Fixing a choking drain no game of softball

We moved into our Schenectady fixer-upper in 1985 and have done almost every square inch at least twice since then, but one annoying problem remained at the top of my household bucket list.

The drains in the upstairs bathroom were persistently slow no matter how many bottles of Liquid Plumber I poured in. Most annoyingly, when we flushed the commode, a loud, throaty, choking sound reverberated down every drain in the house.

When I asked the many plumbers we’ve had for other repairs over the years, they all mentioned simple physics: Drains need air to do their job. Something narrowed the air supply.

Usually that air comes through a roof vent, in our case a 4-inch cast iron pipe that extends above the bathroom. However, as sure as they knew the cause, none of the plumbers wanted the job, which would mean climbing the fairly steep roof of our 2½ story home and performing some sort of root canal treatment on our main drain.

Such clumps are usually of accumulated leaves or, heaven forbid, the carcass of a squirrel. With no trees hanging near our vent, we were perplexed, except for an outside theory that seemed a bit far-fetched to those plumbers.

In 1987 our oldest son Jamie got a softball for his 12th birthday. He and I liked to play a modified pitch-and-catch by throwing the ball from the ramp below onto the roof and hooking it where it came down randomly. One day Jamie reported that he hadn’t seen where the ball landed. We looked everywhere, in the bushes, under cars and on the street, but no luck.

You can see where this is going.

Fast forward to a day a few months ago. An ask-the-expert radio dialer featured by a local plumber. A caller described a problem identical to ours. The expert suggested climbing on the roof and spraying a garden hose into the vent pipe. If the water backs up, you have a blockage. Besides, he said, his company could come and do the work.

The next day I called the contractor and they sent Mike, who the dispatcher said was their best disposal man. He listened, asked some questions and scheduled a roof inspection when he could bring a helper and a large ladder.

When the day came, Mike climbed up the ladder and placed a high-velocity water jet in our pile. Immediately the water flowed out again.

Once the blockage was confirmed, Mike worked slowly on the water jet and the water began to trickle down. But soon the bathroom sink began to fill with rusty water from the age-old iron vent pipe. It overflowed making a terrible mess in the bathroom and seeped through the floor and stained the ceiling below.

After some quick mopping, the plumbers fitted a temporary hose to collect and divert the flow and Mike resumed blasting. Soon the water flowed freely down the pile and out through the sink drain. We all thought this meant the obstruction had been lifted. I blushed with anticipation. The loud, choking sound hadn’t gone away. It seemed even louder. Had we made the blockade worse?

Then Mike lowered a video viewer into the pile. Minutes later, his colleague looking at the screen yelled, “Hey, there’s a baseball over there.” On his screen you could clearly see the stitching of the ball and read the word ‘Official’.

It’s actually softball, I explained, telling them the story.

Could it simply be hooked and pulled out with a long pole?

Not so easy, they said. All that water jetting had apparently moved the ball and now it completely clogged the sink drain. The best solution, they said, was to cut open the wall in the adjacent bedroom so they could remove the cast iron section containing the softball and then repair it with conventional PVC.

Reluctantly, I planned their next visit. To save some money I said I would make the hole in the wall and then plaster it over.

My wife, Debi, was skeptical and insisted on a second opinion. So I called Rich, a plumber friend who had repaired our furnace a few years earlier. He was intrigued by all this and offered to come and have a look.

Rich pulled out of the toilet and used a video viewer to locate the ball. He tried to use a plumber’s hose to push it up and out, but without success. It was now late Friday afternoon, so Rich asked for a weekend to think about his next move.

On Monday morning, Rich showed up with a ladder and a tool he’d made by welding a large screw to the end of a long, three-piece pole used to clean chimneys. Holding the ladder as he climbed up, I snapped his pole and began poking down the ventilation shaft. No success.
He came down and asked Debi for some vegetable oil and presented him with an empty Stewarts coffee cup. She happily complied.

He went back to the roof, poured the lubricant in, swung his tools around a bit and started spinning. Slowly he raised the post and with it came a 35-year-old rust-covered light green softball. Turns out it was one of those spongy Nerf balls, which probably made it easier to snare.

I was ecstatic and started taking pictures of Rich as he climbed down. It saved me having to break down the bedroom wall and pay a small fortune to have my cast iron pipe cut and repaired.

It was time to test the results. We went to the bathroom and I pressed that lever. Swissssssssssssssssssss! A normal but very sweet blushing sound that no longer reverberates throughout the house.

We’re grateful to Rich and Mike, who went where no other plumber would go before finally solving an annoying problem in this old house.

The lessons here are that you need to ensure proper ventilation to keep drains and toilets running smoothly, and if you have a job that seemingly no one wants to do, keep trying. Eventually you find someone. It can take years!

A few weeks after our drain episode, we flew to California to see Jamie and his family for a highly anticipated visit that was delayed over a year by COVID.

We had a great time and by the way, I returned his ball.

Mike Spain is a former Times Union associate editor who retired in 2019 and spent a lot of time working on his old house during the COVID year.

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