Your Macerator And You
- or -
Shit Does Flow Uphill!
A reader writes in response to my previous toilet posting that they had a flood in their basement from backed-up poop - resulting in them having to rip out carpets, and replace drywall, etc. A real mess! More of the fun of home ownership.
Mark ran into this when selling new townhouses. One of the "upgrades" was to finish the basement with an in-law suite with bathroom. Unfortunately, the Mexican tile workers (who do the best tile, but the worst cleanup) would clean out their grout buckets in the sink or toilet or the new shower they just tiled. The result was the grout would harden in the main drain line and if not clog it entirely, leave a layer of rough grout which would partially clog it and also catch toilet paper and such and force a backup into the new in-law suite.
It would all have to be torn out and done over - often with an angry new homeowner to deal with as well. No matter how many times you tried to explain this to the Mexican tile guys, they would still clean out their grout buckets in the sink - they did this in our house here on Jekyll, which resulted in a roto-rooting of the shower right away. Coming from a country with marginal plumbing, you would think they would know better, too (in Mexico, it is traditional to put used toilet paper in a bucket next to the toilet, as their plumbing is so poor it would readily clog. Yes, it is icky - flies, smell, etc.).
The sheetrockers were no better - dumping sheetrocking compound down brand-new drains with predictable results. By the way, if you are ever on a job site and see a 5-gallon sheet-rock bucket that seems out of place, don't open it. It isn't full of sheet rock compound, but rather something else. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Before I go further off course and while I am still berating Mexicans (who are decent people, but just don't understand plumbing) this morning on National People's Radio, they are talking about the sad situation in Venezuela, which will no doubt work out poorly for everyone involved. The people of Venezuela will continue to suffer, Maduro will no doubt be ousted (and retire to Switzerland with all his gold bars) and the "new guy" - our man in Havana, so to speak - will turn out to just be another brutal dictator. And once again, we will be berated for being the "bad guy" for either not getting involved enough, or by being too involved. You can't win in these situations.
From Tin-Tin and the Picaros. The first page illustrates how the brutal military of the dictator General Tapioca patrols the slums.
From Tin-Tin and the Picaros. The last page illustrates how the brutal revolutionary guards of the of the liberator Alacazar patrol the slums after the overthrow of General Tapioca. Not much has changed!
Anyway, National People's Radio, along with a lot of other US media outlets, feels the need, when saying any Spanish name, to suddenly revert to full-on Spanish pronunciation mode, which usually results in you actually hearing the spit hit the microphone. The capital of Venezuela is not just Caracas, but ¡¡Cárrãcûś!! pronounced with a thick and heavy Latin accent.
Once again, we Americans are trying to be culturally sensitive and all that. But it is almost comical and stupid - if you don't speak Spanish and are not from Latin America, there is no need to put on a fake accent to pronounce Latin names. After all, they don't do the same for us, right? When we watch Univision news, they don't refer to America as "The United States" but as "Estados Unidos" which as I noted before, is actually the real name of Mexico (Estados Unidos Mexicanos). And when they mention "New York" they don't say the name with a thick Bronx accent "Neeew Yaawk!" but often as "Neuvo Yorke" or something along those lines.
Let's just drop our pathetic attempts to "go local" when reporting events from overseas. Let's bring back Bombay and Peking, while we're at it. It isn't being culturally insensitive to pronounce names in your own language and accent - after all, every other country and culture does it, so why are we the bad guys?
But I digress, considerably. Saves me a separate blog posting on the matter, though.
When we bought my office at 917 Duke Street, it came with a big tank in the basement with a lot of pipes and a box attached to it with an alarm bell. There was a switch on it marked "test" and when your turned it, the bell would go off. What was this? A macerator, plain and simple. The previous owners had extensively remodeled the place and installed a bathroom downstairs in the basement (after digging out the dirt foundation and pouring new concrete floors and covering them with rose slate! It was nice!).
But shit doesn't flow uphill, as they say, not without some effort. So the shower and sink water and the poop from the toilet all go to this tank, where a grinder grinds it up and pumps it up to the sewer line. If the pump fails, well, all hell breaks loose - eventually. There is a float switch in the tank that starts the pump when it reaches a certain level - just as the sump pump in your basement works to pump out groundwater or your condensate pump pumps out condensed water from your air conditioner. If the pump fails, a second float switch will sense the rising fluid level and sound the alarm.
If this happens, stop using the toilet, shower, or whatever else drains into this tank, as it will overflow in short order. Call a plumber and he will install a new pump (which isn't cheap) and hopefully it will be one of the kind that just bolts in from the top.
Macerators and other types of "lift pumps" are used a lot in sewer systems of various sorts - usuallly whenever gravity alone won't do the job. Many boats have them - or used to have them. The Riparian Day II had one, but it was rusted into a solid mass, which is good, as the Coast Guard requires they be disabled if you sail on some inland waterways. In the good old days, you could go offshore, turn on the macerator pump, and all the contents of your "black water tank" would be ground up and pumped over the side. Supposedly, you can still do this, so long as you are three miles offshore - but maybe they've changed the law even about this. Macerator pumps in boats are becoming rare - except in very large yachts.
Some RVs have these - not to pump waste out the side, but to allow the owner to drain the tanks by using a garden-style hose, rather than the large "stinky slinky" as some idiots call it (they can be washed, you know!). Why this is an advantage, I do not know - it seems to me like unnecessary complication of what is a simple gravity-fed system.
The reader who wrote had a macerator system, as their septic field was higher than the house. They are pretty reliable systems, but an alarm should be installed (theirs wasn't) and tested regularly (like monthly) to make sure it works. Outdoor alarms usually have a flashing red light (as shown above) and maybe also a bell or klaxon. Again, when it goes off, stop using the plumbing until the pump can be replaced - otherwise everything will back up and your plumber will hate you, as when he removes the pump, all that backed up poop will come flying out of the tank. He'll charge extra for that! If not for the hassle, then to have the tank pumped ahead of time.
Macerators are pretty reliable, but when they break, it isn't cheap to fix, because, well, shit. And this is a good reason not to let things go down the drain that could clog or damage the macerator. When little Timmy flushes rocks down the toilet as a prank, you may end up with a four-figure repair bill. If you flush "flushable wipes" or other non-woven spun fiber materials down the toilet, you may end up just having to remove the pump and remove all the non-biodegradable fabric from the macerator head. Still a messy job - and an expensive one, if you have to hire someone to do this.
Given the choice of a house with a macerator and without, I would pick without, only because simpler is better and cheaper. But there are situations where you cannot avoid such an installation, if you want below-grade plumbing or have other special issues. If that is the case, just make sure to be kind to your macerator - after all, they have a shitty job to do.
And test that alarm, at least once a month!