So that's what I walked into when I agreed to take a look at my wife's grandfather's plumbing issue. His major complaints were: (1) His sink took ten minutes to drain. (2) He couldn't do a load of wash on anything but the lowest water setting. Anything else would cause the sink to overflow. Even on low, it still came up to the point where the only thing keeping it in the sink was surface tension and stink.
At first I thought he just had a minor plug. I filled up the washing machine, then gave my wife two drinking glasses. I put a wet paper towel down over each drain in the sink then had her stick the glasses over each drain. "Just hold them there," I said. "Press down as hard as you can. I'm going to use the back pressure from the washing machine pump to blow out the clog."
I put the washing machine on the drain cycle and the water started going down. An instant later, my wife says, "It's coming up! It's coming up! Oh my God, it's so gross!"
"Hold the glasses down!" I yelled, as I looked behind the washing machine to make sure the hose going into the drain pipe wasn't spraying water or leaking. It was still in there tight, so I turned back to the sink to help her. At the point where the water reached the top of the drinking glasses, she had given up and let go, preferring to have a flooded kitchen versus being up to her elbows in soupy, horrible smelling sludge. Luckily there was a plastic pitcher nearby so I started bailing and running for the door, throwing the rancid water outside, narrowly avoiding a spill-over.
I really have no good way to describe how bad this water smelled. I would rather be dipped in raw sewage than whatever this was coming up out of the drain. That's how bad it was. It coated the back of your nose and throat and stayed there like a film, and even chewing gum couldn't get rid of it. You wanted to wash your mouth out with boiling water.
So Plan #1 didn't work. Score so far: Clog - 1, Me - 0, My wife - fouled out of the game.
At that point her grandfather piped up and said, "Frank tried to snake that drain yesterday and he also put Drano down there and he didn't have any luck." That, as they say, would have been good info to have going in.
To give you a better idea of the fuckedupedness of this entire plumbing set up, let me take a little timeout to tell you about plumbing jobs that are done by "a guy I know." This guy, who is apparently the official contractor of every old Italian in New York, works really cheap. Sometimes, he even works for beer, or for wine, or because you're Jimmy's cousin and he owes Jimmy a favor. So the conversations usually go like this:
"I need a new roof on my house," one Italian will say in passing to another Italian. "I called a roofer, and he gave me a price of $12,000."
"That's crazy!" the other Italian will say. "I know a guy."
Now, even though "a guy I know" will know jackshit about roofing, and his sole claim to roofing expertise is having once watched an episode of This Old House where they gave a quick review of a shingle install, he will gladly give you a price. He will use child labor and cousin labor and maybe even homeless and/or illegal alien labor, but he will come up with a price closer to $5,000. Assuming, of course, that you pay him in cash and give him $2,500 up front for supplies. Apparently, $2,500 is the standard amount in a case like this, because over time it has been established as the maximum amount of money that any Italian over the age of 60 will just hand over to any other Italian, no questions asked, on simply a handshake and a promise.
So what he ended up with was this: A guy he knows installed a PVC drain pipe with a 1.5" inside diameter that ran directly from under the sink and into the wall, took a 90 degree left turn inside the wall, ran about 12 feet to the washing machine, then continued on roughly 30 feet to the other side of the room, took a 90-degree downward turn, then another 90-degree right-hand turn into the basement, then ran another 30 feet along the basement ceiling to a vertical pipe in the basement which led to the sewer pipe. So approximately 60 feet of 1.5" PVC pipe that had a drop of about 12" over its entire length, which means (for the non mathematically inclined among you) that it was practically level -- which is definitely not conducive to drainage of any sort.
I was done for the day. I thought about calling RotoRooter, but from looking up prices on the Internet, I knew they were going to charge a fortune and then tell him that the whole thing should be redone. They'd be right, of course, but I figured I could rent a power snake and at least get a few more years out of it. I had a vacation day the next day, so I went home and regrouped. The first thing I did was call Lowes and try to line up a snake rental for the next day, but it turns out they are first come, first serve. The second thing I did was call my wife's brother, Chuck, and get him to agree to help me do this thing. Then I collected my tools, my respirator (I was not breathing that shit again), my rubber gauntlet gloves and some work clothes, and put them all in a bag. I knew this was going to get messy. I even told Chuck to wear old clothes and be prepared. He said he'd meet me at Lowes the next day at 8:00am and we'd pick up the rental snake and any other plumbing supplies we needed.
The next day we met up at the store and, after looking at all the equipment, decided to get the 50 ft hand-powered snake, because the guy at the rental place told us that the electric power snake was more for 3-4" pipe and would "tear up one and a half inch PVC like an angry beaver," and as far as I know, nobody wants an angry beaver. A broken drain pipe inside the wall would mean major repairs, so I was all about avoiding that. And also, angry beavers. We figured we could go easy with the manually cranked snake, and do it from both ends of the pipe and in that way clear any clogs in between. We carried the snake out to the car, tossed it in the back of his pickup truck and drove over to his grandfather's house.
We were working in close quarters, and there wasn't much room under the sink, so I volunteered to feed the snake while he cranked. I disconnected the drain and fed the head of the snake into the pipe, and slowly, over the next twenty minutes or so, we fed the entire 50 feet into the pipe, turning it constantly to try to chew through the clog. We hit resistance a few times, and we weren't really sure if it was because we hit a clog or we were going around the corners, but everything seemed OK.
Then it was time to take it back out. He reversed the crank and I started pulling it back, but something was wrong. It was coming out, yes, but it felt..strange. Sluggish. Thick. You know how when you buy that 100% natural peanut butter, and you have to stir it with a fork in order to mix the oil and the peanuts and it makes that noise like a dog licking its balls? It was like that. Like I was pulling a rope through a jar of cold Vaseline, or rescuing someone from quicksand. It wasn't too bad at first, and I had a towel to wipe away any sludge that came back with the snake, but then the smell hit me, even through the respirator. I looked over at Chuck and he had his face turned away, and he was making this "urk, urk" dry-heaving sound. "Jesus, that stinks," he said, stating the obvious. I didn't want to laugh because laughing breaks the seal on the respirator, but the look on his face was too much. Finally, we had the snake all the way back on its spool. I took the towel filled with toxic waste and handed it to Chuck, who had forgotten his gloves. He took it reluctantly, like I was handing him a dead raccoon, and then I reassembled the drain.
"Should we try it?" he asked, "Or should we go down in the basement and snake it from that side too first?"
"Yeah, let's run some hot water through it and see if the sink drains any better," I said. So we ran the faucet, and at first it looked good. Then after a minute or so, the sink slowly started to back up. I turned it off again, and over the next few minutes the sink drained again. So wherever the clog was, we felt certain it wasn't in the first half of the pipe. We went down into the basement to check out the rest of the pipe. It was fastened to the wall in two places, and looked like this:
"Maybe we should cut it," I said, cautiously. Chuck agreed, and I stood on a chair with my power saw, and started cutting, prepared for the worst. I wasn't prepared for what actually happened, which was absolutely nothing. I cut through the pipe and only a tiny trickle of water came out. We had an industrial mop bucket on wheels -- one of those big yellow bastards. We had positioned it under the pipe just in case, but we barely needed it. I pulled the pipe away from the wall and grabbed a flashlight to look inside. It looked like one of Marlon Brando's arteries in there. Almost the entire circumference of the pipe was packed full of rancid grease, with just a tiny, 1/2" opening in the center for the water to move through. That's why it was taking so long to drain, and why the washing machine was backing up into the sink. There wasn't enough room in there for the volume of water it was trying to push through it. Now we had to decide our next move. Chuck said, "Put the washing machine on for a few seconds, and I'll tell you if anything comes out. That'll tell us if the plug is upstream or downstream from here. I'll just make sure anything that comes out goes into the mop bucket." I went upstairs to the washing machine and put it in the fill cycle. When it was full, I moved it to the drain cycle and yelled, "READY?"
"GO AHEAD!" Chuck yelled back, and I pulled the knob and let it drain for a couple of seconds, then pushed it back in again. "ANYTHING?" I yelled. "NOPE, NOTHING YET!" came the reply. I did it again, this time for five or six seconds. "HOW BOUT NOW?" "NOPE, STILL NOTHING!"
I walked back down to the basement. I didn't have a good feeling about this. I had visions of the snake pushing one of the PVC pipe joints apart. "Did we break the pipe?" I asked Chuck. "Are we pumping water into the wall cavity somewhere?" He looked a little sick. "Jeez, I hope not," he said. "Don't tell Papa, he'll go nuts." We stood there for a few more minutes, watching the pipe drip into the bucket, thinking. Mostly about where we could find a plumber and sheetrock guy on such short notice.
"OK, I'm going to go back upstairs and let it run for a few more seconds," I said. I didn't know what that would accomplish, but I figured if we were pumping water into the wall somewhere, we would have to pump enough of it to figure out where the break was in order to repair it. I went back upstairs to the washing machine and I pulled out the knob again, and this time I let it run for almost 20 seconds, which basically drained the basin and started the spin cycle. I turned it off again and headed toward the basement stairs. When I got about half way there, I heard Chuck screaming, "TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF! OH MY GOD!" and I ran down the stairs just in time to hear a sound I hope I never have to hear again. Remember when you were in grade school and someone puked? This was almost identical to the sound vomit makes when it hits the floor, except it was ten times louder and seemed to go on forever.
I got to the bottom of the stairs just in time to see Chuck give the mop bucket a kick in the general direction of the pipe and dive away as gallons of something with the consistency of watery oatmeal mixed with curdled milk poured out of the pipe and onto the floor, coating the bucket and everything within four feet of the wall in a thick coating of greasy, nasty, half-liquid paste. He was gagging again, and still trying to tell me to turn it off.
"It IS off!" I told him through my respirator as he dry-heaved and chuffed like a cat about ready to gack up the world's largest hairball. The smell was overwhelming, and we rushed to open the basement windows as the horrible grey gruel finally trickled to a stop.
There's a full gallon of water in 10 feet of 1.5" pipe. I did the math. Or rather, I Googled it and someone on Ask.com did the math. That's roughly six gallons of putrid nastiness that we had just blasted all over the floor of the basement. We were trying not to step in it, because not only did it stink to high heaven, it was also a death trap because it was so slippery.
"We need to replace that entire section of pipe," Chuck said his voice muffled on account of his face being buried in the crook of his arm. He pointed at the rest of what was hanging from the wall. "Maybe we can cut it off and feed it through the basement window." That seemed like a pretty good idea, so I grabbed my saw and chopped into the pipe over at the other end, by the vertical section it tied into. I quickly stuffed a rag into my end as he did the same to his, and we disconnected it from the wall. It was so heavy it took both of us to lift it and get it through the window. It was basically a 30 foot long tube of grease. He went outside and started pulling on it as I pushed from inside. When it was finally out, I came upstairs and we sent my wife to the auto parts store for some oil spill absorbent. That was the only thing that even had a shot of cleaning up the mess. We were going to go buy another section of pipe but we figured we could try to clean this one out first. We started by running the hose into the end, trying to let the water do its thing, but that didn't work. All it did was shoot gruel out of the end like some kind of white diarrhea, but it wasn't touching the grease caked on the walls.
I had an idea. "Let's use the hose itself. I'll tie a rag around the end, and I'll push it through and the rag should scrape the sides clean while the water pushes the crap out." It sounded good, so we gave it a shot. I tied a rag tightly around the hose so no water could come back toward me and started jamming the hose into the pipe.
Chuck was holding onto the other end, trying to make sure the gunk that came out was evenly dispersed across the lawn, so his grandfather wouldn't notice it. I couldn't help but laugh when the pipe started disgorging its disgusting contents. At first it came out like a four-foot-long sausage made of cottage-cheese, and then it sputtered and started vomiting chunks of what looked like hammered up bars of ivory soap onto the lawn. Yeah, that won't be noticeable, I thought. You could see it from space. Chuck was making that "urk, urk" sound again, because even though we were outside, the stench was fearsome. Pretty soon we were both laughing our asses off even as our eyes watered, wondering how the hell it had come to this. After I pulled the hose back out, we were trying to figure out how to tell if the pipe was clean enough to reuse. The hose was also now coated in a thick, greasy slime. One problem at a time, as they say.
Chuck said, "How about if you hold your end up to the sun and I look through it on my end and see if I can see through it?"
Did I just hear that? I thought. He didn't seriously suggest that, did he? I started to say something, but then I just couldn't. I had to let this one play out.
"OK," I said, not trusting myself to say anything else.
We picked up the pipe and I held my end up over my head, trying to point it in the general direction of the sun, and also trying not to laugh. Chuck put his end up to his eye, and I think he realized what was about to happen a split second before it was too late. He was quick enough to not get it directly in the face, but the chunky oatmeal poured out of the end and hit him full in the chest. He dropped the pipe on the ground, looked down in disgust at his oozing sweatshirt, looked up at me and said, "That was pretty stupid."
After that, it was all over but the clean up. We went back into the basement to spread the oil absorber all over everything we could get to. We used a couple of rubber couplers to reconnect the pipe, after cutting about 16 inches off the vertical part so at least we could get proper pitch to the section of pipe we had access to. Then we tested it out. The sink drain worked perfectly, and even the washing machine worked without backing up into the sink, although it still made sounds like a large wild animal puking.
I swear, I couldn't get that smell out of my nose for a week. Next time, I'm calling a plumber. No matter what it costs, it'll be worth it. I once joked about starting a plumbing company with my buddy Yort and calling it, "Everything But Poop, Inc."
As of today, I'm totally adding grease to that list.