Happy Monday! Thank you so much for everyone who helped us celebrate our blog anniversary the last few weeks with our Blog Madness extravaganza. And since we just spent a lot of time showing you beautiful images of other people’s homes, I figured that today I could slip in some much-less-beautiful content about two of the least pinnable design subjects: plumbing and basements.
As I shared a few weeks ago, I’ve been working on some basement updates to make the space a little less scary and a little more functional. In the middle of all that work, I also had an unexpected project pop up when one day our bathroom sink (the only sink in our only bathroom) started backing up. We tried plunging and draino, but unfortunately the clog did not improve. We could run the water for awhile before it started backing up and once it did it would eventually drain (after like 20 minutes), but it obviously was not something we could live with long term.
Fortunately it was right before Thanksgiving, and my stepdad — who is incredibly handy with many things, plumbing included — was coming to visit for the festivities. We let him know the issue, and asked if he could take a look at it while he was here. He instantly agreed and brought a whole host of tools, but upon doing the basic discovery work (disassembling the P trap and snaking the drain as far as he could go) he concluded that the clog was very far down the line somewhere (which fit with the fact that it took some time running the water for the sink to back up). The pipes are pretty accessible because of our unfinished basement, but most of them are old cast iron pipes and we couldn’t get the clean-out valve open (the mechanism built into pipes to let you clean out clogs).
Ultimately, we concluded that the easiest thing to do would be to run a new drain line from the sink thus circumventing the clog altogether. That’s a big undertaking and is normally when I would call a plumber because I know nothing about plumbing, but my stepdad — Fred — generously offered to come back on a future weekend and do the work for us as a gift. We readily accepted because obviously it would save us a ton of money, but also because it would be a chance for me to work with him and learn. I always love the opportunity to learn from pros about how my house works!
Thus today I am telling you the tale of how we ran a new drain pipe. Please keep in mind that I am NOT a professional plumber (like you would forget that…) and this is NOT meant to be step-by-step guidance about how to do your own plumbing. Maybe you’ll learn a bit more about how plumbing works like I did, but please don’t go replumbing your house based on this post. Plumbing may seem a little less dangerous than electrical work, but a) anything gone wrong with water in your house can wreak havoc, and b) sewer gases can enter your home if you don’t vent properly…so this is still work to take seriously.
Okay, PSA over, let’s get to it!
Fred showed up on a Sunday with a giant repository of tools and supplies:
In terms of approach, the goal was to run the new drain line from the sink, through the wall cavity behind the vanity, through the floor of the bathroom (which is the ceiling of the basement), and into the basement. Here’s a cross-section of the house, with the magenta arrow showing where the pipe would pass from basement to bathroom.
It’s easy to think of walls as solid barriers, but for projects like this it’s important to remember that they’re actually cavities where things like plumbing and electrical run — so between the two surfaces you see in adjoining rooms is an empty space.
I had already cleared out the vanity at Thanksgiving when Fred did his initial inspection.
To remove tile, a good approach is to use an oscillating multi-tool with a grout-cutting attachment, like I used when I removed tiles during my kitchen renovation (the one I own is a gift from Fred from a few years ago, not surprisingly!).
Fred was a champion working inside the vanity.
Then we were able to just break through the backer board to get into the wall.
We removed a second tile, giving us all the access we needed to inside the wall.
Before drilling a giant pipe-sized hole, first we wanted to get a sense of where in the basement ceiling the hole would be. To do that, we used a really long drill bit:
And then put the drill into the opening so that the long bit was boring through the floor:
We drilled through the floor, and then went to the basement to see where the bit had come through. It took us a little while to find it in the ceiling joists, but finally we did and we marked it with some white spray paint so that we could easily find it going forward. (magenta arrow is my addition for you, dear readers.)
Next up, it was time to drill a large hole for the PVC pipe we’d be running in the exact spot where we’d drilled the pilot hole. We used a GIANT drill of Fred’s.
I tried my hand at it, but it was definitely intimidating because it’s heavy and it gives a lot of kick-back as it chews through the ceiling.
Also while you’re drilling, wood chips are spraying everywhere.
We got the hold drilled, but unfortunately discovered that we’d drilled it a little too close to the wall (ie within the wall cavity, it was too close to the edge of the wall). This meant that the pipe would bit too tight against the wall and not possible to maneuver to meet up with the sink. If the magenta arrow shows where the hole was, basically it needed to be a bit further to the left.
Once you’ve drilled a hole, it’s not easy to widen it — because hole-cutting drill bits have a pilot bit at the center that has to be cutting into the surface you’re drilling into or the drill will bounce all over the place.
So basically we needed to drill a second hole that overlapped as much as possible with the first hole while still allowing the pilot bit to make contact with the ceiling:
Then we used a reciprocating saw the trim the edges to make the two overlapping holes into one giant oval.
We tried putting a length of PVC pipe through the hole, and it fit with plenty of room to maneuver. Really flattering victory photo:
Next up, we had to decide how to run the new drain pipe to ensure we got sufficient slope (the pipe can’t run parallel to the floor or up, it always needs to be angled slightly down in order to ensure the water keeps moving). Part of that was figuring out where to tie it in to the existing drain pipes in the basement.
At first, we thought we might be able to remove the length of drain that would no longer be used (ie the clogged part) and run the new drain along the same path. We used a metal-cutting attachment on the reciprocating saw, and Fred got to work trying to cut the old cast iron pipe:
But after 10 minutes, the saw still hadn’t gotten through the first side of the pipe — and we would have to cut the pipe on two ends, meaning this could take hours (if it was even feasible). So eventually we decided to leave the old pipe in place, and run the new drain along another path. It seemed like tying it into the kitchen sink drain (right near by, and made of PVC — much easier to cut into) would be the best course of action.
With that decision made, we figured out how to run the pipe from the hole we’d cut in the ceiling down and to the kitchen drain while maintaining a slight downward slope. We planned to use a fernco fitting — which is a rubber plumbing coupling that allows for some flex (unlike pvc fittings which are rigid) — to tie the new drain into the kitchen drain. To get the lengths and angles right, we used string to suspend the first length of pvc to see how it would line up while working around the copper pipes in the same area.
To cut the PVC to the length we needed, we used the reciprocating again. I have got to get me one of these.
You get a pretty smooth cut, but it’s still important to smooth the edges with a file and sandpaper — you don’t want to have any rough edges inside the fittings that will catch debris and potentially cause it to accumulate.
Then it was time to tie the first length of the drain into the kitchen drain. We started by removing the existing fitting (also a fernco), which removes easily by using a screwdriver to loosen the metal collar on either end (this also makes it ideal for using to clean out a clogged drain, since unlike PVC fittings — which you glue in place — it can be removed and then put back in place).
The cast iron pipe had a lot of residue built up inside, which definitely supported our theory that the original drain pipe had clogged through natural corrosion.
We scraped it out while we had it open. Then we needed to cut down the kitchen drain, since it was butting up against the cast iron drain pipe and there wouldn’t be room for the new sink drain to tie in.
Fred held our new fitting in place and marked the kitchen drain with a sharpie to determine where to trim it.
He trimmed it in place with the reciprocating saw, and then attached the new three-way fitting.
With that done, we put the first length of PVC into the coupling, then added the second length with another fernco to angle around the copper gas pipe.
We adding a few more fittings in order to make the turn toward the ceiling hole. Then it was time to tie the drain line into the length of PVC coming down from the ceiling hole. To glue PVC, first you prime the surface with a purple substance (which you can see on the ends of the PVC below).
Then you put glue around the outside of the inner fitting and the inside of the outer fitting. You then have about 10 seconds to get the fitting into place before it hardens completely.
One trick for making sure the fitting lines up the way you intend it is to dry fit it and make a black mark across the pipe and fitting where they should line up, that way once you put the glue on and fit it back together you get it into the right place quickly before it dries.
We glued the final fitting:
Our final step in the basement was to put a plastic collar in place to support the weight of the pipe, basically where we’d been using the string — you wouldn’t want all the weight from the pipe hanging from the sink upstairs, so we nailed a plastic hanger into the ceiling joist to hold everything up.
The last bit of work was to tie it all into the sink upstairs. At this point I somehow failed to take enough photos, but basically we used various bits of PVC and couplings to bring the drain through the hole in the vanity, then we mounted an acrylic panel that we’d cut a hole into over the drain to cover up the hole in the wall. Then we attached the new p trap (which is the part shaped like a “J”) to the tail piece (which is the black part coming down from the sink).
The last step was to cap the old sink drain. First Fred cut it down with the reciprocating saw.
Then we put a cap on the end so it was sealed nice and tight.
We held our breath and ran the water in the bathroom and kitchen sinks, then scampered down to the basement to look for leaks. All good!!! Yay!! And thar she blows:
Okay yes it’s not the most beautiful thing, but we already had a bunch of pipes coming from the ceiling and now our bathroom sink drains. So that’s a win in my book! Plus I learned a lot and really enjoyed the time with my stepdad.
As a final step, we decided to take the opportunity to clean out and organize the vanity. We’d put everything in a big plastic tub where it had sat for a few weeks between Thanksgiving and fixing the drain, so we already knew we didn’t need all that stuff very frequently. Sam and I spent some time sorting through the bin, finding a whole bunch of old gross things to throw out and then organizing the things we wanted to keep.
I picked up a few mesh drawers at Bed, Bath, & Beyond that were the perfect height and depth for under the sink:
Using the drawers and a few small plastic bins we already had, I organized everything and put it back:
Okay sure it’s not exactly instagrammable, but it’s functional and now I can find and reach everything in our vanity. AND the sink drains. Victory!