Solving the mystery of the growling toilet

When I’d ask the many plumbers who we’ve had for other repairs over the years about it, they all cited simple physics: Drains need air to do their job. Something was constricting the air supply.

Typically, that air comes via a roof vent, which in our case is a 4-inch cast iron pipe protruding above the bathroom. However, as sure as they knew the cause, none of the plumbers wanted the job, which would have meant climbing on the fairly steep rooftop of our 2½ story house and performing a kind of root canal on our main drain.

Such clogs are usually from leaves building up or, heaven forbid, the carcass of a squirrel. Because no trees hang anywhere near our vent, we were perplexed, with the exception of one outside theory that to those plumbers seemed a bit far-fetched.

In 1987, our oldest son Jamie got a softball for his 12th birthday. He and I liked to play a modified pitch-and-catch by tossing the ball up on the roof from the driveway below and snagging it where it randomly came down. One day Jamie reported he didn’t see the where the ball came down. We looked everywhere, in the bushes, beneath cars and in the street, but no luck.

You can tell where this is going.

Fast forward to one day a few months ago. An ask-the-expert radio call-in show featured a local plumbing contractor. A caller described a problem identical to ours. The expert suggested climbing up on the roof and spraying a garden hose into the vent pipe. If the water backs up, you’ve got a blockage.By the way, he said, his company could come and do the job.

The very next day I called the contractor and they sent out Mike, who the dispatcher assured me was their best drain guy. He listened, asked some questions and scheduled a rooftop inspection for when he could bring a helper and a big ladder.

When the day came, Mike ascended the ladder and inserted a high-speed water jet into our stack. Immediately the water gushed back out.

With the blockage confirmed, Mike slowly worked the water jet and the water began to flow down. But soon the bathroom sink began filling up with rusty water from the century-old iron vent pipe. It overflowed and made a dreadful mess in the bathroom and seeped through the floor, staining the ceiling below.

After some quick mopping up, the plumbers rigged a temporary hose to catch and divert the flow and Mike resumed jetting. Soon water was gushing freely down the stack and out through the sink drain. We all thought this meant the obstruction was cleared. With anticipation, I flushed. The loud choking sound wasn’t gone.In fact, it seemed even louder. Had we made the blockage worse?

Next Mike lowered a video scope down into the stack. Minutes later his colleague watching the screen shouted, “Hey, there’s a baseball in there.” On his screen you could clearly make out the ball’s stitching and read the word “Official.”

It’s actually a softball, I explained, telling them the story.

Solving the mystery of the growling toilet

Could it simply be snagged and yanked out with a long pole?

Not so easy, they said. All that water jetting had apparently moved the ball and it was now completely plugging the sink drain. The best solution, they said, was to cut open the wall in the adjoining bedroom so they could cut out the section of cast iron that contained the softball and then repair it using use conventional PVC.

Reluctantly, I scheduled their next visit. To save a little money, I told them I would cut the hole in the wall and plaster it afterward.

My wife, Debi, was skeptical and urged we get a second opinion.So, I called Rich, a plumber friend who had fixed our furnace a few years earlier. He was intrigued by all this and offered to come take a look.

Rich pulled the toilet and using a video scope to locate the ball. He tried using a plumber’s snake to push it up and out, but no luck. It was late Friday afternoon by then so Rich asked for a weekend to ponder his next move.

On Monday morning Rich showed up with a ladder and a tool he crafted by welding a big screw to end of a long, three-section pole used to clean chimneys. I held the ladder as he climbed up, snapped together his pole and started poking down the vent stack. No luck.He came down and asked Debi for some vegetable oil and held out an empty Stewarts coffee cup. She happily complied.

Back to the roof he went, poured in the lubricant, swished his tool around a little and started twisting. Slowly he raised the pole and with it came a 35-year-old, rust covered, light green softball. Turns out it was one of those spongy Nerf balls, likely making it easier to snare.

I was ecstatic and started snapping pictures of Rich as he climbed down. It spared me having to crack open bedroom wall and pay a small fortune to have my cast iron pipe cut up and repaired.

It was time to test the results. We went up to the bathroom and I hit that lever. Swisssshhhh! A normal but very sweet flushing sound that no longer echoes all over the house.

We’re grateful to Rich and Mike, who went where no other plumbers would go before them, finally resolving an annoying issue in this old house.

The lessons here are that you need to maintain proper venting for drains and toilets to run smoothly and, when you have a job that seemingly nobody wants to do, you must keep trying.Eventually, you’ll find someone. It may take years!

A few weeks after our drain episode, we flew to California to see Jamie and his family for a long overdue visit that was delayed more than a year by COVID.

We had a great time and, by the way, I returned his ball.

Mike Spain is a former Times Union associate editor who retired in 2019 and during the COVID year spent a lot of time working on his old house.