Thursday, September 15, 2011

Plumbing Nightmare: Our Latest Fix Project

For a while now, we've known about a wee little problem with a certain section of plumbing in our house. We tried to overlook the issue, though quite recently, we had no choice but to pay it mind. All whilst trying not to pay much of anything else!

Days ago, the kitchen sink did its tri-monthly clog-up. A simple fix, one might think. Luckily there is a proper pipe cleanout located just outside. This cleanout we left open long enough to finish some dishes and laundry, since the clothes washer in the garage was also affected. Leaving the cleanout open gave the water a better place to go. In the yard, and not in the house or garage. Perhaps, it isn't acceptable to let greywater go all over the backyard, though it seems such a waste not to do just that! Most of it flowed neatly into a small garden area. Great for watering the plants during this horrid drought we're having.

Later, much later, the husband got out the rusty ol' pipe snake and set to work. We both worked at it. It wouldn't budge. The clog, that is. I'm not even sure we got to the clog. A nice electric drain auger would have come in handy at about that time. You know the kind. The one the plumber brings that gets through the clog in less than 30 minutes. Then you get to pay nearly 300 bucks for the thrill of seeing water draining freely from your sink. Yep, that would have been handy. But we wanted to save money and use the one with no power behind it, with no reel to wind it up on, to keep it organized. Sure we could have rented a decent auger, but who needs it? Ha! If a person wants to save a couple hundred dollars to clear fairly simple clogs, I'd have to recommend renting either an electric auger or at least one that operates manually on a reel. Home Depot rents drain augers, among other handy tools. Kudos to the Depot.
Simple pipe snake stored in a 5 gallon bucket.

After many tiring hours, what seemed like days, of plugging away at the pipe in the hot of the day, we finally punched through! Thrilled we were. Jubilant. High-fiving and all that.

Yes, the auger made it through a blockage of some sort. But, the drain still would not drain. A mystery.

Now, after some past experience with this particular drain line, a clog usually would cause water to seep up through cracks in the concrete slab in the garage. I know, it's a pretty horrific thing, because that's a sign of a break in the pipe somewhere under the house. And normally, after we have cleared the clog, water would no longer seep through the cracks. Buying us some time, helping us to avoid having to pay thousands of dollars for someone to break the concrete and fix the broken pipe. Normally, the water stays out, except for this last time.

It was time to get serious, take action.

First, we dug a hole outside the garage near where we knew the kitchen drain line and washing machine drain line both entered the main line. The soil was very moist. I hoped the break could be accessed from outside so we dug deeper; the soil became sloppy stinky black mud. That was a good sign we were in the right area. We ran some water through the drain line to see where the water came from. Sadly, the water did not bubble up through an easily accessed pipe in the ground. Nope, instead, it spewed from somewhere in the foundation. Still, at least we knew the general location.

Chisel time. At this, I laugh.
Hammer and assorted chisels with strike guards. Nice, no?

Okay, here's what not to do. Don't go expecting a little hand chisel and hammer to break through several inches of a concrete foundation quickly. It's sort of like trying to dig your way out of prison with a spoon. At least, that's what I felt like I was doing. Nope, instead, just forgo that chisel, at least until you need to chip around delicate pipes and whatnot. We spent a little, less than $100, and rented a jackhammer from Home Depot for 24 hours, since we weren't sure how much pipe was damaged or how much concrete we'd need to break.

I managed to lift the jackhammer, though its 70 pound weight seemed a bit difficult to control. I didn't even want to think about actually turning it on! So to save the rest of the house from damage, the husband operated the machine.
Jackhammer handywork, whilst wee concrete chisel looks on.

Breaking concrete with a jackhammer makes life much easier. Because we had already chiseled out a 4-inch hole into the foundation using the concrete chisel, it wasn't difficult creating a starting point for the heavy machinery. I've read elsewhere, it's a good idea to score the concrete with a circular saw that has a diamond blade on it. It creates a starting point for a jackhammer or even a chisel. In any case, use caution. Debris needs to be cleaned out of the hole periodically to avoid having concrete projectiles flying about no matter which method is used. And a jackhammer is loud and cumbersome. One should use proper safety gear when operating it. The job is noisy and it is dirty. But it can be done. If we can do it . . . well, you know the rest. Ha! Ha!

Our first discovery, an expected pipe. This pipe runs from the water heater, which is actually quite a distance away. I knew it was there, under the concrete, because the open end of it sticks out of the foundation on the side of the house. The other end of it is connected to the water heater pressure relief valve. What I didn't expect was that it would be smashed nearly flat. I was certain this had happened during the building of the house, since the jackhammer didn't have contact with it. The pipe is hard copper. Whatever hit it must have been big! This would need to be repaired as well. What a neat discovery.
Smashed hard copper pipe running from hot water heater temperature and pressure (T&P) relief valve.

Much digging and removing of broken concrete and stinky, sticky black mud went on. Eventually, we managed to tunnel through from the inside of the garage to the outside. We found the drain pipe in question! And we found exactly where the break was. Still encased in concrete.

Out came the chisel. With surgical precision the 2 inch broken cast iron pipe was at last exposed! It's good to be careful with cast iron. In some cases it may be very fragile and thin. One wouldn't want to do further unnecessary damage.
The culprit!

Now, I don't know if you can tell from the photo, but that is no joint just below the big crack. Nope, that is a cast iron pipe completely snapped in two! The separation is uneven which is most likely caused by the severe shifting of the foundation. This, of course, is what happens to homes in the northern parts of Texas. Blame it on the soil, or clay, that swells in the rain and shrinks tremendously in times of drought.

How to fix it? Decisions, decisions.

I suppose one could have the cast iron replaced. I've no idea the cost for such a repair, though I've heard it is a bit high. I thought of replacing it with PVC pipe. This may have been a good option, however, this particular pipe is part of the stack that runs up through the roof. I'm not sure we should be cutting out big portions of the base of such a heavy cast iron stack! We opted for what may be a temporary fix, but one that seems to work pretty well for now.

The Fernco flexible coupling is made for applications such as this. It is a flexible, yet durable, rubber sleeve that stands up to the elements and even drain cleaning chemicals. There is also a Fernco shielded coupling, which is said to be stronger. It is similar to the flexible coupler, though it includes a metal shield around it. We weren't able to use the shielded coupler due to the limited space we had to work in and due to the bend in the pipe.

To apply the Fernco flexible coupler, about an inch or so of pipe had to be cut away with a diamond grit blade on the sawzall. Cutting cast iron is no easy task. It's thick and our pipe was in good condition despite the break, not as fragile as we'd expected. We used a sawzall, which took some time, but it worked well. Others recommend using a diamond blade on a grinder. I've even read that one fellow used a chisel, which, he said, took forever!

It was not easy to fit the sleeve over the two pieces of pipe. Although, with two people working at it, one inside the garage and one out, we managed to get the coupler in place, strapped, tightened. The next step was to test for leaks.
2" Flexible Fernco coupler.

We turned the water on. No leaks. Hurrah! But, the drain was still clogged!

Yes, it goes on.

You see, before we patched up the broken pipe, we ran the snake through it, we thought pretty far. Apparently, we didn't go far enough. But there was no way either of us wanted to maneuver that Fernco coupler again. So up on the house the husband went with the snake.

No dice.

Using the cleanout by the kitchen didn't work, the snake was too short. There were no other cleanouts available, except for the mangled mess of drain pipe and vent for the washing machine. Sigh. I was afraid of that.

Alright, let me explain. Since the time we've lived here, I have not understood why the washing machine plumbing is the way it is. I'm not an expert, having only limited plumbing experience, but even a plumber once said he didn't understand why it was set up the way it is. First, it is 1 1/2 inch PVC attached to the cast iron vent stack at the base. Next, there is a short straight length of PVC attached to the trap (the bend created to block sewer gases). After all that the pipe goes straight up to what I believe is a cleanout. And once again, the pipe bends tightly and goes straight up, with an opening for the washing machine to drain into, after which it continues on to form another vent inside the garage. I don't know why all the bends are necessary. I know for certain the "cleanout" is useless, the bend there is much too tight. And I wonder if the added vent is superfluous.

I truly thought about rebuilding the plumbing for the washing machine drain. I really wanted a good cleanout. Time was slipping away; the project needed to be complete soon!

I opted for a simpler approach. Leaving most of the PVC in place, I thought it best to make a cut with the sawzall right before it entered the cast iron line. This would leave room for the pipe snake to do its work. The added bonus, I could put a Fernco coupler there. If there is a clogged line in the future, we can remove the Fernco coupler and just clean it out.

Off to Home Depot for the gazillionth time the husband went to get the flexible coupler and PVC parts if necessary.

Whilst he was away, I patched the 3/4" hard copper pipe that had been smashed using a copper pipe cutting tool, sandpaper to clean the copper, a torch, flux, silver solder, 3/4" hard copper pipe cut to length and 3/4" copper couplings. I cut the existing copper line in smooth places to insure a good fit, cleaned surfaces to be joined with the sandpaper, dry fit the pieces together, then took them apart to apply flux to the surfaces to be joined. After that, I put the pieces together, heated the joints with the torch, then applied the silver solder, allowing it to be drawn into the joint.

Smashed 3/4" hard copper pipe repair.

Almost done!

I made room for the pipe snake and worked to clean out the pipe. It took a while. With loads of persistence and a great length of the pipe snake, I broke through the blockage. Just to be sure, I turned on the water in the kitchen. If the blockage was cleared, no water should come up through the cleanout. Luckily, it didn't. Just to be sure, I went out to the main cleanout near the road to see if the water was running through and out to the city sewer line.

Main cleanout.


Success! Everything was running smoothly. No mud, no debris, just clear water running through.

What a relief.

When all was done, we buttoned up the pipe with the Fernco.
Note: It was impossible to unscrew the threaded PVC fitting from the cast iron. The PVC broke off at the fitting, thus we sheared it flush with the cast iron. To reattach the PVC to the cast iron, we used a Fernco coupler that went from a 1 1/2 inch on one side to 2 inch on the other.
Black pipe(r) is the cast iron stack. Ferno coupler 1 1/2" to 2" joins PVC to cast iron at cast iron fitting.

The only thing left to do is patch up that gaping hole in the concrete.

In the end, I'd say this fix may have saved us a bundle, for now anyway. I'll keep my eyes on it and I'll keep you posted!

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