A cool idea for a sewer backup warning
We were called in to line a section of a broken sewer pipe running down a hallway of a Catholic school. The maintenance personnel of the school are great people who clearly care about their complex. The place is beautiful and even the mechanical rooms are spotlessly clean. While doing our pipe lining work there, we learned that the school had recurring sewer backups. The school nurse’s office powder room was the lowest point of all the fixtures in that area and would spill over with a cascade of “YECH!”. The nurse’s office was right off the lobby and so that brown mess would flow out over the toilet bowl and spill out into and across the lobby floor creating a disgusting mess in the last place you’d want to have it. What made it even worse was the nurse’s office was just upstream of where the sewer lines from the gym, the rectory, the convent, the old church, and the maintenance office all joined together into a common line which then travelled a few hundred feet to the sewer main. So any drain blockage downstream of this connection would quickly flood the lobby and keep flooding it until the whole school and all the other buildings were notified to stop using water. Even if that was accomplished as quickly as five minutes, it still meant a huge flood of disgust would bubble out of toilet, pour out of the nurse’s office create a brown slick out to the main doors. Now as part of our pipe lining work we needed to excavate an access hole to the sewer piping in a utility closet close to the lobby. In thinking about their overflow problem, we decided to give them a gift. When we were done our pipe lining installation and as we reconnected the drain piping in the mechanical room we also installed a tee into the sewer line. From that tee we ran a 1-1/2” PVC pipe about three feet up an adjacent wall and put a rubber cap on the top. We then slit the cap and inserted wire probes down into the 1- 1/2” piping to about floor level and caulked everything air tight. This 1-1/2 pipe was going to serve as a simple water column. We wanted it tall enough so during a sewer backup, no water would overflow from it and there would be room for the trapped air inside of it to compress, thus allowing the backing up sewer water to rise up into it and above floor level. Onto the cap at the top of the water column we mounted an inexpensive water alarm we picked up at a nearby Lowe’s and attached the alarm to the wire probes. This then we hoped would sound a warning when the sewer was starting to back up and give them the time they needed to tell others to stop using water in the rest of the complex. Hopefully that would be accomplished BEFORE the water level rose high enough to spill sewage out of the nurse’s office toilet. We took a lot of pride in the idea; especially its simplicity and low cost. Here’s what it looked like:
It worked! But the first time it sounded, the administrative staff thought it was a building alarm and so wasted time looking about before maintenance arrived, realized what was happening and took preventive measures to avoid a sewage overflow. We were very excited to hear it worked. As mentioned previously, this complex is beautifully maintained. Whatever they do, they do right. Everything is well thought out and executed. So Terry, the head of maintenance, turned to their long-time electrician, Paul, and asked him to give the issue some thought and come up with a solution to the confusion over the alarm. He did. It’s beautiful and now it’s clear to everyone what the alarm is all about. He removed our little alarm and installed a panel with labeled lights to make it clear what’s going on. Here’s what it looks like now:
It all worked so well that when we needed to dig right outside the building to do some pipe bursting of an old leaking terra cotta sewer line, we took it a step further. The sewer at this point is six feet deeper than in the utility closet. So coming off of the bottom of a clean-out we installed at that termination of the new main, we ran a second vertical pipe up to the surface to use for another alarm. Paul installed an alarm in that exterior water column and tied it into the building panel inside. Now if there is a blockage developing in the common main, they get an alarm when the water is still eight feet below the rim of the toilet bowl rim in the nurse’s office. In fact by monitoring both alarms they can estimate how much water flow the line can handle while waiting for the drain cleaners to arrive to correct the problem. By reducing discretionary water usage in the complex, they can probably meet their critical water needs and so not interfere with their school day. Thus they now have a management plan requiring minimal inconvenience for an event that used to be an “all hands on deck” emergency, requiring Terry’s staff to drop normal duties and run to address the cleanup. Here’s what the alarm panel looks like with labeling that now makes it clear what the problem is.
As I said at the start, they run a first class operation. It was so cool for us that they actually followed up on all this and got it done. It’s so energizing to work with and for people who truly care. I hope those who follow them will appreciate the concern and effort they brought to their jobs. But even if they don’t, I know that people like Terry and Paul will still do a great job, because that’s how they’re wired. It’s what they do.