Replacing a septic line is a dirty, dirty job. And since few of us are anywhere near an office at this point, why bother trying to make a post like this safe for work?**
About five seconds into this project – a project resplendent with moist caverns, hard shafts, suspiciously named parts,*** and a lot of enthused hammering, we collectively realized there would be no way to put this into words without a thousand or so double entendres. So why fight it? This entire post may as well be an early-season Michael Scott email.
If you don’t find the occasional dirty quip amusing, or just are not in the mood right now – no problem, to each their own. But you might want to skip past this particular post.
Let’s get some serious stuff out of the way. Not all pipes are created equal.* They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors – and some don’t always stand up well with age.* I (naively) thought that once we found the damn pipe it would all be down hill from there,**** however our collective frustrations were just beginning.
Elliot discovered the culprit pipe about 3 feet west of our original trench. It was a PVC pipe (definitely not schedule 40), but it was thin and brittle — and crushed and cracked in several places.
It seemed we had found our culprit pipe.
He cleared some rocks and boulders away, found the end dangling loosely from the septic tank, and then he started back the other direction to see how extensive the damage was. About 4 feet back toward the house we found it was attached (sort of) to some limp and twisted tube of unknown origin.
Since his gentle poking instantly knocked holes into this monstrosity of a so-called septic line, we decided to clear the debris***** away from this section (15 feet maybe?) as well – just see what kind of shape it was in (though we didn’t have high hopes).
Surprise!! It was in terrible shape. We (Elliot) kept digging away to expose the entire shaft, and with each stroke of the shovel it was clear this flaccid tube was going to have to be replaced with a younger model.
We ventured out into the infectious world****** (don’t worry, we always use protection*) to try and find 5″ pipe with which to swap it out.
You know what? They don’t make 5″ pipe. 4″ or 6″ are your only options.
The trip was not entirely wasted, however. The awesome guy at Page1 Lumber in Amenia (not to be mistaken with the manager, who is always kind of a jerk) knew exactly what historic nightmare was laying limply in our massive trench*: Orangeburg pipe.
Apparently made of cardboard soaked in tar/oil, it is the cheap particle board of the septic world. Because it is made of cardboard, it doesn’t hold a round shape very well when buried under 2+ feet of dirt and boulders, and because it is a stupid 5″ diameter (if it ever actually was round) it won’t fit into any halfway decent pipes made in the last 50 years – which turns out is not a big problem, because you won’t find a section that isn’t actively crushed/crumbling.
So, that effectively left us with only one option: replace the whole thing. That meant we (Elliot) had to keep digging until we found the cast iron pipe that goes through the foundation of the house and (hopefully) out the other side.
This is where things get really sticky.
That particular septic pipe line – for some ungodly reason – penetrates through the foundation under the puffy windows on the north side of the house. Those puffy windows make that section of house extend out past the main foundation (the part we see in the basement) about 5-8 feet. Which meant the digging project quickly turned into a tunneling project, and because the puffy windows still need some sort of firm footing, it meant tunneling in an extremely tight place between the foundation ‘pillars’ of the puffy windows.
Thank god Elliot enjoys Minecraft, or I’m not sure this would have ever been possible.
(Don’t worry – that’s not foundation or structural above/behind him – just a sidewalky-like thing that we discovered earlier)
Of course, our problems didn’t end there. About 6 inches in* he encountered an obstacle: another pipe cutting horizontally across his path (see pic above). Turns out it is a cast iron drain pipe meant to keep water away from the foundation (which, btw, means I did not want it mangled or removed). So add another barrier which Elliot had to work around (and over, and under).*^
A little more chiseling away, and he found a giant boulder (what’s one more, really?). The problem is this one extended under the house, was absolutely not going anywhere, and sat directly in the path of the septic pipe. Maybe it didn’t matter when they laid the Orangeburb pipe (because it’s *#@&^%$ cardboard), but it was definitely going to impede the path of a functional line.
Oh well, future Millers’ problem. He kept digging, hoping with each stroke to reach the climax* (in this case, the cast iron pipe protruding through the foundation).
As with most things I don’t want to do, my participation in the whole process was pretty limited (I did nothing) until everyone who was actually working hard for the past several days started to lose hope. I climbed down into the dark, moist cavity and started poking at the soft, distant target with a large steel rod.* After about five minutes of gentle exploration,* I hit the target: the bit connecting the disgusting Orangeburg pipe to the much more impressive cast iron casing.
Having found satisfaction myself,* I let the others finish it off.
But I get to take the credit, because I’m the one who found it.*^^
Elliot got the old shit pipe (true as an adjective and a noun!) out and he and Bridgette got busy.* In the basement, for hours, they pounded away.* They hammered the long, hard shaft* through the tight-fitting cast iron pipe that had long ago penetrated* the foundation.
On a more serious note, it is great the PVC pipes fit through this cast iron one because that allows PVC to connect to other PVC at every connection, and should result in a longer life for the cast iron pipe because (now it will only be exposed to destructive water and corrosion on the outside – the inside is fully lined with PVC). So yay!
Once Bridgette and Elliot satisfied (and completely exhausted) themselves,* we (they – seriously, I did almost nothing on this project*^^^) began clearing out a straight path for the PVC pipe to go. This included chiseling a small bit of that giant boulder off so the hard PVC pipe could actually fit.
Fun fact – the out-pipe from the house and the inlet hole in the tank are not really lined up (not to mention the other pipes and boulders in the way), so we (they) did the best we (they) could, and somehow managed to stay within code.
Now it came time to permanently connect them. The downside of PVC is that it doesn’t really allow for mistakes or errors in connection. So Elliot primed the equipment,* and we all tried to ram the shafts in.
Special shout out here to Sergiu’s forearms: while he was almost as absent as me on the second-trench edition of this project, without his remarkable upper body none of this would have been possible: he tugged, pulled, and snuggly fit the 8′ stretch of pipe into both of the holes.*
After he erected a comically long cleanout pipe*, Elliot and Bridgette got busy again in the basement – fusing all the connections together to ensure no more smelly leaks were in our future.
Needless to say, this was rife with giggling and bad jokes.
They finished together* – they even cleaned up afterwards – and we (finally, again) had two working bathrooms in the house.
However, one final hole needed to be plugged.* Sergiu got in on the action at this point and sealed up the gap where the pipe fits into the septic tank. Hours of research and in-house debates (and consults with a few professionals) found that filling that hole* properly would satisfy the needs and prolong the life of the septic tank, so I ordered some hydraulic cement and Sergiu plugged her up good.*
We’ll leave it here for now – we’re not covering the pipes yet, just in case we screwed it up and it needs more attention. No one wants to dig that trench again (though it would be a bit less obnoxious, now that we actually know where the pipe is). So far so good: no leaks, no sign of clogs, no need to do-over the last month’s-worth of work.
All in all, a very satisfying finish for all involved.*
*Every time you see a single asterix, just know ‘that’s what she said.’
**Good thing none of us are working ‘at work’ these days! Good timing, septic pipe!
***Did you know the connector between two connections is called a nipple? And you have to prime it?
****Technically, I suppose, it really was: septic lines are gravity-fed and therefore have to constantly headed down-hill in order to work properly.
*****You know, normal easy stuff like dirt, pebbles, and giant boulders the size of a lion’s head.
******Replacing a septic line is definitely an essential project.
*^He really was a good sport through this whole thing.
*^^What a truly terrible prize that would be: an ancient pipe filled with 100+ years of human waste.
*^^^Except find the missing cast iron pipe bit! The most important part! (sort of… not really… whatever, I win!)