The Case of the Mysterious Plumbing Apocalypse

The Case of the Mysterious Plumbing Apocalypse

I thought it would be a calm, uneventful Saturday, with nothing scheduled, no major tasks, a simple day that I could steer at my own pace.  I had been taking a break from my routine house cleaning, sitting on my living room recliner, watching television.  The only sounds were from the TV and my pendulum clock, behind me in my dining room, which I rarely pay attention to as household background noise.

Around noon, I heard sounds that made me jump in my chair.  WHOOSH came from behind.  I turned and instinctively looked down, in the direction of my basement laundry room.  For the next several seconds, I heard what I can only describe as a great thrashing of water.  I visualized in my mind a pipe bursting, which correlated to the sound, and imagined and assumed water was crashing in large quantities somewhere in my basement.

I have lived in my house for 11 years.  I feel pretty confident in being able to identify all the various nuance sounds.  The furnace and A/C, the main sump pump, the laundry sump, ventilation expansion and contraction, even wood creeks.  So like a mechanic driving his beloved sports car, I can tell when something is amiss merely by what I hear, or not hear.

Instantly, the rest of my Saturday flashed before my eyes.  I would have to assess the damage and the extent.  Likely, I would have to figure out who to call, a plumber, no doubt.  Dollar signs began floating in my head as well, but not in a good way.  My Saturday, Sunday, and maybe even entire week or longer would be altered to fix whatever just happened!

I went downstairs, to my basement.  The main sump pump was working as intended.  I entered the laundry and furnace room to inspect all the pipes and vents.  This is the place I was most worried about, because the sound appeared to come from this area.  Still, I saw nothing out of of the ordinary.

I have a large crawl space.  I poked my head into it briefly to see if anything was clearly wrong or, heaven forbid, to hear or see water dripping.  And still, nothing.

At this point, I started to contemplate other scenarios.  Maybe it wasn’t water?  Perhaps the pipes or vents were hit with…something?  Maybe there was a crash in the attic?

I went outside and did a thorough ground-level inspection of the house’s exterior.  I checked the roof, chimney, vents, siding, all windows, and gutters.  Everything was in order.  I even double-checked about an hour later, convincing myself I must have missed the obvious.

From outside to inside, I began checking room-to-room.  I made sure no paintings or other wall hangings had fallen.  I opened every closet to validate nothing had collapsed.  Everything was where it should have been.

Finally, I entered my crawl space, with a flashlight, and crawled through the whole area, reviewing all pipes and vents, even the foundation.  I had patched a number of cracks in the foundation last year, and all that work still appeared solid.

No visible signs anywhere of any problem.  So what did I hear?  I spent the rest of Saturday trying to think of possibilities, but nothing seemed plausible expect a bizarre plumbing event, of this I became gradually sure of.

I went to sleep on Saturday a tad worried that I could not figure out the sounds’ cause.  I do not like unexplained problems in my house.

On Sunday morning, I decided to mow my lawn.  At the edge of my front property is a fire hydrant.  See the accompanying photo above.  As I approached the hydrant behind my mower, I saw the grass by the curb and, nearly immediately, the past day came into focus and I understood, at least generally, what must have happened.  It may be difficult to see in the photo, especially after I ran over the grass with the mower, but you can see barely see how some of the grass is flushed towards the curb.  It was much more pronounced at first sight, similar to how grass looks if you let an open hose run on it for any length of time.  It was terribly obvious that the hydrant had been opened, for whatever reason.  I could even tell the side cap has been moved, simply by being familiar with the hydrant’s position for all these years.

My guess is that the hydrant was opened and there was a reverse flow, not of my sewage pipes but the water intake pipes, as the water pressure had rapidly decreased within my house.

Why was the hydrant opened?  As I learned via a neighbor later that afternoon, which happened to be Halloween, a water pipe had burst at the far end of our block.  I confirmed this the next day when I went for a walk and saw the amazing damage.  Sand was packed over ground zero, and large areas of the surrounding lawns were heavily dented by tire trends, I assumed from the digging equipment.

I suppose the moral of the story is to think outside of the box, the box of my property.

“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”



I write frequently about astrophotography, technology advice, and my other interests like science fiction. I have over 30 years of experience in computer programming, information technology, and project management.

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