eject from the hole like a bullfrog escaping a gig. The dang brown-geyser was impressive. I dodged. The dug-out flooded. The basement drained, finally. So did all the backlog. Success! Well….

    Then of course, I had to address the now badly clogged leaching field downstream. That resulted in hand digging a 20m by 30m area by hand, to a depth of four feet of soil and clay, then a foot of creek stone, so I coudl stir up the gravel bed, so I could divert stormwater runoff from the adjacent field to flush the muck into the (already polluted) creek.

    We were broke, so no backhoe, nor any paid help. Shovel, hoe, and borrowed pick. I did all that by hand, in a summer month or so. Mom had an estimate from a pro at about 1 years pay. maybe more, for that field work and “getting things right again”. She wept for hours. Then I got to work, and fixed it.

    That plumbing monstrosity worked well, without any further pro work, until she sold the place 30 years later. I fixed it good.

    So yes. Take care of the pipes. Be prepared for very, very expensive “do it yourself” complications. And “effluvia” will be a close companion. Everyone else, however, will be thrifty meters away from you. For a while, anyway.

    On the plus side, a school bully got a real surprise that fall. I didn’t get big, but I was for some reason extraordinarily strong for a lanky geek. (Grin).

  13. I’ve had to replace stopped-up toilet plumbing at least once. At 3 PM on a Sunday, late-80s with Dad so most of the hardware stores were about to close if we missed anything. The closet bend had just completely failed-rusted out, if I recall right-so we had to tear up enough of the floor and linoleum to get to the closet bend, clean the mess out from where it had failed, replace the closet bend, replace the floor, replace the linoleum, reset the toilet…

    Did I mention that plumbing was one of only three things that would cause Dad to swear? I learned most of my profanity that night…

    1. I was doing a major remodel in the bath of a 1936 vintage house. The floor sheathing was already up, and I needed to unscrew a galvanized drainpipe from the cast iron Christmas tree (sink, tub and shower all fed it). Murphy was keeping a close eye, and the iron tree now had a broken branch. Not my idea of fun, but ABS *is* easy to work with.

        1. It was a project to finish the house so we could sell it. I redid most of that drain, except for a portion for the pedestal sink in the wall. I discovered at the end that the new sink really wanted the drain line 6″ higher than the old one, far too late to want to cut the plaster and replumb and fix the wall. The exterior drain was, er, creative*, and flagged by the inspection guy, but we left enough money for the new owners to fix it or have it fixed.

          I’d already done the supply line from the entry to the house to most of the fixtures. The laundry sink had some galvanized stubs that couldn’t be fixed without much more demolition than it was worth.

          (*) It looked like a musical instrument with an additional trap for a loop-de-loop.

  14. My house is an old one with the cast iron piping.
    When I first moved in, the guy across from me said he had to help the former owners snake the sewer lines every spring. The sink, dishwasher and clothes washer portion especially . . . Maples abound and a Choke Cherry off the southwest corner and he claimed roots would .
    Not long after, I had a clog and rented the big snake from Ace and thought if it was bad enough the next time I’d just buy one and enough snake to make it to the main line.
    Feh, very, very few roots came out, but a TON of caked powder detergent. The previous owners used the cheapest powder detergents in copious amounts trying to compensate for the crappy water we have. I ran snake-o-death into all the clean-outs but only got anything from the short portion from the kitchen feed, that for some reason runs parallel to the main line for most of the house length before merging into the main line.
    That was 4 years ago and I have not had an issue since.

    1. The guy who did one of the pump-outs for us (at the church, I think) said that powdered washing machine detergent is really bad for septic. Our water and dishwasher powder don’t play well together at all, and we’ve only found one brand of dishwasher gel that works well for us (the Cascade that Costco sells). Our water has an interesting set of minerals in it.

      The only good news is that there’s now only one pine tree in striking distance of the line to the leach field. We’ve had no problems from that one.

      1. I need to add water treatment to my house. Been a “Gonna-get-to-it-‘vetually” sort of thing since I moved up here. The cities get the water from the bay, but the river has the bay higher in tannin and minerals, and my side does the cheapest possible treatment. Culligan loves this area. My dishes, even if I hand wash and towel dry end up with a layer of powder. I swear the only way to have clean looking flatware is to wash it, dry it, then buff with a Scotchbrite a day later.

  15. Multi-unit apartment buildings are good, when one entire vertical stack of plumbing can’t be used because someone living somewhere below you clogged it and the supers can’t find or clear the clog. Had that. We first noticed it as our dishwasher throwing up and flooding the kitchen. Wasn’t dishwasher’s fault it was simply that the kitchen drain stopped draining, oh, somewhere below.

    The ‘fix’ was to install a really obnoxious pump system in our pantry (which became no longer a pantry but rather an equipment room) which took the output of our kitchen drain and pumped and lifted it through our pantry and ceiling thereof, above our ceiling and across a short ways, to meet with and empty into a bathroom drain stack.

    Not only did we lose our pantry, but that damned pump was LOUD when it got going.

    OK it wasn’t a mystery, we lived on the second floor we know exactly who blocked the pipes. Never did find out HOW before we moved out of that place. They were in the process of upgrading that place to “luxury apartments” and raising rents by a third as we were leaving…. I wonder what the next tenants thought of their luxurious jury rig pump.

  16. My apartment in the basement of a 100 (more or less) year old house. About two-three years after I moved in, the sewer was backing up and leaking – just a little – into the kitchen when there was a lot of rain.

    The landlord brought in the RotoRooter guy to snake and scope the drains.

    Now, the previous owner of this house had started an expansion of the basement bathroom and there was an alleged closet opening in the storage room next to the bathroom. It had been “sealed” off by stuffing a plastic bag into the opening and covering it with a plank of wood that was caulked to the floor.

    The RotoRooter guy used that to gain entrance to the sewer system, and found that the sewer line out the back of the house was …. clay pipe. That had partially collapsed.

    Apparently the solution to this is to dig a hole on either end of the pipe, one at the house and one at the connection to the city sewer, and run a continuous ABS or PVC line through the course of the broken pipe. and the attach it to the house line and the city sewer. It’s called “pipe-bursting”. Works great!

    My landlord, happily, had the foresight to have them install a backflow prevention valve in the new line. This came in very handy when the storm sewer flooded last year during the heavy rains we had. (Yes, you wouldn’t think that the sanitary sewer and the storm sewer were connected, and I don’t think they are, but when your streets are a foot deep in water, and the sanitary sewer access is in a flooded intersection…)

    And there’s a new cleanout, now outside the house, rather than in my tool closet.

  17. Ah, memories
    .
    One addition to the list of approved flushables: expired medication in pill or capsule form.
    .
    Old houses are not made for low-flow toilets. Too bad you can’t legally buy anything else.
    .
    Ladies, please do not drop the protective plastic shield for your razor down the shower drain.
    (I beseech thee.)
    .
    He’s not joking about the power snake.
    As an unnatural abomination, it desires a blood sacrifice.
    .
    Water follows the path of least resistance.
    Downstairs light fixtures meet that criteria.
    .
    Digging a shallow trench is easy.
    But the effort doubles about every foot of depth.
    That septic tank you’re looking for, is deeper than you expect.
    Worse, you’re going to find out there’s an easier way to find the #$_&ed thing.
    .
    Fernco.
    Bless them, for the company sells miracles made manifest.

    1. You can buy high-tank toilets from Eastern Europe, though. They will just require a creative plumber to install, because they don’t fit anything, including themselves.

      1. Yes! Our great-grandparents knew what they were doing; those wall-mounted tanks generated PRESSURE which makes flushing much more effective, for any given amount of water.

          1. I bought one of those from CA (so I assume “low flow”) when I remodeled the bathroom. It’s a 100 year old house, so I thought it would look period. It’s amazing, which it had better be for an $1800 toilet (and replaced the ball-cock valve with a modern float valve almost immediately – it just didn’t work properly).

            1. See, I’m cheap so I got one from…. Hungary? via Amazon. For the last house.
              We had to replace all the internals because…. they didn’t fit the tank. And hooking it to our normal system was…. fun.
              Fortunately plumber was a geek and hellacreative.

  18. Yeah they had news of that happening down under only a few days ago. Apparently there are people who AREN’T able to get their hands on TP, no matter what the groceries say about being able to ‘keep up supply’ on shelves. *snort*

  19. I replaced all the plumbing in the Project House, all the way to the sidewalk. I had to pay the city to replace the pipe from there to the sewer main under the street.

    Generations of residents of a 1943 house had made less-than-adequate repairs. 2-1/2″ iron pipe, 3″ clay pipe, and thinwall vent pipe joined together with wraps of cellphane tape and what appeared to be melted pitch. The two main problems seemed to be that the part under the house went uphill almost a foot before passing through the foundation wall, which violated the “*** doesn’t flow uphill” rule, and the cobbled joints were mostly dammed with small glass vials about 3/8 inch in diameter and an inch long. I’d always thought “crack vial” was a euphemism, but apparently they were real, once upon a time…

  20. …I appreciated the simplicity of camping in Montana. Bathroom? See that long handled shovel with a roll of toilet paper on it? Pick your juniper bush – and check for snakes first….

  21. Oh, dear Ghod …
    When we lived in Spain, the toilets could just not handle used toilet paper. I had to carefully train any guests to … put the used stuff in the small bin next to the pot. Yes, it was a bit gross … but the system could just not handle toilet paper. I lost count of how many times I had to use the plunger…
    It took a bit — a couple of months, actually – to get used to a system where we could, actually, flush toilet paper down the loo, when we came back to the USA.

    1. I took an airplane to a paint shop down-state for something or other. I could not understand the basket full of little “used” rags beside the toilet (unisex facility, customers and staff), so I asked the secretary. Most of the staff originally came from places where you did NOT flush anything but waste, so they felt more comfortable with rags. They took turns taking them home, washing them, and bringing them back. That was my introduction to 2.5 world plumbing woes.

  22. Speaking of airplanes, one of the chief ‘joys’ of being an airline mechanic is ‘fishing’ (more like noodling) an airplane’s lavatory wearing a shoulder-length rubber glove to see what’s bollixed the system *this* time. You would not believe the stuff people put in an airliner’s biffy.

  23. Was visiting the old homestead many years ago, and my uncle got fed up with the sluggish plumbing.

    “Time to pump out the septic tank.”

    This was a farmhouse, over 100 years old. which had been added on to several times. He knew the right spot, got the tractor with a hydraulic bucket on the front, dug hole, and we were just finishing up with shovels when the pumper truck arrived. Lifted the lid off with the tractor bucket and a chain, revealing hundreds of rubbers.

    Pumper Truck Guy: “That’s a whole lot of Bottle-Bass.”

    Uncle: “I’ve got four daughters.”

    All of them between 20 and 30, either living at home, or visiting frequently with their husbands. Stern, very stern, “Thou shalt not flush” was delivered to all.
    ———————————
    Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!!

    1. One of Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs” episodes was about changing a pump in a major metro sewage station. They were telling him that used rubbers were a continual problem for the wastewater department.

  24. Some years ago I remodeled my house’s original bathroom, built in 1953. The commode and sink backed up regularly, the bathtub was rusted through here and there, and it had no shower. The arrangement of fixtures did not work well in the tiny 5 x 7 foot space, either. The pipes were cast iron, and fifty years of marinating in sewage had not been kind to them.

    Well, the more I dug into it, the more unforgivable construction sins I found. Mike Holmes would shake his head in dismay. The main sewer pipe was buried less than a foot deep, the bathroom and kitchen sinks were tied into opposite sides of a double-T so they would both back up together, the bathtub drain was too small, they had drywalled over a window opening when they put in the addition…

    Nothing less than a complete gut and rebuild made any sense. I tore out the walls, jackhammered the floor, dug down about two and a half feet and ran a new 4” ABS sewer pipe. Rather than jackhammer and dig a trench through the living room, I constructed a drill from a length of 4” steel pipe and several 5 foot lengths of 1” square steel tubing. Used a small hydraulic jack to force it under the slab while turning the shaft with a large crescent wrench extended with a pipe. Had to pull it out every few inches to pick out the impacted clay. Took more than three weeks, a couple of hours a day, to dig 18 feet and reach the bathroom. Breakthrough! Still beat digging a trench through the living room. Got the slope right, too.

    The new bathroom, added in the late 1970’s, is still connected to the old cast iron main pipe. I cut off all the T and Y arms with a grinder and sealed the holes with sheet metal and concrete so it’s just a straight pipe. They did run an ABS pipe out past the outside wall and put in a cleanout. I ran an extension of the new ABS pipe up to the new bathroom wall, capped and wrapped it in plastic and duct tape. If ever I remodel that bathroom, I can finally abandon the old cast iron sewer pipe.

    The old pipe backs up sometimes. I’ve got one of those garden-hose-water-balloon pipe decloggers, but as you say, it usually just makes a smallish hole through the blockage and it backs up again in a couple of weeks. Had a plumber snake it out, with The Cutter, but it started backing up again in a few months.

    I started thinking of ways to really clean out that pipe. Pushing or pulling something almost as big as the inside through the pipe would be ideal, but what, and how? If it got stuck, I’d REALLY be screwed! And how to get the rope, or cable, or whatever, through the plugged-up pipe in the first place?

    I pondered.

    How about a pig? Something as big as the pipe, forced through with water pressure. That solved the rope-threading problem, but it would be even more likely to get stuck.

    What if I made a pig out of ice?

    I froze water in a large bullet-shaped cup, almost 3 1/2” across at the rim. The ice pig goes in big end first. Not a tight fit in the pipe, and it only gained me a couple of months. For the next pig I cut down a 2-liter plastic bottle and added an enlarged ice ‘collar’ around the big end. After sanding it down with an angle grinder, it fit in the pipe.

    The water-jet-balloon thingy makes a low growling sound when it’s working. This time, the growl rose and fell with the changing pressure as the pig hung up on blockages, then forced its way through. It’s been several months, and the crapper is still flushing. I’m calling that a win.
    ———————————
    Some folks can be taught. Others can learn by example. The rest have to piss on the electric fence for themselves.

    1. Sib and Sib-in-Law were looking at houses to buy. Sib found one that was “dream home.’ Sib-in-Law started looking at it, then explained over the phone to us at RedQuarters just the bloody obvious visible problems. Me: Mike Holmes Special, then?

      S-i-L: Oh yes. The porch is about to fall off and I can see daylight through the roof. [Turns out, the owner didn’t want to repair the roof “since we’re selling it and moving.”]

      They didn’t buy that house.

  25. Thanks for the straight poop on toilets.
    I like that ice pig. And I hope I never need to remember it.

  26. All the comments about really old houses and sewer pipes remind me of a Comedic Speech given by a Toastmaster participant. They’d (he and his wife) had purchased a house, the original farm house, now with only an acre or two. As he stated to start “They knew it’d need some work.” He started off with “We’d thought we’d start with something simple, a small space, the master bath.” His words “It went downhill from there” … obviously can’t repeat his speech, if I even remembered it, this was the mid-’80s. He had a way of laying out the detail and making it hilarious. Between the plumbing for the bathrooms, kitchen, and septic, plus wiring, and whatever else, can go wrong in fixing/remodeling an old house, he got a lot of speeches out of it. A lot of “this is what we found, no sooner than kind of got that fixed, and then …” Ending each speech, with “What are we going to do? Cry?”

    As hilarious as he was able to detail it. When we had an option to purchase our rental at that same time period, it came with the original farm house next door. Hubby made noise about fixing it up & keeping it as a rental for income. My response was “No. H*LL NO.” It would have been torn down. Then was (kind of) in agreement of subdividing the property correctly, and putting a duplex on it (corner lot subdivided). Our offer was turned down so didn’t happen.

  27. I do maintenance for a small university and have been called out to deal with stopped up toilets in the dorms frequently.

    Some things you see… well, you’re never quite the same afterwards. There are sights that I will take to my grave.

  28. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (ok, New Jersey. . . Close enough. . .) I had a part-time job in an urban mall movie theater. The company had an open account with two local plumbers, mainly for rooter device. Because public ladies rooms are DISGUSTING ON A GOOD DAY.

    Ladies, WHISKY TANGO ALPHA FOXTROT????????

    is there nothing that you won’t try to flush???

    Tampons/pads/diapers – that was freakin NORMAL.

    A toddler sneaker?
    Lipstick? How about a complete makeup compact?
    How about the contents of a handbag, with all the randomness THAT entails?

    HOW ABOUT A COMPLETE HANDBAG????? I still don’t know how it made it past the bowl trap. . .

    30 years later my mind still boggles. . .

    1. Why so sure it’s their OWN stuff they’re dumping down the dunny? Mean Girls flushing somebody else’s stuff makes more sense.

  29. Beyond your points, in San Francisco the sewage wouldn’t flow because with the low water flush toilets there was insufficient water to move it along the pipes. Rural septic systems were designed for the old toilets and for many years I could not get my county to recognized the slope of the piping to the septic system was not effective for normal low flush toilets; the depth of the system did not allow for these toilet, especially in a single story building with less velocity of the water due to the lower height of the toilet above the septic system.. That problem would be worse when flushing the things down the toilet you wrote about. Even city sewage systems can be impacted, as with San Francisco; as well as the piping from the building to the sewage main piping.. Codes change slower than innovation. Just cleaning out your sewage line once will cause you to question the use of low water toilets.

    1. Almost ten years ago, the city of Berlin, Germany was pleading with residents to flush more often. They’d heard one too many “save the planet, conserve water” lectures, and that plus the high taxes on heated water, led to reduced showering and flushing. So the sanitary sewer system slowed, then started to stop. Berlin, of all places, did NOT lack for water. Ah, the laws of unintended consequences.

      1. Ah, the laws of unintended consequences.

        I understand that once the current crisis* is resolved Nancy Pelosi’s House plans to take up repeal of that law.

        *The Trump presidency

    2. At a residential level, an occasional 5-gallon bucket of water dumped into the toilet works wonders for, ah, flushing out the system.

      1. Did you know that there’s folks who DON’T know how to pour the water in to trigger a flush!?!?

        Apparently a lot of them, even! You wouldn’t believe how shocked some of the folks I’ve shown that trick are……

  30. you probably could have gotten it out with a plunger
    Except, do you know the number of people who don’t even have a plunger in the house/apartment?

    (I can pretty much guarantee it’s over your head.)
    Not if you’re on a slab! Then, they’re outside. Pointing up out of the ground.

    and go over there
    Upwind.

  31. Pingback: NEWS YOU CAN USE!  Does It Flush?… – The usa report
  32. A clogged drain is how I ended up with my current plumbing contractor(s). Our laundry machine drains into a floor drain in the basement. Every now and again (annually-ish), it starts backing up because of all the lint that goes down it. We usually just snake it with a small “retail” snake. That was not effective. Called the plumber. After about an hour, he said “need to jackhammer up the floor and replace the trap”. Fired. Called another plumber. “Oh, no problem, there’s an access port on the trap, I’ll just unscrew it and snake through there.” After about an hour, “this isn’t going to work; it’s not just rusted closed, it’s rusted into a single piece”. I mentioned above that it’s a 100 year old house – and this is an original floor drain. Rather than jackhammering up the floor, he “just” drilled out the port. It took about five hours for him to snake that drain, but the access port is now accessible – always; it’s just a hole, now. I’ve been using that plumber ever since – despite (because of?) being expensive, they get the job done.

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