Words: Fergus Bisset
As I broke through the final layer of congealed fat and loo roll releasing a torrent of water into the tank I felt a sense of elation many would consider strange for a man who was sweating profusely while holding a shit-covered stick. But for me, solving the long-running issue of our persistently problematic septic tank was an achievement beyond parallel.
I came back into the house glowing, if a little whiffy, and announced the success of my Herculean effort. The news was greeted as if I’d just split the atom or completed my first concerto. After a quick shower, I cracked open a bottle of wine and Jessie (wife) and I toasted the fact that our crap was once again flowing happily away from the house.
When we moved to the Scottish countryside from central London there were a number of things I was expecting – peace and tranquillity, wildlife, barbecues, a spot of light gardening perhaps. We’ve enjoyed all those things, but we’ve also encountered some things I wasn’t so prepared for.
What I hadn’t considered was the wider impact of isolation. The fact that, in the middle of winter when you’re snowed in and a pipe bursts, nobody can solve the problem except you – I’ll come on to that one.
It’s been over five years now since we moved into this house and they’ve been five fantastic years that have seen our lifestyle change totally (and for the better I think.) But it’s been a fairly steep learning curve and we’ve had to overcome some pretty good problems. Here below are a few of the most amusing:
Outdoor tap catastrophe
Two winters ago we endured the worst extended spell of snow on record in Deeside. It came in late December and we still had a covering in the garden in mid March.
The most extreme of it was just after New Year when temperatures fell as low as -18 and there was, at times, snow drifting above the lintels of the cottage windows.
We live up a steep dirt track that comes straight up from the main road and becomes highly difficult to pass in snowy conditions. We’d been effectively snowed in for four days.
On day five I woke and went downstairs for a shower. I turned it on but only a piffling little dribble spluttered out. Concerned, I went to investigate.
I couldn’t see anything untoward in the house so decided to venture outside. I tightened the belt of my dressing gown, put on my slippers and opened the back door. As soon as I did I heard a strange hissing noise. I stepped out (into snow up to my knees – slippers were the wrong choice of footwear) and followed the sound.
It grew louder as I walked towards the front of the house. I came round the corner and was greeted by a jet of water firing some 20 feet into the air and arcing across the roof of the garage. I got as close as I could and saw an outdoor tap attached to the edge of the garage had been blown from the top of its pipe.
“OK,” I thought, “I’ll have to find the shut off point.” I went inside to put some clothes on, I checked the thermometer by the back door on the way. It read -12 and, as an unpleasant addition, the wind was gusting and a blizzard raging.
When I got back out there I faced another problem – there was two feet of snow on the ground and I had no idea where the shut-off point was. After 45 minutes of fruitless digging I realised I wasn’t going to find it and needed a new strategy. I was conscious of the huge volume of water still pulsing out of the tap-less pipe and freezing almost instantly over the garage roof and the driveway, creating a rather lethal ice-rink.
I phoned a plumber friend of mine who confirmed there was no way he could get out, let alone reach our house. He suggested trying to bend the pipe in two to stop the flow.
It was a good idea and my only option but a difficult proposition as the pipe was screwed to the wall of the garage in an awkward corner and I couldn’t get closer than about three feet away without being soaked by a high pressure jet of icy cold water.
I put on my golf waterproofs and went at it with a bucket to catch the jet. Remember now, it was -12 and blizzarding. Within seconds I was soaked through and my hand so numb I could hardly hold the screwdriver I was using to attempt to dislodge the pipe. After 10 minutes of effort I’d made little progress and went back into the house. I was so cold I think I remember crying a little.
“I can’t do it,” I whimpered to Jessie.
“You’ll just have to,” she replied matter of factly.
So I went once more into the breach and summoned an amazing level of determination to unscrew the pipe then to bend it in two. It did indeed stop the flow but I had no means of keeping it bent. I shouted for assistance and was eventually heard. Jessie came with a roll of duct tape (my most precious possession) and we managed to secure it. Job done. Not fun though.
The septic tank saga
We’d been living here only a few months when we first noticed problems with our tank. The shower was backing up and a quick look in the inspection chamber (a man-hole in our driveway) confirmed it was full and needed emptying. Strange, as the estate agent told me it was a huge tank and should never need to be emptied.
No mind. We phoned a guy who deals with these matters and he arranged to come round. He has a big old tanker with a very grubby pipe that he sticks in the tank and sucks out all the nastiness. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it and, the fact he charges £250 a go must make it a little more bearable.
Anyway I thought that would be it solved for years so was rather unimpressed when the shower started to back-up again just six months later. A little more investigation from our man with the pipe led him to believe there was a blockage, so he got out some rods and shuggled them around a bit. That seemed to do the trick, for a few weeks at least. When things went wrong again he came back scratching his head, he took off his gloves to do this by the way. He tried emptying it again. Why not? It was only £250. That worked, for a little while.
Next time he came back, he took his little camera with him. It’s like a sort of drainage endoscope. It turned out our tank had been installed back to front, so the outflow is at the level the inflow should be and vice-versa. He did some more rodding, installed some sort of pump… oh… and emptied it again. Fair play, it’s a dirty old job and all that.
This worked for quite a while but when, recently, things began to go wrong again I decided I wasn’t going to line Pooey McGee’s stinky pockets any further so would solve the problem myself. The tank looked fine so I determined there must be some sort of blockage between the house and it.
I got on the internet and purchased nine metres of drain rods with screw and plunger attachments. They arrived and I put them together while pushing the plunger up the pipe towards the tank from the inspection chamber. When I attached rod nine of nine and pushed it up to the hilt into the fetid water I realised I was going to need more rod.
Back on the internet (after washing my hands James Herriot-style) – another nine metres please. They came and I attached them too – still not enough…. For xxxx’s sake!
I decided on a different tactic – to try going from the tank end. It was quite difficult to find the inflow in the dark tank so I attached a small torch to the side of my hat with duct tape (aah sweet duct tape.) Eventually I got the rod into the right hole and began pushing. I could see it was blocked with some unpleasantness (the smell was pretty incredible) and just a few minutes of energetic rodding got the desired result as described in the introduction: My finest hour.
It was a little later in the broken tap winter and I was sick fed-up of the snow. As a writer snowbound in a house with his young family, I couldn’t help but think of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. No that’s not right, I wasn’t considering murdering my family, maybe just hurting them a little.
Having said that, there were some good things about being semi-snowed in: We were eating lots of hearty winter meals like pies and haggis and drinking in the day seemed totally acceptable with nothing else going on. We were also enjoying watching an inordinate amount of telly. Who would know that ski-jumping could be so exciting?
Then, one particularly bleak evening, the unthinkable happened. Sky TV cut out. I phoned them and went through all the usual “have you tried turning it off and on again?” type questions, but to no avail. The bod at Sky was stumped.
I went out into the snow to look at the dish, I shone my torch up towards it and the problem was apparent, the dish was totally caked in snow. There was little wonder no signal was getting through.
It was very cold and, frankly, I was a bit pissed but I was determined to fix it despite Jessie’s protestations.
“Just leave it,” she said. “We’ll do something about it tomorrow.”
“But it’s all I have,” I replied somewhat over dramatically.
I went into our freezing potting shed in full ski gear and found the necessary tools – A garden hoe, a sweeping brush, the ladder and some duct tape (god bless you.)
I taped the brush to the end of the hoe to create an extended sweeper, some seven feet long. With the torch once again duct taped to my hat I climbed the ladder to the base of the roof. I was a little unsteady as the snowy wind buffeted me (and the effect of half a bottle of red took hold,) but I pressed on.
I prostrated myself against the steep roof and lofted my homemade dish cleaner towards its target. It wasn’t easy and my aim was not good but eventually I had knocked a good proportion of the snow from the receiver. I gingerly made my way back down to ground level, shook myself off and went back inside.
“It works, it works,” Jessie called from the sitting room. Thank god I thought as I looked at my watch, just in time for Grand Designs.