Old house plumbing problems: the continuing saga

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

Just for the record … I love old houses and have lived in them for most of my life. I enjoy their little flaws and imperfections such as out-of-level floors and crooked doors. In my mind, they provide a character often lacking in newer homes. I even accept the challenge they can sometimes pose when what should be a simple project sometimes becomes a bit more complicated.

However, as anyone who has ever lived in an old house knows, there can be a fine line between an issue being an endearing quirk and turning into a downright aggravation. The issue I've been having with my home's plumbing has managed to cross that line and venture into pull-my-hair- out (if I had any) territory.

A blocked toilet becomes something more

I recently wrote about the problems my old house's plumbing created around the holidays. The situation began with a blocked toilet and escalated to having an entire bathroom down for the count -- none of the fixtures would drain at all. A power drain auger was brought in and after a few passes through the main sewer line, the bathroom was back in operation…or so I thought.

The bathroom functioned as designed until last week when suddenly the toilet became blocked once again. A quick check at the exterior cleanout showed the outside line was clear and water from the tub was flowing through without a problem.

While I'm not a plumber, this indicated to me that the clog must be somewhere between the toilet and where its drain line connected with the house's main sewer line. Not a problem, I thought. My recently purchased power auger should easily handle that. My optimism turned out to be a bit premature.

Could my old house be on a septic tank?

When I drained and pulled the toilet, standing water as a result of the blockage was visible at the floor flange. A quick calculation determined that it was about 20 feet from the flange to the exterior cleanout so I started the auger and began feeding cable into the drain. Even 50 feet of cable later the water level hadn't dropped, and I realized my simple project was quickly turning into a major undertaking -- especially when the auger cable couldn't be seen at the exterior cleanout.

When 70 of my available 75 feet of cable had entered the drain line without clearing the clog or becoming visible at the cleanout, it was time to re-think the problem. Where was all that cable going and how could it not be seen at the outside cleanouts? I knew there weren't any holes in the drain line or it wouldn't be holding water. And if for some very unusual reason that toilet had a separate line to the town sewer main, 70 feet of cable should have reached that point.

The only possibility I could think of was just as odd: that one fixture might still be hooked up to an old septic tank. Many of the old houses in my part of town were on septic tanks when first built. However, as the town expanded, they were connected to municipal lines and the tanks filled in with dirt. Could it be that after living in the house for 22 years, I had finally filled a tank to capacity that I didn't even know was there? Oh yeah…this little project has definitely crossed the line into big-time aggravation territory!

If you're having any plumbing problems with your old house, the Tennessee Preservation Trust is having their 2013 Old House Fair in Nashville, Tenn. on March 9. One of the seminars will be on getting creative with old house plumbing. If I haven't resolved my issue by then, look for me in the audience.