March 2006: The Cesspool Mystery

This is an old house (by local standards) with many unknown chapters in it’s early life. When we were building our bathroom addition, we converted our waste water system to a greywater process, leaving only the toilet on the cesspool. We didn’t know much about the cesspool, only that it was old enough to be a cesspool and not a septic tank, but certainly not where it was located.

One wet day the toilet stopped functioning reliably. It became quickly clear the trouble was well beyond the toilet, so with a mission to avoid a huge plumbing bill, we bought a 50′ snake. (You plumbers can now laugh…) I succeeded in learning that the snake was totally unwilling to navigate whatever lay down that mysterious passage, while not improving the performance of the toilet one bit. I needed professional help, but first, I did a little research on the web to better understand cesspools, septic tanks and all. It was a little frightening, but I would find help.

The mystery begins with this rather mundane looking fixture just beneath the toilet.

There happen to be a lot of cesspools on the island, and soon I was talking to a local company that pumps cesspools. Their first question was “is it uncovered?” Uncovered? I didn’t even know where it was! The kind woman from the sanitation company said one of their drivers had a sideline finding and uncovering people’s cesspools (naturally). He came over later that afternoon and probes in hand, we began to poke the ground. He was used to seeing some kind of visual clue to the pool’s location, but we saw nothing that indicated where it might be. After learning a bit about how to go about searching, he left us to our own devices.

This is when we began to dig. First, I crawled under the house and began to dig around the pipe that connected to the toilet to get some idea of where it went. It was hard going, but I soon came to an elbow that seemed to indicate the angle of the pipe going away from the house. Following that, I began to dig a trench along the side of the house in order to intercept the pipe as it headed out. This is the standard method.

The first pipe I discovered seemed unlikely, but I didn’t know what to expect and was wishful. This could never have been the pipe.

I did eventually find a pipe, but it was terra cotta, not iron! But about the right size and location, so I dug it out a bit. The angle was odd, but I figured the system was old and they did things different on those days, so I began to probe around, trying to find out where that pipe went. Soon, Jonathan was helping with the probing and sighting and we succeeded in mapping out the path of that old pipe; but by now, we knew the angle was too wrong to be the right pipe.

This very convincing drawing actually had us looking for a cesspool 50 feet from the house!

A day or so later, I found the map. I had seen the cesspool drawn on a map some time back when I was going through all the old records and stuff around here. There was a permit application for the repair work following hurricane Iniki and in an inset was a site plan with a cesspool lined out. Jonathan came over and we gamely plotted out the location of the cesspool, thinking we finally had the goods on that pool. But there was no pool and it began to dawn that the drawing was simply to satisfy the permitters that the cesspool was somewhere out of the way. The architect had no idea where the cesspool actually was.

Back to the pipe. Well, that pipe has to go somewhere! So a few days later Jonathan crawled under the house and began to dig around the pipe to get more of the story. We found another elbow, but the direction of the pipe remained the same. When the guy from the septic pumping company came over, he said there would be no bend in the pipe, that it would go straight from the toilet to the cesspool. Although perfectly logical, this turned out to be completely misleading, like the old pipe and the map.

The pipe on the left was discovered by digging under our slab. The pipe is now heading for the shower. These two pipes have nothing to do with each other.

We doggedly dug around the edge of the bathroom trying to find our pipe— and when we did, we found it took a strange little turn and headed off in a completely different direction. Ominously, it went under our new bathhouse slab. No! Please not under the slab! We poked and probed where we thought it should emerge from the slab and found nothing. This is where I hit bottom and despaired ever finding that thing.

The problem here was that the soil was very compact and the effort required to find that pipe was overwhelming: it was we figured about three feet down and a narrow target. I almost threw my back out every time I had to withdraw that piece of rebar we were probing the ground with. But it had to be found. Thinking the pool itself would be easier to find, I began to probe likely spots, following the line of the pipe, and I did find evidence of a cesspool under the lime tree. I was convinced I had found it and I had Jonathan over to help me uncover it. We found a bunch of random concrete buried under the ground. I was too disheartened to be curious about what we found.

Another dead end, and then Lisa delivered the ultimatum: find the cesspool in a week or we would install a composting toilet. A sensible, if unacceptable, solution. I was determined to find that sucker.

Crafty plumbers hid multple bends and junctions like this one to fool amateur cesspool hunters.

I decided we needed better probing technology, so I fashioned a hydraulic probe using some copper plumbing I had around. It was just a 3 foot piece of 1/2″ pipe with a hose fitting and a valve. Hook it up to the water and the water would do the digging and then the probe could be easily removed. I began to systematically probe the area where the pipe was going last we saw it. Learned some interesting things about the various soil strata in the yard, but no cesspool. Dammit.

I asked Jonathan over to help, knowing the hydraulic probe would “inject” new energy into the project. He insisted we go back to following that pipe. Of course, he was right, but the prospect of finding that thing was daunting. I had already probed where we thought the pipe would emerge from the bathhouse and found nothing, but we probed some more and eventually gave that up and started digging. That’s when we found that rascally (still not knowing just how rascally) pipe. Now we knew the pool wasn’t under our slab, thank God. But we couldn’t find the pipe beyond the point where we found it, now that we knew it’s angle better.

So we dug some more and lo! there was an elbow. Yet we could only follow that new pipe angle for about three feet. We dug at the spot we lost the trail and there was a ‘Y’ connecting to another pipe! Also a new angle for our pipe. No bends, indeed! Here were at least four! However, this last one turned out to be a solid lead as we followed the pipe with our trusty probe out to where the solar panels are. Well, those panels would be a lot easier to move than the slab would have been! We found the cesspool, finally, after three weeks, innumerable probes and twelve holes, next to the solar panels. We began to outline it’s perimeter.

The little white sticks mark the perimeter of the cesspool’s concrete lid.

I figured the next day I would just uncover the hatch and we could pump the pool, so I called the sanitation company. The next day I got the message that the driver would be by later in the day, so I began digging. The hatch is supposed to be in the center, so I found the spot and started there. Nothing, just a blank concrete slab. I dug more, exposing a wider circle. Nothing!! So, I thought it would be near the inlet, so I began to dig there, but this was complicated by the fact that this was under the solar panels, so I had to jack up the panels to dig under them. I found nothing. By then, the driver was coming, so I just hoped for his advice. Maybe they would knock a hole it it or something… When the driver got to the scene, with his huge tank truck, he just scratched is head and offered his guess on where the opening would be. More digging, more nothing. Eventually, he went away and told me to call when I found it. This was silly; but determined to find that hatch, I kept digging. By now, it was clear it was in some random location somewhere within the 14 foot circle we outlined.

Here is the hatch, a huge pit lies through the opening.

I did find the hatch after a few minutes of digging and called the driver on his cellphone. I cleared the earth away from a block of concrete sitting over the opening. When the driver arrived, I moved the block away and we both looked into a huge, empty pit. The surface of the contents was a good 10 feet down! There was really no need to pump. We asked Joanna to flush the toilet, and the water came pouring out of the inlet pipe down, down into the pit. Seems the cesspool was filled with rainwater, and considering the last torrential rains were just a couple of days ago, we had some pretty good drainage in that pit.

It was a lot of effort, many blank leads and emotional turnarounds but we now know about the cesspool and why it’s giving us trouble. There is a whole parallel story in our lives as the cesspool saga coincided with a drawn out crisis around how we spend our time and make our living. Two major business propositions and a restructuring at the Lotus brings us to a more manageable relationship with our beloved vegan concern. A week’s visit by our new friends Baker and Michaele brought a deeply openhearted perspective. We shall see how it all unfolds; like the drama of the cesspool, nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. For me, this completely sensible because the significant change has been to more deeply detach from the problems of life being solved. I’m growing in my understanding that they will never be solved, those dramas are just an endless loop, and therefore life’s meaning is not to be found there. This is tremendously liberating.

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