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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
12 April 2002

A Plumbing Story

I went to Oregon last week to solve a plumbing stumper at my parents' cabin in the woods. Gravity should carry water from the spring down to their water tank, but the buried pipe is a mile long, and the tank was empty. We cut the pipe 10 feet below the overflowing spring. It was dry, but we saw it was plugged with tree roots, so we cleared it all out. We wrapped the cut pipe with "duck tape" for a quick fix, figuring there's no pressure so close to the spring. Dang it, there was still no water at the house! Time to sit and think. What could be wrong, and what's our next step?

That's the condensed version. Here are a few more details.
  • I originally dug the trench for the water line about 25 years ago. It's not deep, but it's completely overgrown and the woods have grown. We can't remember how it runs.

  • The pipeline runs downhill from the springbox to a low place and then uphill to the tank. From there it's all downhill to the house. There's a "T" section at the lowest place on the line that we have to open occasionally to clear an air lock in the line.

  • The first section of pipe runs about 100 yards down from the spring through a forest of maples and woodwardia ferns down to a power line easement another 100 yards across. A crew did some work here last fall cutting trees along the clearing. We suspected a break there, but there was no obvious leak. Beyond the easement, we don't know the path of the pipe runs down to the low "T" section.

  • This all happened last October. I went back to Oregon with my Dad last week to either fix it or call a plumber who would probably just replace the whole line at great expense.

  • The first thing we did was to go back to the spring and dig lots of holes to follow the line down to the easement clearing. We finally cut the pipe at the easement. It was dry. Then we went half-way back to the spring and cut it again. Still dry, and no sign of a leak. Then we went back to our first cut pipe near the spring and undid the duck tape holding the pipe together. There was lots of water! The cut pipe is only a few inches lower than the springbox so there's not much pressure, but I noticed great suction on the downhill/tank side.
Water going in, but nothing coming out, and no visible leak. That was the right time to sit and think! What's our next step, and what could be wrong?

The pipeline goes through here somewhere!

We still had no water, so we opened the pipe we had cut before and "fixed" with tape. I noticed the flowing water made great suction that had pulled in a loose end of tape. That was enough to block the pipe since there was little pressure so close to the springbox. We fixed it, but there was still no water flowing to the tank. We were ready to quit when my Dad tripped in the overgrown woods. I went to help him up, and there was fresh water on the ground! We soon found the broken pipe and were done. That was a lesson about pressure and suction, and also about sweet luck!


It all makes sense now, but this plumbing story was very puzzling as it happened. Here's the rest of the story:

  • My Dad and I opened the cut pipe that we had taped together just below the spring. I just stared at the water gushing out (with no water down below) until I realized that the downward flow was blocked by a loose end of "duck tape" that had been sucked into the pipe. When we properly fixed our cut pipe with a fitting, the water flowed. I noticed the great suction at the spring outlet that almost sucked the skin off my hand. Small pressure and large suction was the combination that had stumped me!

  • We checked the cut pipe at the near edge of the power line clearing, and there was water. It was so disappointing when we walked back to the low "T" section, and it was still dry. But at least we were closing in on the problem.

  • We suspected a broken pipe on the downhill side of the power line easement where a crew did some work last fall cutting trees along the clearing. We didn't know where the pipe ran, so we followed it the hard way by digging lots of holes. We cut the pipe again on the far side of the clearing, and there was flowing water, but nothing was coming out at the "T" section further down the line. At least we had isolated the problem to the very overgrown section between the clearing and the "T" section.

  • We walked back and forth through the overgrown woods looking for a leak. There were lots of springs here, but nothing that looked like a broken pipe. We were ready to quit and call the plumber to replace that relatively small section of the water line when my Dad tripped over a blackberry vine and went down. I went to help him up, and there was fresh water on the ground! We soon found the broken pipe and the job was done. The PVC pipe was broken clean at a pre-formed bell-fitting where the pipe was curved under pressure.

  • Finally we had water at the low "T" section, and by the time we hiked back, there was water filling the tank, just in time for a welcome shower!

Success at last!

Another benefit of this plumbing story was that I managed to photograph some interesting spring wildflowers in the Oregon woods:

Fairy Slipper
Calypso bulbosa
Western Wake-Robin
Trillium ovatum
Oregon Fawn Lily
Erythronium oregonum

Several lessons about problem solving crossed my mind during this plumbing story:

I usually end my stumpers with a list of Web links, but my Dad and I were mostly on our own with this one.

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