A frustrated potential customer calls because she’s having trouble getting a permit from the local city, for an ADU (accessory dwelling unit) Sound familiar?

In most cities in the Puget Sound region, you can tap into your homes existing sewer connection to the city sewer main for your mother in law or ADU structure built on the same lot.

In this case, original home was built in the thirties or so. It’s connected to the city sewer system and they want to connect the apartment over the garage (fully permitted, but never occupied) to the sewer. The city wants a bunch of information on a site plan with elevations, including existing underground sewer pipe. Without a site plan with correct information-no permit. Without digging up the existing sewer pipe, this information could be impossible to get.

Typically, we would use a Google overhead image as a basis for the site plan, as its cheap and easy. Showing the building locations, streets sidewalks, etc. is easy from overhead photos.

As far as determining elevations for the sewer—we would choose one of our high-quality sewer cameras equipped with a transmitter. We can push the camera anywhere in the pipe and pinpoint locate it, including depth and orientation.

Modern camera transmitters are very accurate, but must be operated by a trained professional in order to get accurate and reliable results. That information, along with measurements from existing permanent structures, can be used to map the location of existing buried pipe and determine the direction of flow and the amount of fall any pipe might have. Generally, a 2% slope will be a minimum requirement, although exceptions might be made, by variance or agreement of some kind. If minimum slope cannot be obtained, a sewage ejection pump will need to be installed. By using this information, we can determine where we might intersect the existing pipe and what depth the pipe needs to exit the new structure. We may make route adjustments to avoid other structures or landscaping by using this information to plan the route of the new pipe. This information can now be added to our site plan to be submitted for approval. We have not disturbed any soil and saved our customers a lot of money in the process.

The wisdom is that you have to blog in order to be relevant, so I’ve decided to take some risks here with my blogging.  My subject matter will always be true stories, but might be embellished a bit to give humor and a little bit of insight into areas of improvement I might  suggest (if I was King), or regulations that could use some tweaking (because they are inefficient, wasteful or a combination of these; making them stupid). This in no way reflects the need for thoughtful regulation or the people who work hard to satisfy the concerns of folks needing both jobs and a livable planet. Regulations aren’t bad-we used to have rivers on fire. Then somebody suggested that was bad. We’re doing the best we can. With everything being so apocalyptic-sometimes you just need to laugh.

Poisonous drinking water in your house?

So last summer my guys were installing an epoxy liner in a pipe in the city of Seattle.  A standard practice for us is to circulate hot water through the bladder in the liner in order to force the cure time and get our customer back into service as soon as possible.  We connect to the customer hose bib; circulate the water through our tankless water heater. From there it goes into the bladder that is inside the liner in the ground. It comes out of the bladder after giving some of its’ heat to the liner and epoxies and then spills harmlessly on the ground. It doesn’t pick up any antibiotics or hormones along the way-you can drink the water coming out of the tube. We generally use it to make hot beverages to sell to passerby’s (green tea, of course) so that the cycle of reuse and renewal is complete. I would imagine that at some point these passerby’s eventually get rid of the stuff; thereby hastening the demise of another sewer pipe. Soon, my crew and I have one more sewer pipe to repair and my goal of total world pipe domination is one step closer. Now before you jump to conclusions and decide to go wash your hair-give me a second here. You can’t make this stuff up.

So my crew is happily repairing another pipe without digging up the road. Of course, commuters are happy because they are using the road and not stuck in a traffic jam created by having the road dug up. The owner of the pipe is happy because they aren’t taking out another student loan to pay for the repair, the liner is happy because it’s all warm and wet, and of course, I am happy because I am one step closer to world pipe domination. (I intend to dominate pipes on Mars also, we’re currently negotiating a franchise agreement with NASA-unless the Russians offer us more.).

But WAIT; the city of Seattle is NOT happy. Seems the permit fee was not enough. A young man appears from the mist, identifying himself as a city employee from the environmental compliance section. He seems really tall, what with the backlighting and the mist and the fact that the rest of us are in a hole. “Where is this water coming from that you are spilling out onto the road?”  His voice seems to boom as it echoes off the buildings in the distance. “Your majesty” (my foreman is awestruck) he continues, “it is tap water” The tea customers start gagging and holding their throats.  ‘You can’t spill it onto the road” the earnest strait faced young man says.

At this point, the brightness of the day disappeared and clouds obscured the brightest star in our solar system. There was a general sense of confusion that happens when you hit your head on a low beam as you’re running. “This water ends up in the storm drain system and eventually in Lakes Union and Washington and the Puget Sound”.  “It can contain fluoride, and small parts of chlorine and that’s bad for fish”, he continued.

“But we drink it”, my foreman protested.

I know what you’re thinking. Don’t fish also deserve clean crisp chemically fortified water? Aren’t fish teeth just as important as ours?  Don’t you think they teach anything to young fish in fish schools?

As my mind was swimming-it swam back to an event that I had attended a few weeks earlier. It was called “Wellspring” and it promised to be an epiphany for me. I remember when the event came up on my e-mail, I cancelled everything I had planned for two days so I could attend it; at the local trade and convention center. It was sponsored by the EPA and was all about water quality. It had so many engineers and PHD headliners that I couldn’t wait to rub shoulders and learn all I could from them.  Besides, watching really educated people get drunk and try to outdo each other is fun. Plus, I’d get a chance to compare my PHD with theirs. I keep my Post Hole Digger in the barn.

One gal presented a program that the local county was doing whereby they were removing chemicals and heavy metals from roof drains by running the water through dirt. Actually, they had sequestered layers of drain rock, dirt and humus (not the kind you put on crackers) inside of very large plastic water containers. The water was tested before and after and the results we dramatic! After 4 years the water still had one part hydrogen and two parts oxygen! Better still- most of the pollutants were still being removed!  I don’t remember what they did with the contaminated mixture, but I suggest they sell it to the Chinese so they can build more islands. China needs more land because they are growing fast and they need to offset the land lost to dam reservoirs.  Isn’t economics wonderful? It’s like a global garage sale. Your junk is someone else’s treasure. We buy all kinds of it from them.

Anyway, they changed the contaminated water to contaminated dirt thereby proving Einstein’s theory that you can change things-but you can’t make everybody happy-in fact it just gets more complicated.  You just have to know who you have to make happy and when.  The Romans and the Greeks knew it and forgot it. Genghis Kahn knew it, but used a different business model.   Mothers everywhere know it and they’re really good at it. The men just take all the credit.

So my neanderthal sewer mind was busy calculating the extra costs I was gonna have to recoup to bring a tanker truck to hold the poisonous water until I could find a sink I could pour it into.

This is how it happens, folks. This is why the Chinese are beating us. In spite of the obvious economic benefits of dumping poisons into their air and water-they keep reproducing and demanding lower and lower wages and standards of living. My customers keep demanding that I raise my prices and I’m out of excuses as to why I can’t-in spite of a number of my Chinese employees who want lower wages. Thankfully, the government continues to find more problems to solve, with the otherwise wasted money found in between our seats.  If you think I’m jumping all over the place and not making any sense-read some legislation about water quality. Just make sure you have a lot of booze or drugs handy to stop the room from spinning. The epidemic of fish floating on their backs (with perfect teeth) in Americas’ rivers, as well as the high mortality rate of folks who consume tap water, will convince you of the need of updating our Cro-Magnon water quality standards. Obviously, we should not let tap water go into a street drain and people do so should pay the consequences.

So I’m really glad that people study this stuff and make sure that the rest of us are protected by sensible regulation.  I just wish they would use their energy and brilliance to come up with economically viable solutions. Some suggestions. Some understanding of the economic impact on the poor guy who owns the pipe.

“What about allowing it to pour across a lawn?” I asked. I explained the study being done by the other county and the results they were getting. The compliance guy paused for a moment. “That would probably work” he said.

I stopped digging for money in the seat cushions and filling out the change order to charge the customer more money.

I still don’t know if it’s safe to drink the water.

Nobody wants to get bad news and sometimes it seems to be easier just to ignore it.  Unfortunately, when it comes to drain pipes, that strategy can be very costly.

From time to time I have conversations with customers that go something like this: “yes we had roots in the pipe before, but we had them removed-it’s OK now”.

Rental property owners and managers often say something like, “We have the drain pipe cleaned every year- we don’t need it inspected”.

Digging up a road, or being forced to dig under a building can be a financial nightmare at best-and potentially life threatening.

Recently, we were called in to repair a pipe under 4th avenue in Seattle that had disintegrated so badly that the waste water wasn’t getting to the sewer main.  To make matters more complicated, it was 25 feet below one of the most heavily travelled thoroughfares in the city. Thousands of cars and buses travelled on this section of road in the stadium district every day. It would have meant traffic disruption for weeks, to repair the pipe with trenching.

Fortunately, we were able to line the pipe and restore the connection to the main from the basement and get it back in service the same day. Had they waited much longer, the owners’ pockets might have been lighter by at least $100,000.00. Not to mention lots of angry commuters.  For a 6 inch diameter pipe.

Underground pipes don’t last forever and in most cases, they cannot be insured for failure. Owners of these assets must know their positions. Failure of these assets has the potential to turn the investment from performing to non-performing, in an instant. There’s nothing like shutting down the building, to give a wakeup call.  Pipes that have been leaking for years can cause soil voids and have the real potential to damage support or above ground structures.

We recently spent a weekend repairing a pipe in a building housing Zulily online clothiers, which shut down an entire production floor. Mind you this building takes up an entire block, so it was a pretty big hassle, but we got it done. We had to remove piles of dirt and rocks from the pipe, not to mention strings, chunks and balls of lead from disintegrating cast iron pipe and the efforts of another company. Digging this pipe was not really an option, unless concrete encased electrical conduit and transformers were moved.  You can’t just throw a big powerful garden hose-down a pipe with holes in it-to clean dirt out of it.  As the water rushes through it, it creates a turbulence and negative pressures that pull more dirt and rocks into it. As a result, the repair almost didn’t happen.

It is foolishness to allow these assets to disintegrate; we humans often prefer to deal with what we can see, and not with what we cannot see.  As a result, we at PipeGuys perform a lot of crises management at all levels from homeowner to corporate owner. It’s a very expensive management model.

Don’t ignore failing underground pipes. It costs much more than you might think.

Many homes have downspouts that feed into an in ground pipe that carries water away.  When these in ground pipes become clogged, the first choice for a homeowner is usually a garden hose.  A second choice could be a drain snake that is rotated (by hand or machine).  If this doesn’t do the trick, a professional may need to be contacted.  Water that is not carried away from your home can cause foundation settling and cracking, as well as wood rot under your home.

Typically, pipes used for carrying rainwater away are connected by “T” and “Y” type fittings, when they connect to each other.  Usually they circle the building and may also be connected to the foundation drains, especially if you have a basement.  Many may even be connected to your sanitary sewer pipe.

Depending on the age of your building, they will be made of concrete or clay (generally a structure over 35 years old) or plastic (under 35 years old).  As the debris from the gutters washes down the pipe, it can become lodged in the sharp bends (“T”) or in the case of corrugated pipe, in the corrugations, themselves.  Additionally, the ground may have settled, causing sags in the pipe, or because the pipe has been leaking at a joint, causing the subgrade to sink.  The joints may have become root intruded, allowing soil into the pipe, causing blockage.

The gutter debris doesn’t cause blockage at first.  Eventually though, the organic debris turns to dirt, building over time if it isn’t washed away to the outlet.  Sags in the pipe act as debris catchers and corrugated pipes are most vulnerable to this problem.

In the case of pipes connected to sanitary sewers, there has to be a p-trap connected to the gutter pipe either at the top (just below the surface of the dirt) or at the bottom (deep in the ground). These p-traps might need to be removed before clearing can begin.  The p-trap keeps sewer gas from entering the air around your building, same as the ones under your sink and shower drains.

For stubborn situations, the blockages may need to be located electronically, then excavated in order to clear them.  Sometimes, much more cleaning is needed and high pressure water jetting must be employed.

They serve us for years and years without a peep. No complaints, no drama. They’re not pretty (believe me-I know) and they never ask for anything. They invite us to take them for granted. In fact, they take a lot of c*** from us. But they don’t last forever. One day they start demanding our attention. The miracle happens.  Water goes uphill-when it’s supposed to go downhill.  Water can be powerful stuff. Look at the Grand Canyon. Same forces at work in your sewer pipe-and more.

There are 3 reasons that drain pipes clog.  One reason is foreign material is invading the pipe-stuff that was never intended to be there. Wipes, roots, dirt, toys…you get the picture.  The question is-how did it get there? It’s really important to answer that question correctly, so it leads  to the most economical solution to the problem.

A second reason that pipes clog is: Too much of a good thing.  What else can we say? Don’t do that.

The third reason that drain pipes clog is more interesting.  Mostly has to do with water. Not enough of it. There may have been enough at one time-but not anymore. So what changed? Pipes don’t last forever. They start leaking more and more over time.  A 1.6 gallon flush (federally mandated) at one end of the pipe, might not even make it to the other end. The boat won’t float, so to speak. A pipe can be clogged for months and months with the owner never knowing it.  Until the miracle happens!

Most of us (like me) prefer to spend money on stuff that makes us feel good, not stuff that we normally take for granted. Given the choice of granite countertops or a sewer pipe-my choice is the granite. Be careful here. Not updating the countertops won’t actually cost me money. Not updating the sewer pipe can lead to sudden and catastrophic failure-costing many thousands more than it should have-not to mention motel costs.

We had one client who had the favorite neighborhood drain cleaner (the guy everybody loves, cause he’s cheap) clearing the pipe for a couple of years. Don’t get me wrong-I like him too and I recommend him at times. Trouble was-his sewer snake was drilling a hole through the pipe wall-giving the client a false sense of security because it seemed to solve the problem. In actuality, the sewage was going down a hole under the street and we had to dig the street up ten feet deep (really, really expensive) when the hole would no longer accept sewage. It happens hundreds of times every day, all around the country. A problem that might have been solved for half the price-ends up costing you twice the price cause you didn’t check the oil.

We use state of the art equipment and highly trained personnel in order to provide clients with factual information regarding the health of underground assets.

Turns out-it’s really, really  cheap.

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