Then, Wednesday night, I did a load of laundry. When I went to change over the laundry, I discovered the basement was flooded. Which is nothing new in my basement, but usually it's not flooded right around the laundry machine. A cursory inspection of the machine found that the hose leading up to the drain was soaked, as was the back of the machine, even as high as the dryer on top of it. This struck me as peculiar, but I didn't immediately associate it with the aforementioned drain gurgling. Instead, I called Sears (because hey, I paid for the extended warranty on these things, I may as well use it) and made an appointment for today. I had today off anyway.
The gurgling sounds grew worse; now the shower gurgled when the toilet was flushed, and the kitchen sink sounded awful when the dishwasher ran. Saturday, when I took a shower, everything in the bathroom stopped up: the shower, the toilet, and even the bathroom sink. Much to my relief, vigorous use of the plunger on everything got the water flowing again. But the gurgling remained.
At this point, I'd pretty well figured out that whatever had happened with the washer, it wasn't the machine's fault. Saturday night I called my plumber.
He called me back an hour or two later (even though I'd said it wasn't urgent -- I did mention he was like unto a god among plumbers, right?)
Sadly, heartbreakingly his prowess does not extend to drains. He does not do drains.* He said, "It sounds like a problem with the main line, or the sewer."
"I don't have sewer service. I've got a septic tank."
"Oh. In that case, it's either the line leading to the septic tank, or the septic tank is full." He gave me the name of a septic-pumping service. He didn't have any recommendations for a service to clear the line, apart from "don't use Roto-Rooter."
I was rather dubious about the "septic tank is full" theory. The tank was, supposedly, pumped out just before the people who sold the house to me originally bought it. That'd be about three years ago. Septic tanks don't usually need to be pumped more than once every five years, and I've heard of people going ten or fifteen years without pumping them, with no ill effects. There were only two of us living here. How could we have filled it up so soon?
But Sunday, I went out to look at the septic tank. You don't have to dig to unearth my septic tank: it's got two holes in the ground that lead to it, each covered by a big concrete block. With effort, I shifted one of them and peered inside. I thought it looked fuller than the last time I'd seen it, which was shortly before I moved in a couple of years ago, although there was still some clearance between the top of the tank and the water level. It looked goopier, too. Although it didn't smell. This has always surprised me about the septic tank. You'd think it'd stink but it doesn't.
So, OK, maybe it does need to be pumped.
This morning, I cancelled the appointment with Sears and called the septic tank service instead.
The woman on the other end was highly suspicious that it needed to be pumped. "There are only two of you? Well. I guess if it's a really small tank, or if the people who said they'd had it pumped were lying, it could have so much sludge on the bottom that there's not enough room left for fresh water to get in, in which case pumping will fix it. But the septic tank will always look full when you look at it. There's supposed to be a foot to a foot and a half of clearance at the top, and that's it. It empties itself through the lateral lines into the ground around it.** Even if you've just had it pumped, it'll fill up again in a week or so.
"If it really is overfull, that could mean sludge at the bottom and you can pump it to fix that. Or it could be a problem with the lateral lines that's surfacing because the ground is frozen. If the tank's not overfull, than you need to have someone roto-rooter the lines from your house to the septic tank."
She gave me the number of another septic tank pumping service (their service doesn't extend to my area) and suggested I call them.
"Who do I do I call if it's a problem with the lateral lines?" I asked.
She hesitated. "You hope it's not a problem with the lateral lines," she told me.
Well, that was promising. I thanked her and got off the phone, considering my next step.
From my perspective, the biggest factor favoring the "line blockage" hypothesis is that plungering worked to clear the water. If the problem was with the tank, I wouldn't expect using a plunger would help. Then again, what do I know about plumbing?
The biggest factor favoring the "septic tank problem" hypothesis is that I thought it had looked more full than usual when I checked. In opposition to this, however, is the fact that it's been over two years since I looked at it, and no one was living in the house or using it at the time that I did. In addition, supposedly it'd been pumped before we moved in. It's certainly not out of the question that this was a lie. But there was a section of fence that had been knocked down so the pumping truck could get to the tank. So maybe it had been done. Besides, what do I know about septic tanks?
So I decided to go with the cheapest possible test: I bought a bottle of "drain care" stuff. This is goop that you pour into a partially blocked drain and then leave alone for six hours while (one hopes) it eats away at the gunk clogging the insides of your pipes. *** I don't actually expect this to fix the problem, although I won't complain if it does. If it helps, then that would be more evidence for the "line blockage" hypothesis, and I'll know I need to contact some roto-rooter-type service. If it makes no difference at all, that will back the "septic tank problem" hypothesis, and I'll try having it pumped.
Before pouring in the goop, you're supposed to run the warm water into the sink for a minute to warm the pipes. I tried this in the kitchen, and water immediately backed into the adjoining drain. Once again, vigorous use of a plunger got the water flowing again. I poured in the stuff and am now waiting and hoping for the best.
Unfortunately, the problem that perhaps best fits all available data is "something wrong with the lateral lines". That would match the overfull appearance of the tank, the gurgling in the sinks, the backup of the drains, and it's consistent with the tank having been pumped three years ago. Maybe not so much the efficacy of plungering, but perhaps forcing the water to shift around is causing enough motion in the tank to get more water to leech out into the ground.
Plus, it's undoubtedly the most expensive and inconvenient possible problem that I could have.
Those of you who've been reading along may recall another irony to this situation: I was told by the title company prior to closing that the city was installing sewers in this area. Yes, two years ago the city said it was going to give us sewer coverage. Since then, we've seen many little wooden stakes with flags on them, indicating "yep, yep, we've surveyed this area for sewers, uh huh". And nothing more than that. The first round of stakes were lost to entropy and got replaced a few months later, and the replacement round has by now mostly fallen victim to the people and the weather as well.
And I wouldn't mind so much paying several thousand dollars (or whatever it would be) to fix my existing septic tank if I knew I was going to be using it for another 10 years. But if we really are going to get sewer service ....
I hope it's the line to the septic tank.
* Yeah, I thought that's what plumbers were for, too.
** Doesn't that sound gross? And yet they work so well as a general rule. It's my own personal water treatment plant. Actually, I think septic tanks are pretty cool.
*** Yes, it's safe for septic tanks. I checked.