Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What the What? Toilet Blockage!

I wrote awhile back about having some issues with anxiety, and the last few days have been days like that. The cause: our stupid toilet.


In April 2011, our downstairs toilet was all weird and then while Eric was showering, I was getting dressed and smelled poop. Naturally, I assumed our dog pooped in the living room, but when I went downstairs I instead found our toilet overflowing with sewage all over the place. It was... not awesome. Eric had to leave for work, so I was alone (thankfully the kids went to school) trying to minimize the damage and get someone to come help us fix the sewage spewing toilet problem. It was a half day problem that cost us around $300, but then the stress lingered until we were able to determine that we didn't have sewage in our walls or any other place it shouldn't be. The problem, according to the plumbing guy at the time, was a blockage in the sewer main line about 80ft from our house. A blockage that looked like concrete or cement.

So for the past week or so, I noticed some tell tale bubbling in the scary toilet. The rational part of me reassured the rest of myself (the irrational part, also known as most of me) that I was imagining things. That a sewage flood of our downstairs was not imminent or inevitable. But part of me has been eyeing all things water related with suspicion.

A few nights ago, I had trouble falling asleep, and ended up getting about 2 hours of sleep because of fears that the toilet would start going crazy while we were sleeping upstairs, and that I wouldn't know about it so there would be tons of damage. I ended up watching Olympics reruns on the couch, and all toilets continued to function mostly properly.

The next day, exhausted, I suggested to Eric that perhaps we should call the plumber now. Before our house floods with sewage. But that would require a) money, and also b) trusting my anxiety voice. Seriously though, at that point, I was reaching my limit of the anxiety I could handle related to the toilet situation and just wanted it to be over.

So 2 days ago, sleepless again, I decided to do some research. I ended up emailing our city water & sewer customer service explaining about the supposed concrete 80 feet from our house into the area under the street (conveniently the same area of the street where the road was fixed after the water main exploded a few weeks after we moved in to our house. I couldn't even make this up!), and asking for someone to come out and check the city's part of the sewer main for blockages.

And, of course, I didn't hear back.

But this morning, while Eric was showering again (creepy!) the toilet started bubbling like crazy. Like a crazy, toilet bubbler. I stood there watching like a statue of a person having a panic attack. And then the water sucked down the drain. All of it. For no reason. And the panic attack started. I started crying, my skin was tingling, my stomach got upset, I started pacing. I got Eric who basically told me to snap out of it. "It's a problem to be SOLVED" were his exact words.

Ahh.. the irony.

I called the city sewer line at 8am and didn't go into details other than to say I suspected a blockage in the sewer main, and they actually sent someone to our house!! The city people looked at... some stuff near the street (??), and then looked in the little tunnel out in front of our house where our house line comes out from the crawl space. After doing some fun experiments like turning on all of the water sources in the house, and flushing a big wad of toilet paper down the toilet that will likely be the one to flood, they determined that the blockage is probably under the house.  But supposedly they will also be checking the city part of the line.

The city guy gave me instructions on what to tell Eric he should do if he wanted to try to fix the block on his own. Normally I would have felt a little "Why do you assume I can't do this myself?" but his instructions involved going into the crawl space and actually opening the line, at which point I imagined sewage would just start flowing out, so I didn't even pretend like that job might be mine. Then I got to go to school and tell Eric about his fun evening DIY project!

I was a little crazy all day. I'm blaming it on the anxiety. Literally my thoughts almost all day were on whether our house was flooding with sewage AT THAT VERY MOMENT. That is not a fun way to live.

Tonight was project night. Eric did some research, bought some supplies, got dressed in his paint clothes and headed down into the crawl space looking like a strange miner/surgeon.
He had 2 jobs under the house. First, city guy told me, and Eric read online, that the line under the house should start high and angle down so that gravity would work to pull the sewage from the house. Only the ties that were supposed to establish that were laying on the ground, and there were a few low spots in the pipe where blockages could loiter. Fixed.  Then he ran a pipe snake through the line as far as it would go (25 feet).  He came out all dusty and disgusting, but confident that the toilet would be better.

Only instead it was worse. Lots of bubbles. At first we thought "Well, he did just open the line, so there is air in there that needs to work it's way out." Only then we flushed the toilet and it started to fill. And fill.
No joke, when the toilet started to fill, I immediately went into crisis. Shaking, crying, basically being a freak. I just cannot deal with a poop bathroom again.

So now it is 3am, and I am awake on the couch with a view of the bathroom. Light on, toilet seat up, every towel we own, plus some of my moms (who is out of town. Welcome back, Mom! I got some poop on your towels while you were gone.) covering the bathroom floor. JUST. IN. CASE. The water level in the toilet is slowly rising, so I decided to attempt to stay up most of the night to check it and plunge when needed, which is working out to about every 2 hours.

Tomorrow I get to call the city again to see if they checked the city line yet. And then, hopefully, the plumber. While spending the money on the repair is painful during the month we are paying for our recent 2 week trip to Denver, at least then the anxiety part will be over. Until I start worrying about our credit card bill with the repair on it.


Plumbing man was just here. One of the best parts of this experience was the text I got from Eric saying, "If he pulls Lamby out of there, I will be royally pissed." [Lamby = Big Girl's lost bedtime stuffed animal.] Maybe it isn't that funny, but I didn't sleep last night.

The culprit: DISHWASHER DETERGENT! In addition to the normal stuff you would find in a sewer, there was "some grease" - my bad - and "a lot of chalky powder". Based on the location of the blockage (directly under the dishwasher) and the fact that our dishwasher is the only thing in the house that we put powder in, I was able to deduce that the dishwasher detergent is the chalky powder. Yes, this is the same mind that got a perfect score on the logic section of the GRE back in 1999.

And, to redeem Eric and his plumbing skillz, the plumber ended up needing to use 75 feet of pipe snake to get to the blockage, so really there is nothing Eric could have done about that, short of spending $300 at Home Depot. We got piece of mind for 45 minutes of plumber time and half the price!

Lesson learned: when you have a fairly crappy dishwasher and a sewer main line with no room for significant angling, use liquid dishwasher detergent. Bye bye pre-packaged powder detergent. You were so convenient and cheap (at Costco) until you cost us about $200 and a week of stress that probably shortened my life.


  1. I would have been freaking out too. When we lived in our old house, the sewer backed up in to our basement. I still have nightmares.

  2. My toilet scares me, too. I'm always afraid that it will "act up" when I'm at work and I'll get a call from the doorman or when I'm asleep. I'm convinced my toilet smells fear.

  3. our dishwasher has been a problem for a while so we now wash everything by hand. Amazingly, I think it's faster than scraping, rinsing, loading, unloading, rinsing, de-crusting whatever didn't come off/dried on in the machine...