Friday, November 30, 2007

On Sewage and Gasoline, with pictures!

I own an awesome house in Rochester. City developers built it in 1920 when Rochester was booming, and like many old houses its plumbing system is a network of pipes of different sizes and substances and ages. From time to time, pipes clog up or break, sometimes accessible but at other times buried under concrete floors.

I've tasted sewage water in a siphoning attempt gone bad. I've gotten crud beneath my fingernails that just wouldn't wash out. And I've developed a close relationship with my plumber, Bob. He's been through sewage and back with me, with humor and patience and without fear of getting dirty.

So when my basement floor took on water as it rained outside on Monday night, Bob was there in less than 15 minutes.

Bob, a plumbing hero

The clogged pipe was a good 30 to 40 feet in front of the house, near the entrance to Monroe County's sewer system. Bob did his best to break the roots, and he got some out, but he eventually had to leave. I kept using his auger and snake to try to loosen them up, but to no avail.

Root Systems

So the next day I called Monroe County's Department of Environmental Services (DES). They said they'd dispatch a van sometime that day, and would even call me ahead of time. Why can't utility companies do the same?

The DES guys arrived in the early afternoon, and asked me if I had a "lot line clean out." I had no idea what they were talking about. They got out their metal detector and after a good deal of searching, measuring hundreds of feed from the nearest manhole cover, and digging, they hit the jackpot.

Lot Line Cleanout

The only 2 references I see to "Lot Line Clean Outs" online are on a Rochester real estate web site and a City of Rochester plumbing regulations document. Interesting. The guys with DES said that if you have a Lot Line Clean Out it can positively impact your home value by as much as $2000 because it gets you free preferential treatment for county sewage services. Free preferential treatment is exactly what I got, though I'll talk about my qualms in a bit.

A giant auger

So the DES fellows went ahead and used their high powered augers and cutters that are supposedly banned from county use to try to cut through the roots. They were having a really rough time with it. Every once in a while they'd pull out their high-tech video camera to watch what was going on inside the pipe, but since the pipe was clogged and the camera couldn't see underwater, it mostly just told them when they hit water. I could devise a $2 machine that would do the same.

In-the-pipe view

They spent a long time trying to get through the roots. While they worked their van was idling and the generator was running to power their equipment.

The County Plumbers

Eventually the DES broke through the routes, but they said the solution was only temporary. The next day, they'd call in the big guns.

Closing a road for me

The backhoe is a useful tool for digging large holes. But the hole they dug in front of my house would really be quick work with a shovel. Maybe some roots would be a bit of a pain, but it seemed like overkill to have multiple trucks idling and then bring over the backhoe.

Shovels are faster and less destructive

It didn't take long, though, before the backhoe's lack of precision caused a problem. The gentlemen digging the hole hit the electricity that powers the street lights.

Whoops, we busted the street lights

I left soon afterwards, but it appears they covered up their work and called it a day, waiting for the City Water & Lighting people to fix the broken line.

Bike next to hazard lights

So yesterday I watched as two City trucks sat idling in front of my house. Is there some sort of gasoline quota that municipal employees need to meet? Then this morning, the backhoe was back, this time joined by a truck mounted with pipes. They were finishing the job.

A lot of gas burned, much by trucks and equipment not regulated by vehicle emissions standards. Maybe more pollution than the amount I've avoided by bike commuting this year. Hopefully the pipes they put in will last a long time.

Here's something to consider - companies make caustic chemicals that kill roots but also possibly contaminate groundwater and kill more than just roots. I generally avoid purchasing chemicals that I'm not supposed to get on my skin. But could I have kept the pipe roots at bay and avoided all the problematic fossil fuel burning by dumping chemicals once a year? Would that have been a good trade-off?

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