Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tuesday Tool: the Saga of the waters

I don’t know the exact name of this one.  It’s a device required for the final stages of a complete plumbing system.  Since we have a nearly complete plumbing system, it’s appropriate.  But, to begin at the beginning…

We bought this property understanding that the water system needed some work. Water for the house came from a well, was pumped uphill over a hundred meters to a concrete reservoir, then was pumped another hundred meters to the house.  This basic set-up is not a problem, but its condition was troubling.

The well was grim.  Inside the dilapidated wellhouse, the well presented itself as a metal pipe, six inches in diameter, protruding a few inches from the muddy ground and leading to the bottomless depths.  A couple of cables went down into it, disappearing into the dark water to power an immersed pump, and a pipe came out, bringing water.  The electrical panel regulating the pump made a constant clicking noise.  There was no cover, so there were snails and a couple of dead frogs visible on the surface of the water.  Water samples showed coliform bacteria, not a good sign, but not surprising.  Wells generally have a pressure tank—a big steel tank with a balloon of compressed air inside to keep water pressure up—and this had one, though we found out later that the balloon was punctured and full of water.  Surrounding the well house, there were the remains of old piping and an ancient pressure tank.

The line from well to reservoir did not inspire a lot of confidence.  It was PVC pipe, in pretty good condition, but...  It didn’t go straight from the well to the reservoir; rather, it went straight south for a ways, then straight west, so it was much longer than it needed to be.  Normally this would be pretty hard to tell, since normally such pipes are buried to protect them from animals and a freezing environment.  However, this one was still in an open trench for most of its course.  The cable supplying power to the well house was laid in the same trench, except at the dogleg where the pipe turned 90°--apparently, there was not sufficient cable, so it spanned several meters of the hypotenuse, lying exposed on the ground rather than exposed in the trench. 

The reservoir was, if anything, worse.  It’s a giant concrete tank, the top of which is at ground level.  Water comes in the east end, and there is a pump which sends water out the west end.  There is an access port on the top that one can easily fit through.   As purchased, the entire thing was covered by an utterly dilapidated shed; perforated walls, a tin roof that was falling apart, and full of the nests of birds and wasps and hornets.   There was no cover for the access port other than a piece of cardboard that had caved in and gotten soaked.  This made falling in and drowning a hazard, as had been discovered by many frogs, mice, and a squirrel all in various states of waterlogged and anaerobic decay.  Add to this the observation that an owl had taken a liking to perching above the access port and horking up its fewments; perhaps it liked to listen to the plop they made in the cistern. 

The line from the reservoir to the house was not especially inspiring either; this is a chunk of that line from where it actually enters the house.   
The story of the house in one picture
Note the place where a leak in the very rusty pipe had been “repaired” with rags held on by a hose clamp. 

The plumbing inside the house caused a bit of head scratching for our plumber.  There appeared to be a second pressure tank in the basement—but it was just a tank, no pressure.  There was what appeared to be a pressure-boosting pump—but it didn’t do anything when it was turned on.  The line feeding the water heater ran from one end of the house to the other—and then back to the water heater.  An earlier remodel of the house left a lot of abandoned pipe in place—with no covers for the cleanouts.  The hot water smelled of sulfides.  And so on…

The previous owner of the place assured us that the septic tank was in perfectly fine condition; it had been installed “oh, about 20 or 30 years ago” and pumped “not too long ago, should be fine for the two of you for a couple of years,” according to the seller.  The Real Doctor and I were a little skeptical. 

Needless to say, a lot of work has been done in the last year.  Here’s a big shout out to Gilbert Pump and Well Service and Plummer’s Plumbing, not to mention brother H and the Real Doctor.    

I still need to make a new house for the well, but the situation there is much better.  Much bleach went into the well after the corpses came out.  There’s a real cap for the well, so it’s closed up tight.  The clicking noise from the pump controller was a switch that was having its death spasms, causing the pump to constantly cycle on and off, so the pump controller has been replaced.  Needless to say, there’s a new pressure tank too. 

There’s a new water line that makes a straight shot from the well to the reservoir. It’s buried.  The new cable is now in a conduit, also buried. 

Shortly after we bought the place, I had to go to L.A. for a couple of weeks.  During that time, I got a phone call from the Real Doctor; she warned me that she had emptied the reservoir and was going to spend an hour inside it with a bottle of bleach and a stiff brush, and that if I didn’t hear back from her in an hour I should call 911.  Well, she survived, and I’m glad.  We also got a proper riser and lid for the reservoir, and a better pump, and both a cartridge and a UV filter to sterilize everything that comes out of the reservoir.  I also built a new house for the reservoir.  It was my first go at construction, and I am definitely not proud of it at all, but it’s so much better than what was there. 

We’ve replaced bits of the line from the reservoir to the house.  There was the incident when we returned from Claremona to find a bit of our field turned into a marsh by a pipe rupture; uncovering the break gave us this nice image, showing the completed reservoir house to boot. 

Les jeux d'eau a la ville d'Umpqua
Also, the final 20 meters of line were replaced with PEX for better freezing resistance. 

The interior plumbing has all been updated to PEX or PVC, except for a little bit of cast iron.   The pressure pump was discarded.  Another cartridge filter was added.  Simplifying the plumbing system turned up hidden horrors: Brother H. courageously drained the hot water heater, which had a layer of chunky precipitate in the bottom that must have been inches thick, in addition to a large quantity of mysterious gelatinous goo.  The sacrificial anode in the water heater was completely covered in a centimeter-thick layer of scale, leading to its replacement—so now, instead of reducing sulfates in our water to make stinky sulfide, we are reducing magnesium, a big improvement.  That big, mysterious water tank got drained and taken to the dump; when we took it out of the basement, it barfed up a layer of the foulest sludge I’ve ever seen:
Be glad it's not in smell-o-vision
The nephews had great fun rolling it over to the scrap heap.  With every rotation, it would poop out more sludge, making it look like the trail of a cow with diarrhea and hiccups:
Be glad that you don't get the sound effect
Which leads naturally to a discussion of the septic system.

The septic tank is a thousand-gallon concrete crypt, buried a half-foot under the surface of our back yard.  According to the county records, it was installed in 1983.  There’s a pipe leading out of the house, coupled to the tank by a rubber sleeve.  Another pipe connected by a rubber sleeve leads around the side of the house to the drain field in front of our driveway. 

Soil is a fluid, and stuff floats in it, getting driven up and down by buoyancy and traffic.  Sewage pipes, it turns out, tend to be less buoyant that septic tanks.  While the pipe from the house and the septic inlet started at the same level thirty years ago, over time the pipe sank about three inches, distorting the rubber sleeve into an elongated “S” shape.  The pipe is four inches in diameter, so we fixed this just in time.  We were not so lucky with the outlet pipe—when Brother M, and Brother H and his family were all visiting, we discovered that the outlet pipe had sunk by about five inches.  I discovered this because I was in the yard when the Real Doctor was taking a shower, and noticed stinky water oozing up out of the ground.  It took an emergency visit from the honey wagon and some concrete under the outlet pipe to put things right, and we were extraordinarily lucky that (thanks to the construction of the addition) we had a porta-potty on the premises.  Stay tuned, though--there are hints that our septic system may need to be altered to meet code.   

There are still unresolved mysteries in the property’s water situation.  While digging in the yard, we broke a PVC pipe that started gushing water under pressure.  It’s pretty clear that it comes off the main water line; however, I followed it out some ways, and it just ends.  There’s also a spigot—dry, or at the least plugged—way out in the middle of the field, over a hundred meters from anything else.   Pipes from the original system—a gravity-pressured system fed by a tank on a tower in that back of the house—are still buried in the back yard.  But after a year, and gallons of bleach, and two cartridge filters and a UV filter, I’m pretty confident that we have pure, potable, non-stinky water and reasonable wastewater disposal.   

But what of the Tuesday Tool?  It is not, despite its appearances, a scale model of a coliform bacterium so the plumber knows what to look for during inspection.  We are getting some plumbing installed in the addition—a toilet, a sink, and a second shower, with a new standpipe.  When you get your plumbing inspected by the county, you need to pressure test it.  So, you take the covers off of the cleanouts, put these things in, and inflate them with a bicycle pump.  This keeps the water from going into the septic system.  You then go up onto the roof of the house with a hose, and start filling the entire of system of pipes by way of the standpipe.  If there are any leaks—a bad glue job on the PVC, or a crack in the pipe—water will come gushing out of them.  Sure enough, this test revealed a cracked bit of PVC in the new piping, which was easy to replace.  Once that was done, the inspector was satisfied, and we could proceed with confidence that our plumbing was good. 

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