Unexpected Plumbing Repairs: Cutting Cast Iron Pipe and Repairing the Sewer Line

Nothing like a Thanksgiving dinner to clog the sink, right? That’s exactly what happened to me on Thursday evening! My sister and I were working on doing some dishes, she had a full sink of water and started to let it go down the drain. My sink is connected to my dishwasher which has an open pipe in the corner of the kitchen that the dishwasher then drains into. When Bronwyn let the water start going down the sink drain, the pipe for the dishwasher started gushing out water all over the floor! We quickly plugged the sink back up to prevent any more water from going down and called quits on dishes for the night. 

The next morning I saw that both the sink and the pipe had drained overnight. I tired flushing things out with baking soda and vinegar followed by boiling water to see if that would fix the clog. It did nothing and I could only get a few cups of water down the dishwasher pipe before the water rose to the top. Not a good sign. A little while later, I headed into the crawl space to see if I could figure out what was going on (a lofty idea for someone as naive as I am about plumbing!). I am not particularly fond of my crawl space. It’s damp and filled with spiders and there’s lingering molten tar that dripped down between the floor boards when I accidentally liquified the tar mastic in the kitchen . I should probably replace the plastic tarps that are affected by the latter… but that would just add more to my to-do list! So instead I leave it be and crawl through the grime. The crawl space is accessed through this half-door in the corner of the basement. You can see it here at the edge of this photo from when I first toured the house. 

So, I climbed into the crawl space and opened up the flexible coupling (this type) with a screw driver to see if I could identify the problem. It’s one of those rubber-like couplings with metal clamps on either end, so it’s easy enough to loosen the clamps and open the pipe. Of course, idiotically, I didn’t think my plan through. When I opened the clamp and pulled it up the pipe, the whole thing started gushing dirty dishwater in all directions! It started off by splashing right up into my face of course! Yuck!

After I drained an unexpectedly large amount of water all over myself, I removed myself from the dark cavity that is my crawl space and texted my neighbor Erik. This was clearly over my head. He popped over shortly after with a snake and we stuck that into the pipe where I’d opened the coupling. After getting the snake in nothing seemed to be happening, but when Erik went to remove the snake, the whole pipe moved with it. Uh oh. I reached out to steady the pipe and realized it didn’t even matter! The whole pipe section had just snapped off. And snapped off not close to where we were snaking, but farther down the pipe. See the dirt in the picture above? That’s where it broke, buried down in that! So I slathered a smile on my face and pretended I loved the crawl space and got to work.

I took out a shovel and started digging in the dirt to figure out where the pipe had broken and found the house’s 4″ cast iron sewer line. The old galvanized pipe that connected the sink and dishwasher drains to the sewer had corroded away and the slight motion from snaking it, broke it off right where it connected to the sewer. Not good! Because it was broken, I couldn’t even get it out of the sewer line and simply sub in a new section of pipe. Nope, I had to get way more involved and replace a section of the sewer line itself! Erik headed out with the promise to help me tomorrow. After I finished digging out around the pipe I called it quits for the night and stuffed a rag in the broken off pipe to prevent the sewer gases from filling the basement. The only good thing about this clog is that it caused me to find this corroded (now broken) pipe. This pipe had been leaking into the soil hidden below where I’d be able to see it if I had not been digging!

The copper pipe that runs perpendicular to the sewer line above is a random pipe that does not connect to anything. Helpful vestiges of plumbings past! 

There’s a special tool that would have made cutting the cast iron sewer line quick and easy. It’s a ratcheting soil pipe cutter. You can buy one for about a billion dollars or rent one. Home Depot rents ’em, but the store closest to me didn’t have one so I went to a local tool rental. They pulled it out of the back and I took one look and teared up. There was no way this could work. My basement wall is oddly angled on this side. Guess why? Because the sewer line was built first. And when they carved out the basement, rather than moving the pipe and making a straight wall, the built the concrete wall about 1/2″ away from the sewer line. The ratcheting pipe cutter gears were about 1.25″. It wasn’t going to fit!

On to plan B! Sawzalling the cast iron pipe with diamond blades. I headed to Home Depot to grab that and the rest of the supplies needed. Two cast iron sawzall blades for $15 buck each was a lot better than paying a plumber. I also headed to the pipe section to look for the proper couplings and accoutrements. Of course, I have no idea what I’m doing so I just took out a ton of parts and put them on the floor and then texted pictures like this to Erik until my phone died and I was left to fend for myself in the plumbing section!

I ended up with a four inch wye pipe with a 2″ offshoot and then because I couldn’t remember if I needed a 2″ or 1.5″ pipe to connect to the sink and dishwasher lines, I just bought a bunch of parts for both sizes. I definitely prefer to err on the side of way too many things to return than oh hey let’s run back to Home Depot four times. So $200 later, I had everything I could possibly use. 

I bought Erik a bagel sandwich for lunch which is definitely not enough to repay him for the next several hours he spent helping me in the crawl space. I set up the light and then I clambered into the crawl space with my corded sawzall and Erik followed with his battery powered sawzall. We then spent the next fourty or so minutes crouched over simultaneously sawzalling at the cast iron pipe. It took a LOT of effort and was so very uncomfortable and not fun. And of course Erik did his section faster than me and then traded so he could finish off my cut. Apparently he’s stronger or something boring like that. Ugh!

But then the cast iron pipe was completely cut! It was a wonderful sight to see! 4 inches over 40 mins, but hey, who’s counting? Look at this glorious exposed sewage. Just delightful!

Then it was time to get the fittings together. Ugh. This was a gross project. First I got the special cast iron to ABS pipe couplings fit over both ends of the cast iron. That took some work to get the rubber fitting over and then I slid the double clamp over the rubber fitting and started lining up the rest of the pipes. Erik cut a short section of 4″ pipe to fit into the coupling. The wye went in next and then Erik cut another 4″ pipe section to fit the remaining part. 

Stuffing the section of pipe into the wye and then into the coupling was a bit of a challenge. But about 5 minutes of fanangling later and I made it work. But then, of course, I had to take everything apart to glue it all. I used ABS pipe glue stuff which smells disgusting and sticks to everything. It has a ball to apply and you put glue on both ends about as wide as the radius of the pipe. 

The rest of the pipe fit more easily together, it’s like highstakes marble races, but the marbles are sewage. Again, delightful! A 2″ to 1.5″ pipe converter went on the main wye first, then a 45° angle, then a section of 1.5″ pipe, then a 90° angle.

That then connected to another forked wye pipe, this one was 1.5″ all around. That allowed me to slip on the original pipes from the dishwasher and sink drains into the new wye with a couple short sections of 1.5″ pipe and a whole lotta glue. 

A bit of tightening of the coupling clamps later and the plumbing was all connected!

Erik ran upstairs to flush the toilets a couple times and run the shower to test the lines. A couple more rotations to tighten the clamps on the sewer line later, we were leak free and basically done! I threw the rest of the dirt back into the space and called it quits. Typing this took no time at all, but in reality I climbed into the crawl space at about 12:30pm that day and came out about 4:30 and then spent and hour and half cleaning up. Not too shabby, but it doesn’t count the couple hours of digging from the day before!

It’s funny how projects like these: gross and dirty, but quick can make you feel so accomplished. I could never have done this without my neighbor though. I simply wouldn’t have had the confidence to even try. But saving several hundred dollars sure feels good! Plus the more of these I do, the more confident I get to try this on the next round. Though I hope that next round is a long ways away!

In the meantime, I saved a whole lot of money. At least 4-6 hours of a plumber’s work so let’s call that $400-$600. And honestly, it wasn’t all that hard once I got going. I think I could do it again… if I wanted to! Has anyone else tried plumbing things? How’d your project go? Did your DIY job hold up over time? There’s one connection I’m a little nervous about…!

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Laying 1″ Hex Tile in the Bathroom

I thought walls were a huge step, but, baby, I’m falling head over heels for my tiled floors! The floors were something I’ve just been dying over for months. I found dozens of complicated multi-colored tile floor patterns that I wanted to try, before finally settling back down and going with a clean, classic, and readily available option from Home Depot (my home away from home). I’m still saving those ideas of fun multi-colored patterns for the future though! There’s still the upstairs dormer bathroom and that has got to take shape eventually… so finger’s crossed! My inspiration for this room just got me all kinds of giddy about the tile I’d picked, but seeing it finished is even better!

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I bought three cases of the tile at $53 bucks per case. I ended up returning an entire case of the tile in the end and only using the first two cases, or about 18 SF of tile. Saving that extra money was almost as exciting as the tile itself! And I’m allllll about my tile! I picked this tile for the spacing of the flowers. You can get options with more or less space between the flowers, but I preferred this since it had enough that you’d easily see the flowers in the small bathroom, but not enough that you’d feel dizzy! Here’s the shot from the website showing the tile in all it’s ungrouted professional photo glory.

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Including the tile, here was my short Home Depot shopping list compiled here for you. That’s it! Tiling isn’t so bad, y’all.

Once I gathered the supplies and completed the prep work in the bathroom I came home from work one night in mid-November ready to tile! I finally turned on my ancient furnace which helped keep the house above freezing, which was a refreshing change. After that, I went ahead and dry laid all my tile so I could assess how it would fit in the space. I used this dry lay to also take the tile nippers out and make all my cuts. Luckily with 1″ hex tiles, a quick nip will cut through the tile pretty neatly. Not every one was perfect, but plenty were good enough!

Then it was time to start setting the tile. I carefully picked up my dry laid tile and stacked it sheet by sheet in order of how I’d place the sheets. I made a pile of all my cut tiles I could pull from as needed. Then I popped open my thinset container and used the flat side of a thinset float to spread out a thin coat (about 1/8″) before making grooves with the v side. This is the same process I’d used to lay the HardieBacker during prep. Then I had to actually lay the tile! It all started off smoothly.

First, I spread my thinset about 14″ deep across the back end of the floor by the shower pan, made my grooves, and laid a sheet of tile. Then I back filled any cut tiles and moved on to the next sheet in the row. I did this for the first and second rows without issue. It started to get warmer in the bathroom as the furnace heated the house and as I worked my way across and down the bathroom floors, my thinset started drying at the edges before I could lay the next sheet. Not dry-dry, just drier… I tried working faster and faster, laying the tile as quickly as I could. The room felt hotter and hotter as my efforts increased in speed. By the time I finished I was sweating heavily and the last sheets had a couple spots where the spacing didn’t feel perfect. After tweaking them to make them better, I began to clean up and realized it wasn’t just the little bathroom that was hot. The whole house was oddly warm. I checked the newly installed thermostat: 86°F. Apparently the thermostat went rogue and decided it should feel like a tropical island in November in Portland, OR! So if the tile’s not perfect perfect, I blame the thermostat!

In all, the dry lay and then wet lay of the tile took most of the evening for even just this small room. I was pretty excited to return the next day and finish up with grout! I left the heater on at a more reasonable 70°F temperature to keep the tile and thinset warm enough to set fully overnight. but already things were looking pretty good! I wish I’d taken more pictures of the ungrouted tile, but I’m a terrible blogger and an undivided focus DIYer, so I only took this one overall shot when I finished.

Berrybrier | Ungrouted Tile.jpg

The next evening, grouting I was much better though! I poked any thinset to make sure it was fully set in place (it was!) and double checked the heater was at a more reasonable temperature (it was!), before cracking open my pre-mixed grout. You can get mixable grout for cheaper than the Fusion Pro stuff I used, but I didn’t want to worry about mixing multiple batches or making it the wrong consistency. I figured for my first time grouting, I’d take the easier approach. Also, I’m lazy. Ha! I debated white, grey, and black grout options, but ultimately, picked up a gallon of the charcoal which is the black Fusion Pro option. Black hides the most, I decided, and dingy grout is no one’s friend! I got a little nervous when I opened the container though, because it looked kinda blue! Also shout out to my filthy partially sanded kitchen floors photobombing below.

Berrybrier | Fusion Pro Grout in Charcoal

Once I actually started grouting, the grout looked more black. That was better! Whew!

Grouting was easier than laying the tile, just take the grout float and smoosh grout into the open space between the tiles, smoosh over a few times to make sure the gaps are fully filled. After smooshing, wipe away the excess and you’re left with something that looks a little crazy. You have to let the grout set a minute or two before wiping up the excess though.

Berrybrier | Groat Float

But then you just dip a sponge like this in some warm water and ring it out really well and wipe up the excess grout. This sponge helpfully had a more abrasive side I could work at any tough spots with.

Berrybrier | Grouting Sponge

As I wiped with the damp sponge, it started looking like a real floor pretty quickly! If any water started to pool, I wiped it up with sponge and rung out the sponge again before making another pass.

Berrybrier | Wiping Grout

After the first wipe down, it looked better, but it definitely needed another go round. By getting the majority in the first pass with a slightly more than damp sponge, I found a damp sponge could get nearly all the rest of the grout haze on the second pass.

Berrybrier | Grout Cleaning

That second pass got 95% of the grout haze and all of a sudden the floors looked DONE! It was momentous for sure! I’d not had a proper bathroom in a long while at this time and no bathroom meant I couldn’t actually stay at the house since there was no where to shower! Sure there was still some grout haze on the tile, but I would get that after the grout and tile set fully. It was really looking close to done in here. Walls, tile, who needs paint and toilets anyways?

Berrybrier | Freshly Grouted Tile

There was one casualty of the grouting though: my hand. If you’re using dark grout, wear gloves! The grout stained my hand and finger nails and no amount of soap and water could get it off. After a week though it slowly faded away… thankfully!

Berrybrier | Grout Hands

This felt like a small price to pay for floors that made me want to drool with happiness! I adored the high contrast look and classic feel. The dark grout was practical, but also seemed more contemporary. Overall, this project was a 2 night success! 5 out of 5 stars, would recommend. Significantly easier and less annoying than drywalling. And arguably, way more fun to pet! Because petting tile is a thing right?

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The high contrast floors feel so clean and classic don’t they? I just love black and white floors. Gwen’s kitchen floors makes me drool with envy. Black and white can go modern or traditional. Here I think it walks a nice middle line, just like me. This floor also reminds me of my Oma who had black and white hex floors in her Jack and Jill bathroom at her house in Berkeley. Hers was white with black dots only, forcing you to make the flowers with your brain. Something I have many memories of staring at that floor and doing! It’s funny how little things like this can remind you of someone. 20 years later, I’m still staring at hex floors. And loving it!

Berrybrier | White and Black Hex Flower Tile Floors.jpg

Have you ever tiled anything before? Did you think it was a difficult or easier DIY project? I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to tile more things soon! If you’re getting ready to tile, better check that thermostat though. Can’t have another one going rogue!