Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene It's a Gas

By Walter Jowers

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Here's proof that my metal-working father, Jabo, was onto something when he preached, "Never sit down on the job." Last month, Hong Kong metal worker Leung Sing-fai decided to take a nap in a company bathroom. There was no light in the little room, which made it all the better for napping. Problem was, when Leung figured it was about time to get back to work, he used his cigarette lighter to illuminate his watch. The bathroom exploded with him in it.

Leung lived, and Hong Kong lawyers are now working feverishly to fix the blame. If I spoke the lingo, I'd love to hear a tape of the depositions.

I suspect that the company lawyers will accuse Leung of hiding out in that bathroom and huffing hospital-grade ether. But I suspect that the guilty explosive is sewer gas--specifically methane--the active ingredient that lets foolish college boys set their farts on fire. (Warning: If you must light farts, make sure you're not wearing polyester, which will burn and stick to you like napalm.)

I don't have any raw data, but I'd guess that the number of sewer-gas casualties worldwide is fairly low. But they're not unheard of. Just last week, I read about a man who literally farted himself to death. As this poor soul slept in a small, poorly ventilated room, he loaded the atmosphere over his bed with his own nocturnal toxic-fart fumes. The mighty funk even downed his rescuers and put one of 'em in the hospital. Investigators blame the man's diet of mostly beans and cabbage.

Sewer gas isn't confined to exotic locales like Hong Kong and the air above farting men. You've got a load of it in your very own house. If you're hooked up to the city sewer, only the water in your traps stands between you and the funk of your fellow citizens. Country folk, y'all can take some satisfaction in knowing that your sewer gas is limited to the stuff your family members and septic-tank bacteria produce.

If your plumbing has been exposed to buckethead plumbers or misguided handy types, you might even have some free-floating sewer gas in your house. I see it all the time: A waste line gets disconnected as part of a renovation, and nobody bothers to cap it off. Result: sewer gas in the crawl space, the basement, or maybe even the house.

A while back, I had an e-mail correspondence with Bill Coull, a fellow home inspector who works in New York City. He told me that he finds a lot of open waste pipes by spotting sewer lice, which are little flying bugs. (Technically, I think the wings make 'em something other than lice, but that's a quibble.) Bill went on to tell me about the time he found sewer lice in an upscale Manhattan townhouse; he took the lady of the house down to the basement to show her the problem. When he pointed out the lice and explained where they came from, the woman freaked out, ran up the stairs, and locked poor Bill in the basement with the lice.

Bill's kind of a smarty-pants guy, so I accused him of making the whole thing up. Two days later, I got a package from New York City containing one baggieful of dead sewer lice. They looked like bulked-up gnats. I'd never seen any bugs quite like 'em, so I don't think they live down South.

A quick plumbing lesson: Those S-shaped pieces of metal in your drain pipes aren't there so you can retrieve things you drop down the drain. They're there to keep a water seal between you and sewer gas. If a trap dries out, sewer gas is free to creep up into your house. This is the chief reason that abandoned houses stink.

A sidebar to this lesson: Never, ever run your central A/C unit's condensate drain into the house plumbing. People do this all the time, to avoid the trouble and expense of installing a condensate pump. Problem is, the trap in the drain will dry out during the winter (when the A/C is making no condensate), sewer gas will back up into your heating system, and it'll get uniformly distributed throughout your house. You'll probably get used to the smell, and only company will notice it. At best, your house will stink to high heaven. At worst, you could explode--like Leung.

Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nashscene.com>. Or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.


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