Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Right Tool means Money in the Bank

Meet my laundry room floor drain.

For the first few years that I owned my home, this thing was the bane of my existence.

Every 6 months or so the drain would back up leaving about 6 inches of water all over the laundry room floor.

The first few times it happened I tried pouring drain cleaner down it... but to no avail. So I tried to use one of those plumbing snakes, but the thing just kinked and got stuck about 6 feet in, and did nothing to solve the problem.

Finally in desperation I called the Roto-Rooter folks who came out and snaked the drain to the tune of about $250. Oy!

But the thing is... it just kept happening over, and over, and over again. The plumbers tried ever more sophisticated (and expensive) procedures, but without fail the thing would clog and back up once or twice a year.

After several years of this they told me that there was likely a problem with the main line and the only real solution would be to dig a trench through the backyard, remove the pipe and replace the line. I could just see the contents of my bank account floating down that drain!

To make matters worse, about 30 years after my house was built a detached garage was added in the back.

Given the relative locations of the drain, garage and alley it was very likely that the main sewer line ran directly under the garage, making it much more difficult and expensive to replace than it otherwise would have been.

At that point I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I was just gonna have to call a plumber a few times a year to come snake the thing out. But then an idea occurred to me.

All those plumbers really had that I didn't was a big fancy power auger... maybe I could buy one.

On one hand it seemed like a ridiculous thing for a non-plumber to own, but given the fact that I'd already spent WAY over a thousand dollars on the stupid drain, it started to sound like it might be down right cost effective!

So I hopped on the interwebs to see if I could price power augers, and somewhere in my search I stumbled upon something called a sewer rod.

Turns out that I'm not the only person on the planet who's ever had the problem of a clogged floor drain - go figure - and there actually does exist a tool designed for just this problem!

Basically a sewer rod is a long sturdy but flexible metal tape with a spear pointed roller ball on the end designed specifically for clearing sewer pipes.

It's much sturdier than your typical snake or auger and the ball on the end is designed to punch through big clogs. And get this, the thing cost less than $50!

So I hopped in the car, ran over to my local home improvement store, plunked down my $37.50 for a 50 foot sewer rod and voila! In about 10 minutes I had the drain running smoother than it had at any time since I'd owned the house! I felt like a genuine plumbing whiz!

It's not like the problem is completely solved... it still clogs every 6 months or so. But over the years I've learned to recognize the tell tale glugging sound that it starts to make when the thing is starting to clog.

So whenever I hear it, like I did today, I just run down to the laundry room, whip out my handy dandy sewer rod and fix it before it has a chance to back up and become a problem.

I ran into a guy who was a plumber at a party once and told him about my troublesome pipe. He said it's very likely that over the years the earth has settled so that the line no longer runs directly downhill as it originally did. So there's most likely just a "high spot" in the line where debris tends to collect, and the sewer rod clears the debris so the drain can flow smoothly again.

I have to say, that $37.50 was probably one of the best investments I've ever made. It has literally saved me thousands of dollars and untold headaches.

So tell me, what's the most money-saving DIY tool that you own?

Howdy y'all, I had a little mishap with the sewer rod today, and decided to post about it so that if anybody else out there on the interwebs ends up in a similar situation you'll have some clue how to get out of it.

The last time I used the sewer rod (they're also called sewer tape), I noticed that the ball thing on the end was loose and wobbly. Fearing that it might come off and get stuck in the pipe, I decided to replace it with a new one.

So, I got a new one and snaked out the drain. Now... this particular pipe has a pretty sharp corner about 5 feet in, and to get the tape around the corner you have to position the rod so the tape is vertical, because it only bends side to side, not up & down, if you get what I mean. So I got it past the corner no problem and it cleared the clog, but then I couldn't get the damned thing out! It kept getting hopelessly stuck at that corner.

Seriously, I pulled and pulled, shoved it back and forth, twisted the thing as much as was possible, cried, cursed... after about 5 hours I was at my wits end. I really thought I was gonna have to call somebody to either push the thing through to the sewer in the alley or take a jack-hammer to the concrete floor. I think the problem is that there's a lip on the pipe right at the corner and the thing was just getting stuck there - like this:

Finally, with some advice from CatMan, the interwebs and a good friend who has infinitely more patience than I do we came upon a solution. We cut about an 8 foot hunk from an old garden hose and threaded it over the tape. Then we cut a 2-3 inch slit in the end of the hose and gooped it up really good with Vaseline. Then, positioning the hose so that the slit was on the opposite side of the tape from where it was stuck, we slid the hose down the tape until the slit end butted up against the ball thing. We had to push the snake & hose about a foot past the corner to do this part. Then using a vice grip we were able to hold the hose in place and pull the snake so the ball end of the snake went up into the slit end of the hose thus putting a sheath around the corner where the ball meets the snake - where the thing was getting caught. At that point it slid out easily.

In hindsight, and with some further inspection of the old sewer rod, I figured out that the head on the old one wasn't just wobbly, half of it was actually missing! I remembered that the very first time I used it I had real trouble getting it out past that same corner - but was finally able to yank the thing out. I now think that I must have yanked off half of the ball on the old one the very first time I used it, and since I wasn't all that familiar with how it was supposed to look at that point, I just didn't realize it. OY! One can hope that in the 15 years or so since that happened the remnant part has made its way down the pipe to the sewer in the alley!

I'm not quite sure what I'm gonna do moving forward. I'm certainly NOT gonna use the new sewer rod on this particular drain again, and I also don't think it's a good idea to risk leaving any more parts in the pipe. I may try just removing the entire ball apparatus from the old rod and see how that works.

In any case. I just thought I'd post this update so if anybody else out there ever finds themselves stuck in a similar situation, you'll have something to try before doing anything really drastic!


OK... so just wanted to post that I replaced the sewer rod again, this time with a different brand. The original one was made by Cobra and had a ball end that looked like this:

I replaced it with one made by Ridgid that looks like this:

It's a little hard to tell from this picture, but the Ridgid sewer rod had two different ends to choose from.

I used the spear end and it had absolutely no problem with that corner and cleared the clog perfectly. The ball end could also be used, although you'd have to unwind the thing completely to get at it. But the ball is about half the size of the one on the end of the Cobra product.

Soooo... I guess the point here is that if you have a choice, I'd highly recommend going with a Ridgid over a Cobra!

Happy drain clearing y'all!


  1. I've never heard of such a thing! It's awesome you were able to save so much money :) I'm surprised none of the plumbers you called suggested it (maybe they just wanted a big trench-digging job?)

    We've only been in our house for 3 years, but a regular old hammer and 2 screwdrivers (one flathead, one phillips) have seen us through plenty of minor things - removing doors, hanging pictures, etc.

    1. I think sewer rods must be a very well kept secret. Neither CatMan nor my dad - who are both long time do-it-yourselfers had ever heard of it either! Actually, I'm starting to think that the most valuable home improvement tool might be the internet! :-)

  2. We have all of the usual tools, but as our drains our quite cloggy at the moment, I might need to get me a sewer rod! (Although as it is mostly the bathroom drains that are being slow, I should probably clean out the waste trap thingies first...)

    1. I don't think you'd want to use a sewer rod on regular pipes... it wouldn't be flexible enough to deal with the twists and turns, and it could conceivably break right through them... it's really designed for the heavy sewer pipes that are embedded underground.

      But I did have to fix a clogged bathroom sink a few weeks ago. The clog got pushed past the trap and was stuck somewhere in the pipe back in the wall cavity, so I used the regular hand auger and it did the job beautifully! Hopefully cleaning the traps will do the trick though. :-)

  3. Ah- no wonder the ones I saw online were for 'industrial pipes'! I also think that the drain near our outdoor tap is getting clogged (sigh!). Just got to psych myself up for some drain cleaning!!

    1. Yes, because drain cleaning is SUCH a fun job... the smell, the slime, just the whole ambiance! My advice is to focus on how much money you're saving! :-)

  4. We bought a chimney-cleaning brush a couple of years ago - there's another job I've always paid someone else to do - and the rod for it was actually sold as drain rods, so it's a two-in-one tool. I haven't actually needed the drain rods yet, so I'm not sure what kind of drain they're suitable for. They're a set of four-foot rods that screw together, and they're lot less flexible than the thing in your picture - there's no way you could coil them up like that, though they do go up a bent chimney.

    1. OK... now I'm gonna be singing "chim-chimeney, chim-chimeny, chim chim chiree" all day! :-)

      I saw some pictures of things like you describe when I was looking for a photo of a sewer rod - I wonder what kind of drain they are used in... Anyhow, your chimney cleaning brush sounds like an excellent investment especially given that you heat with your fireplace so I'm sure it gets a lot of use!

  5. I like my rubber mallet which can be used to bash all kinds of stubborn things into place :)

    1. Ha! I'm thinking that I need one of those for my Obamacare application! :-)

  6. That's rad! I love that you found such an elegant solution: no motors, no fancy specialized tools...simple technology does the trick again.

    My favorite tools, though I don't know they qualify as true money-savers, are my miter saw and table saw. They did save us some by being able to make our living room coffee table out of an old door and legs from an old table people were giving away. We have some similar projects in the idea phase: a desk with sawhorses for legs, side tables made of old antique windows...and eventually I want to make us "new" kitchen cabinets but I need to find a way to get good wood on the cheap.

    Kudos again on the fix. I think that's pretty bad ass.

    1. You have NOOO idea how relieved I was when I found something non-motorized that would work. I sorta have an irrational fear of power tools.

      Back when I was first out of college I rented an apartment that was in the basement of a single family home. My landlords were a really sweet couple who were in the business of buying homes, fixing them up and then selling them (this was back in the early 1990's when that was still a profitable gig.) Anyhow, I was working at a music school and she wanted to get him guitar lessons for Christmas one year so we teamed up to make it happen.

      But then one day she called me and told me that he wouldn't be taking lessons anymore because he had cut off half of his hand with a table saw! It still makes my skin crawl to think about it.

      So BE CAREFUL with those power tools! :-)

  7. glad you found an inexpensive solution to your issue! we had the smae kind of issue with my house. in the basement, there is a little 1" hole drilled into the floor. had no idea what it was...until....we had 19 inches of rain in one day (yes, really) and water started bubbling out of it. come to find out, there was a dry well dug into the back yard about 25' from the house (it's an older house and dry wells were common then) and i guess the house has settled since it was put in. well, the dry well would fill up with water and then drain into the basement. by the 3rd time it happened, we figured out what the problem was. my husband filled in the dry well and we haven't had that issue since. :knock wood:
    my favorite tool: hammer and cordless drill. oh, and a hatchet. gotta have a hatchet when you have a fireplace.
    and, for those who are having slow drains: put about 1/4 cup of baking soda in the drain, pour about a cup of vinegar. let it bubble away for 5 minutes or so, then follow up with 2 or 3 pots of boiling water. that should help the drains. I actually do this once a month to help keep my drains running better.

    1. Oy! I'm pretty sure I've got a dry well on the other side of the house. It used to be an attached garage, and it's sorta at the bottom of a hill (that used to be a driveway) so there's a floor drain, but when it would rain really hard I used to get worms crawling up out of it, so I'm pretty sure it goes to a dry well. For the moment it's got a supposedly airtight plug in it to keep the worms out (and hopefully the radon gas) but I have a grand plan of closing up the drain inside and then putting in a drain outside that would go to the same dry well just so the water has someplace to go instead of pooling up next to the wall.

      I love the baking soda and vinegar drain trick... but I think it only works if you do it proactively, If you wait until it's already clogged you're sunk! :-)

  8. Awesome!

    (I always thought drains in laundry rooms would be awesome, just in case you ever need one, but I never thought of stuff coming up from the other direction. My washer is in my kitchen, which does not have a drain.)

    Once when my toilet backed up, plumbers explained that the problem was that my fifty-year-old pipe to the street was failing since it was made out of some sort of glorified cardboard. (How did it ever last 50 years?) So I did let them dig it up and replace it with plastic. (No problems since!) Fortunately, the only thing that had been built over that pipe was a sidewalk (which, I have to say, looked kind of cool as a bridge over a chasm), so it was not crazy expensive.

    My bathroom sink used to back up a lot; finally I just put a strainer in it. Stupid long hair (of mine). I also got a $3 plastic thingy--it's about 2 feet long and a quarter inch wide with fish-hook-like spikes sticking out the sides. You can put it down a sink drain to unclog it and it works great. You're supposed to throw it away after one use, but I just wipe it off (backwards) and then rinse it (with the drain catch in) and then store it carefully (it's kind of pointy sharp).

    To answer your question, the first thing that comes to mind is some tool that my boyfriend was very proud of not having bought even though it was on sale because he was trying to save money. I asked him what it was, and he explained that it was a thing you can just plug into your car somewhere and it will tell you what's wrong with it. (Well, it gives you a code you can look up on the internet.) So I bought it myself! He's used it several times on his car, once on my car, and a couple of times on a friend's car.

    My favorite money saving tools that I actually use myself:

    * needle (and thread) - for fixing things up so I can put off replacing them

    * drill, level, screwdriver - for hanging up window coverings

    * metal spatula - besides helping with some kinds of cooking, I am always finding weird things to scrape up with it. For example, I used it to scrape the carpet glue off the concrete floor after removing the hall carpeting--this allowed us to put off (indefinitely?) putting in some new kind of flooring because we like the concrete (though we'd like slate-like tiles even more).

    * speaking of cooking - all those tools that let me cook at home instead of eating out.

    * little tiny screwdrivers - make it easier to replace some batteries so I'm not tempted to just buy a new calculator or whatever

    1. Cardboard pipes?!? Seriously? Sounds like replacing it was a good plan!

      You know I've always thought that tools were some of the best investments you can make. Every once in a while I'll watch some decluttering show on tv and there will be some woman harping at her husband to get rid of all those tools because they take up too much space... at which point I usually start yelling at the tv (very productive, I know) I can't think of any tool I own that hasn't more than paid for itself.

      I love your list of tools, but it's reminding me of all the projects that are languishing on my endless to do list! :-)

    2. Well, not only do tools take up a lot of space, they also don't smell that great. And they're not very pretty--and neither are most toolboxes. So it makes perfect sense. :-)

      Good luck with your poor, sad, languishing projects!

    3. I don't mind the tools...I do mind the fact that they are often covered in oil and fall out of the cupboard onto me whenever I open it to find the tape measure, etc. Sigh!

    4. Oh yes, icky stuff goes on bottom shelves.

    5. Ha! Maybe it depends on the tool... I think in some cases there might be a fine line between tool and toy. Plus, if you were really over the top you could certainly reach a point of diminishing returns in terms of the money.

      Maybe they're just like anything else, they're only useful to have around if you actually use them! :-)

  9. So glad you found a cheaper, easier DIY option!

    As for me, my best tool is my husband. That sounds horrible, but he has lots of handy skills and his stepdad is a contractor/carpenter/ basically we haven't really had to pay for a single person to come out since they both have skills. My FIL also has a bazillion tools, so we usually just borrowed his. I'm not looking forward to home ownership here as we won't have my FIL's skills or tools around the corner anymore.

    1. Ha! Well, that's one major disadvantage to not living under the same roof with CatMan. Although, he has a physical disability that makes it pretty much impossible for him to do much of that sort of thing anymore, so even if we did live together, I'd still be doing it myself. But he is definitely a font of knowledge in the fixit department, and I'd be lost without him! :-)

  10. Ooh! Smart girl you are! My husband has access to all sorts of tools through work which is HUGE since he can borrow and return them free of charge. Currently he is using the Sawzall from work to remove kitchen cabinetry as we are in the process of a renovation (which I will appreciate AFTER it's done but is no fun whatsoever at this point!).

    1. That sounds like a great arrangement. I have no idea what a Sawzall is, but it sounds like the sort of thing that could do some real damage in the wrong hands (like, say, mine!)

      I have soooo many renovations that I'd love to have done around here, and to be honest it's neither money nor lack of skills that keeps me from doing it - I just can't bring myself to deal with the whole having my life torn up thing - even if I hired someone who could do it in a few days, I just HATE the disruption. At some point I'm sure that the desire to get rid of the avocado green shag and plastic bathroom tiles will get bigger than the desire not to have my life disrupted, but alas, I have not reached that point yet!

      Anyhow, hang in there! :-)

    2. Wow. You just verbalized my feelings on renovations perfectly. I've been saving awhile for the kitchen (and we will have it installed by professionals!) but my hubby did the destruction and I am hate-hate-hating it. But ... I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and our renovation will give me more counterspace and better storage, both of which will be helpful in a relatively small space.

      I didn't know what a Sawzall is, either--it's an electric saw which comes with different blades for different jobs. I choose to leave the house when he uses it. Scary.

    3. You know, we have some friends who did some renovations on their 100 year old home - they enlarged the kitchen and completely redid it, and also had the hardwood floors refinished and a few other things. They actually rented a small house and moved out for a month while all the work was being done. It almost sounds crazy, but I really think that would be the way to go.

      I think if I ever decide to bite the bullet I might just move into the basement and do the bathroom, kitchen, walls and floors all at once.

  11. I don't have many tools since I'm a renter, but I am planning on replacing the electric window switch in my car myself by buying the part and following a YouTube video :)

    1. Ooooo... that sounds challenging. I wouldn't even know where to start. My car, which is nearly 24 years old now, doesn't have power anything. I figured it was less things to break! But I wonder if you can even buy cars like that anymore! Anyhow, good luck with your project!

  12. I love it when women can figure out how to solve household maintenance problems like this! Too many girls don't even know how to turn off an overflowing toilet anymore. That said, we own a whole bunch of tools, but the internet and YouTube are the most important 'tools' because they've helped us figure out how to fix most anything. That said, I expect we'll make a royal mess when we try to put up crown molding next year!

    1. You said it! The internet is like having a pile of experts right at your fingertips!

      I totally agree about women and maintenance, it's always been a pet peeve of mine. Women sort of assume that men have some sort of god given talent in terms of fixing things when the reality is just that most of them have been taught things that we weren't - either that or they learned the hard way because it was expected of them.

      It's not that I don't believe in a division of labor between couples, but I do think that women would be much happier in general if they learned to do a few things for themselves - it's often easier and quicker than harping at your husband! :-)

  13. When I was a single mom homeowner, Google search was my bestie for the how-to's of home maintenance and repairs. Sure know about the clogged laundry drain- been there, done that. Just once, though! After I put a lint catcher on the washer discharge hose, I never had a clogged drain again. Definitely kept my money out of the pockets of the plumber and in my bank!

    1. What kind of a lint catcher did you use? I've got a nylon stocking attached to the end of the drain hose, which drains into one of those old washing tub sinks... and I've got a screen over the sink drain because inevitably the nylon ruptures long before I think it should and floods the entire sink with lint... It's an imperfect system to say the least, so if there's something better out there I'd LOVE to know about it!

  14. Nice work! I know the US seems to have more of these problems than here in Australia - I think a lot of our sewerage systems are newer. I was so embarrassed to clog a friend's toilet in Cincinnati, but she was fine with it!

    I was chuffed after damaging the dry wall and the paint work the day of the agent was visiting - by the next visit, I'd borrowed my parents spackle and then used the spare paint in the laundry to paint the 'hole'. I proudly pointed this out - I want to be seen as a good renter! I used to care for my own home, so I learnt lots of skills that way.

    1. My house is about 60 years old and it's in one of those neighborhoods where nothing has been updated since it was all built just after WWII. We still have original phone lines, electrical and everything. There are plenty of older neighborhoods, but most are wealthier so the infrastructure has been rebuilt. Sigh.

      But... learning to DIY can really save a bundle when it comes to owning a home! Thanks so much for visiting!


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