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Robert Lamoureux: Sewer systems need to breathe, too

Your Home Improvements

Posted: November 27, 2009 10:10 p.m.
Updated: November 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Hi Robert,
I read your column faithfully. I have a very slow drain in our double sink bathroom vanity. I have used a chemical plumbing product several times and that provides a temporary solution. I plan to call a plumber to unstop the sink BUT since our heat has just gone on for the season I can hear a low “whining” noise coming from the sink when the water is running and the heater is running. The heater is in the attic above the bathroom. Can you explain what the problem may be? Thank very much.
Mary S.

Hi Mary,
First of all, like you said, the chemical plumbing products only provide a temporary solution. As far as I’m concerned, all of those drain cleaners are basically a marketing ploy. They only provide a band-aid, at best.

If you have a clog or a slow drain, especially something that’s reoccurring, the first step would be to clean the trap. Take the nuts off, remove the trap and clean it out. That’s where you’ll find most of the problems with slow drains. Over the years, I think I’ve seen everything stuck in a pipe that can possibly get stuck. Most of the time, the problem is due to hair, toothpaste and gunk that builds up and gets caught in the trap. 

The whining that you’re hearing is due to an obstruction in the trap or line, not with your heater.  It’s air in the system either circulating through the main or down through the vent that is being restricted and making noise. 

If you still have the same problem after you put the trap back together, then you have a venting problem. Vents both channel sewer gasses out of your home and allow air to circulate behind the water to push and flush the system clean. Sewer systems have to breathe and it sounds like yours has asthma. Call a plumber and have him snake the vent out. He’ll go up on the roof and run the snake all they way down to the main. 

Hi Robert,
We have a 20-year-old mailbox station we are going to relocate and replace with mailbox clusters.  Since mail is a government agency, we wanted to check if there anything specific we should be aware of before installing the new boxes. Thank you,
Lou T.

Hi Lou,
Since this will be a new installation, it will have to be ADA compliant. You are going to have to get the city involved. There are many regulations and standards that must be addressed involving handrails, ramps, truncated dome mats, etc. 

Ramps, for example, will have to be installed at the proper slope. They will not allow any more than 1 inch of rise per every 12 inches of slope, with a maximum rise of 30 inches. For levels higher than 30 inches, depending on your property, two ramps must be made. They may require the installation of a landing between the two ramps.

For the concrete pad poured to set your cluster, you will need a minimum 36” of turnaround radius on the pad to allow for wheelchairs or walkers, with a curb. 

I suggest you have an architect draw up your plans and take them to the city. They will have final word on if you are compliant, or what you need to change to make it so.

Another thing to keep in mind is you not only have to abide by ADA regulations, but mail service districts have demands of their own. Today, most want mail stations lighted with weather protection on top for the convenience and safety of their carriers. You will also need appropriate clearances for the postal carriers to stand comfortably either in front or behind, depending if they are front or back load boxes. And, you have to follow all of their height requirements because carriers keep their key on a chain. If that key does not reach the arrow lock, or if they have to bend over in order to unlock the box, then they do not have to deliver that mail. Instead, it will be left at the station until the problems are rectified. 

I would suggest meeting with a local postal inspector or manager and have them tell you everything they require. Then, hire an architect to draw up the plans following ADA compliance standards.   

Hi Robert,
I have a problem with my toilet (Mansfield) which has been going on for a month or more. My plumber has never encountered this problem and neither has the manufacturer. The tank fills and the bowl fills, but then starts to flow out of the bowl and is nearly empty within an hour, leaving about a cupful in the bottom of the bowl. The toilet flushes without a problem. There has been no back-up anywhere, no signs of cracks. The plumber used a snake to check out 3 vents on my roof and found no obstructions. The toilet is 4 years old and none of my neighbors have had a problem. This home is in a tract of homes 4-6 years old. Any ideas?
Jane L.

Hi Jane,
There is something happening between the vents and the main line that is creating a suction. I suspect either the main may have a leak or an obstruction, or the vents are blocked causing a vacuum that is pulling the water from your toilet. It’s like a Venturi Effect. If you constrict the flow of fluid, the resulting pressure differences could pull the water out of your bowl. 

I would go back to the drawing board and check the vents again. Although the plumber found no obstructions, have them use a camera. Sometimes, you can push a cable through a line and it feels clear. But, it may be pushing the problem down which springs back up again when you remove the cable, almost like a trap door. Sometimes, for example, there will be a root that lays down and pops up again. This makes it very easy to catch any kind of debris and block the line. 

Without looking inside those pipes with a camera, you can never be 100 percent sure of what’s in there. With that said, I remember once an old friend of mine, John Moynahan, was up on a roof snaking out a vent. He’s standing there, feeding the cable down.

Then he felt something. He said, “OK, there it is. It’s a doll. No, it’s a doll head. It’s a blonde, Barbie doll head.” When he pulled it out, it was a blonde, Barbie doll head that had gotten flushed and stuck. Maybe he was a little lucky, or maybe he was just that good. Either way, John didn’t need a camera. For everyone else, I would definitely suggest using one.

Robert Lamoureux has 25 years of experience as a general contractor, with separate licenses in electrical and plumbing contracting. He owns IMS Construction Inc. in Valencia. His opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of The Signal. Opinions expressed in this column are not meant to replace the recommendations of a qualified contractor, after that contractor has made a thorough visual inspection. Send your questions to


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