Dirty, gritty sludge,
Building little by little,
Progress is ruined

Around April or May of this year, I came back home to a flooded kitchen, and that kickstarted about three straight months of on-and-off frustration, complete with gerry-rigged pumps, greasy/stinky sludge water all over my condo, and many back-and-forth trips between the kitchen sink and my toilet to just get on with my day-to-day tasks. This is the story of that adventure, interwoven with some on-the-nose comparisons to what I think about the inner workings of teams and organizations, as I was also in the middle of another job search/switch in the same time period.

The Problem

The initial shock and disgust quickly gave way to the need to triage as quickly as possible. Out came the mop and bucket along with some frantic online searching for a local plumbing service. Beyond an initial cursory glance, I didn't put too much effort in trying to fully diagnose the problem. After mopping up the grime off the floor, I scooped out the dirty water from the sink and put down some old towels to catch any non-obvious leaks.

I just wanted the problem to go away, but without an obvious solution within reach, I settled for a slightly less terrible situation that I could bear with until I either learned more about the problem or found a more knowledgeable resource. When confronted with a new problem, I suppose a typical response can often be frantic and incomplete, but I much prefer that to nothing. That said, I'd find out later that my efforts the first night weren't exactly a net positive.

I have to admit that I had a lot of hope for the plumber we called the next day. I had the means, though not necessarily the practice, to outsource my problems away. That company had helped us prior with a shower pipe blockage, and I was looking forward to the guy pulling out the proper snaking inspection tool to unclog this set of pipes. He did indeed whip out a rather heavy-duty, drill-powered snake tool, and it very quickly churned out an alarming amount of black sludge from beneath my sink, but the pipes remained clogged, and after about 15 min of snaking, he actually suggested we find someone else, even going as far as to refund part of our payment. His reasoning was that if 10-15 min of snaking couldn't unclog it, the clog must be much further down the pipes, and without knowing the routing and structure of the pipes, it could cause damage, and we would be better off finding someone who could take apart portions of the wall to get a more direct look at the plumbing before continuing.

I've never had a contractor back out and partially refund his/her fee before, and this plumber could've easily stayed the allotted time to collect the full fee, but he clearly knew the limitations of his tools and time. I'm guessing he personally didn't think he had much of a chance at unclogging the pipe, and instead of leaving behind an unsatisfied customer, he could take a smaller loss through a partial refund, gain back some of his own time, and make me the customer feel somewhat better about shelling out money for a non-fix. During his short visit, we also discovered how my kitchen sink was directly tied to my neighbors', which made any sort of maintenance and repair even more difficult. As the next few months would prove, that plumber was much smarter than me.

I think people, especially engineers, have a tendency to be results and progress-driven, ever hopeful that some new development or insight will unlock a previously-unknown solution. That said, as any trite pontification on the sunk cost fallacy typically seems to converge, diminishing returns can easily become negative returns, and if your practice is well-established and tested, it also makes sense to set hard limits on how far to pursue the unknown before turning back. It's setting those hard limits without adequate knowledge that becomes challenging.

The failed plumber visit put me in a bind on two fronts: first off, I couldn't use my sink unless I re-routed to a waste bucket that I'd have to intermittently dump into my toilet; secondly, anything my neighbor did in his sink would ultimately end up on my side of the wall (and vice versa). I ended up getting a bunch of extra PVC pipes and re-did the entire bottom of my sink such that I had an extended pipe leading to a waste bucket that I could block off whenever I wasn't using the sink. This allowed me to at least get on with my life, though aside from waiting and hoping the clog would dissolve itself, I still didn't have a next step in terms of fully diagnosing and fixing the problem, as neither I nor my neighbor was interested in tearing apart our wall and pipes. In my neighbor's words, "We'll figure it out," which I guess was code for, "I'm going to ignore this problem. Good luck buddy."

A shared problem doesn't mean shared responsibility, and we shouldn't ever presume that a problem impacts all parties in the same way.

Without a viable alternative to tearing out the walls, I effectively started a timer of discontent that would continue accruing cost every day that the sink stayed clogged. Surely, if the problem persisted for some X number of days, it would've been worth it to just bite the bullet and find a wall-tearing, pipe-busting, pipe-replacing contractor. With that in mind, I set off on researching and trying out a whole bunch of DIY solutions. After all, I presumably was/am an engineer and should be able to figure out this bullshit.

Relevant expertise may not always be as relevant as you'd hope.

Two big unknowns remained in my path: I didn't know how far down the clog was in the pipes, and it could've very well been in a spot unreachable by anything I could reach through my sink; I also did not know how exactly the pipes connected between my neighbor's unit and mine. An early snaking attempt actually earned me a bemused tongue-lashing from my neighbor, who discovered my plumbing snake poking out of his kitchen sink. I'm fairly positive I tried every sort of mechanical probing or unclogging tool from Home Depot that was under $100, but to no avail. In the meantime, my imagination ran wild with what could've clogged the pipes, as neither myself nor my neighbor had any issues whatsoever in the 2+ years the two of us had been in our units. I found myself in the fuck-around-and-find-out part of the problem, except I wasn't finding out shit. Sometimes you're just ill-equipped to handle the problem.

The Grind

I eventually settled on using water pumps and flexible silicone tubing to pump out whatever sludge I could and then flush the pipes with hot soapy water to try and break down whatever was contributing to the clog. Through my various trials of shoving flexible probes down the piping, I had somewhat figured out that there was basically a simple T-connector between my and my neighbor's kitchen plumbing lines. While it was nearly impossible to route tubing down the central common pipe instead of my neighbor's sink pipe, it wasn't entirely impossible, and I made a series of strategic cuts to the end of the tubing so that it'd bend in advantageous ways to better facilitate it going down the correct path. Connecting the tube to a pump also allowed me to more easily determine when it had taken a wrong turn and start going upwards instead of down. Over time, I also started using metal beams as guides to further bias the tube's initial direction.

At times, I truly felt like I was trying to dig a tunnel with a wet noodle. Initially, I could only engage with the tubing at the opening underneath my kitchen sink. The direction of the tube as I fed more of it into the plumbing was largely determined by the interior geometry and curvature of the pipes, which I couldn't ever see. It would take on average at least 30 min of pseudo-random poking to get the tube down the correct pipe. However, once I got the tube moving down the central pipe, the suction from the pump and the continuous flow of fluid naturally pulled the tube further down the pipe, which was a neat physics quirk I didn't expect.

And thus, I settled in to a strange nearly-daily ritual:

  • Come home
  • Drain and dump out the liquid in the sink and pipes above the point of connection at the wall
  • Undo all the pipes up to the wall and hope my neighbor doesn't run his sink while I'm setting up
  • Connect the silicone tubing to the water pump
  • Continue snaking the tubing through the pipes until it correctly goes down the central pipe
  • Pump out all the grimey stillwater in the pipes
  • Pump in clean, hot, soapy water
  • Repeat pumping in/out until the water that's pumped out is clean/clear
  • Be sad because the clog is still there
  • Pull out the tubing and replace the plumbing fixtures so that it doesn't leak all over my kitchen floor
  • Go to sleep

I ran into a couple of problems fairly quickly:

  • The grit/grime that was pumped out would regularly clog the diaphragm pump, as they typically rely on a set of small flaps for check valves. In the beginning, I would regularly have to disassembly the pump entirely whenever it clogged, clean out the check valves, and then re-assemble the pump to continue. I eventually bought in-line filters and cleaned those out regularly instead
  • After many days of use, the silicone tube would get softer due to the hot water I was pumping in, which meant that it would constrict more under heavy suction and not pull up water as quickly
  • Suction pressure is limited and also went down as my pumps got dirtier, so there was a physical limit to the distance within the pipes I could pump out the dirty water.
  • The hot soapy water may very well have been just further cleaning out the section of pipe prior to the clog, instead of eating away at the clog itself
  • I had no guarantee that I was pumping out ALL of the dirty water before replacing it with soapy water, so perhaps I was merely replacing the top level water without influencing anything in the more effective proximity of the clog
  • The water in the pipes was oily and gross. I washed and scrubbed my hands w/ dish soap sooooooo much and still had grime on them the next day

Despite all those issues, and despite the increasingly negative returns, I persisted, because what other option did I really have at my disposal? Unlike the plumber and his standards, I had none. Call it a combination of ignorance and arrogance. The process continued to make sense to me despite the lack of validating returns, and instead of giving up once positive feedback ran out, I elected to continue until I had a guarantee of a (literal) dead end. Oh, what a PhD does to a man...

Some Hope

I should add that a little under two weeks into this foray, I actually managed to unclog the pipes using this method. It was a magical moment, and I regained some normalcy in my life for three weeks or so until the pipes clogged yet again, for reasons unknown. Success here was perhaps a pretty terrible punishment. There really wasn't any concrete evidence that what I did had any effect on the clog, and yet at times I was trying to convince myself that I'd somehow invented a new, more effective way of fixing old plumbing.

More Grind

I would continue my personal vendetta against pipe grime for another four weeks or so after the clog came back with a vengeance. With my growing collection of water pumps (side note: macerator pumps are super cool) and tooling, I actually got pretty adept that getting the tubing shoved down towards the clog and slowly cleaning out the pipes. On a typical weeknight, you'd find me chilling on a rolling stool, slowly wrangling the tubing in and out of my kitchen plumbing while Spotify played in the background. You could say I achieved an acceptable routine in the interest of progress theatre: there really was no continuing concrete evidence that my work was effective, but I felt like it was, so I persisted and even worked to make my routine more efficient over time.

However, it became more apparent during this second plumbing period that my faith is my new process was a tad unfounded. It got easier/faster to clean out the dirty water, and yet I made no discernible progress on the clog. Not even a slow drain at the end of the day. A part of me became quite concerned that I had merely moved the clog further down the drain, and now it was even more difficult for me or anyone else to ever fix the problem.

I think people underestimate the fear, frustration, and confusion when an engineer/researcher can't reproduce a result. How many alternative contributing factors get blamed before the notion that the original premise was wrong even comes up? Perhaps it's human nature to latch onto even the smallest evidence that the daily toil has been progressive, and we miss the signals to move on and try something else.

I remember trying to evaluate my progress by subtle changes in how I felt the tube tug and pull under the pump's pressure, or the slight differences in the consistency and color of the gunk that was getting pulled up, or how fast I could get the waste water to run clear. All of this could only be seen at the output, far from the actual source of the problem: a true black box (or pipe) problem, if you will.    

Saving Grace(s)

I tend to gerry-rig a lot of bullshit professionally and at home, but I like to think that the thoroughness of my research is generally quite good. Going into my DIY efforts, I saw a lot of references to hydrojetting, where high pressure water can be used to eat through the clog, which we'd assume is made up of compacted food waste as opposed to a monolithic solid. Hydrojetting didn't initially seem like a viable choice as a DIY option, though I tried to simulate the high pressure bursts by pinching and releasing the tubing when I flushed the pipes. I went as far as to get a hydrojetting nozzle but was worried that I wouldn't be able to clamp it properly, which would risk losing it and worsening the clog. I also didn't want to risk unleashing a torrent of high-pressure in my neighbor's sink if I routed the tubing improperly.

When you're at the end of your rope (or tube), your range of options have a tendency to expand, along with a suddenly reckless risk tolerance.

Turns out, I didn't have to worry about clamping, as a standard hose clamp was more than sufficient to keep the nozzle connected to the tubing. The hose clamp also didn't make the assembly too large to freely move through the plumbing. The increased weight of the jet nozzle even made it much easier to snake the tubing down the central pipe instead of misrouting it towards my neighbor's side. It didn't take all that much jetting, even with a standard water pump supplying the positive pressure, to clear out whatever clog was there, though I ran through the whole process a couple of times just for the peace of mind.

I could've should've tried this solution earlier, but my sense of risk mitigation maintained this persistent fear that the possibility of making the situation worse couldn't possibly be worth it. I could've sprung for a professional (albeit expensive) hydrojetting service on the first day, but was dissuaded after hearing the first plumber's fears regarding whether it would work, so I didn't feel like throwing good money after bad. In retrospect, the threat of the worst-case penalty: completely ripping out my walls and possibly getting multiple neighbors involved in the process, led me to continue on the path that would cause the least harm, even when I had no conclusive feedback that the approach was having any tangible effect.

Post-Problem Insights

The first thing we immediately did after clearing out the pipes was to get those sink strainers to catch larger pieces of food. I had a disposal in-place, so it wasn't like I had been dumping junk directly down the sink, but at this point I was desperate to do all I could to prevent a clog from forming ever again. I'd also flush the pipes with hot water every night in hopes of further clearing out whatever residue was still left. In a short period of time, it became more apparent just how much food scraps my day-to-day cooking had been sending down the pipes. Should the pipes have been able to handle it? Most likely. Could the disposal have given a false sense of security and made the situation worse? Possibly. Either way, there was annoying but preventative care that could've been performed regularly to have avoided the problem entirely.  

As an aside, did you know that rice expands when it absorbs water?

I eat a lot of rice.

tldr; if you have the money, pay for the hydrojetting service. if you don't, make sure you have a sink strainer