21-Aug-2022 (Sun) Wherein we have once again angered Poseidon

It's time for this blog to get back to its core competency: complaining about plumbing disasters!

Last weekend we had a minor sewer backup, but we snaked it out via the clean-out port on the sidewalk and things seemed to be going ok. But on Friday afternoon, things were going very much not ok. Nearly complete blockage, which means almost no drainage from anything on the "Main Room" side of the building: no bathrooms! No amount of snaking made a difference. Panic and horror.

Our theory was that the connection between our main drain and the sewer had finally failed, as our various plumbers have been giving that the side-eye for several years now. It was looking very much like "time to jackhammer the sidewalk". We called the City, who wouldn't commit to a date more firm than "maybe Monday".

So... we rented four porta-potties and a handwash station. Inside Lands! All of the grossness of attending a festival without having to be around trees!

The city folks did show up on Friday evening, though, and told us that the part of the pipe that had turned to dust was on our side of the junction, not theirs, and so -- congratulations -- it was our problem, have a nice night.

This is beyond the scope of what your average plumber is prepared for, and also, this is a "call before you dig" situation, since the street is riddled with gas lines, so even once we find a plumber-slash-demolitions-expert who can do the work, they can't do anything until a different city crew shows up and spraypaints things with "cut here, not there".

Joy.

Fortunately the DNA Pizza building is on a different drain system, due to them originally being separate properties, so the restaurant and Above DNA restrooms still work. But that's only 4 toilets for the whole building, so that's not ideal. But unsurprisingly, many people were happier waiting in line there than using the porta-potties.

I'd recommend you switch from beer to shots, you'll have to pee less. And never drink water. Fish fuck in it.

And now, a deep dive into the sewers!

I think this photo from 2000 shows the inside portion of the "lateral" that connects us to the sewer. It's the deeper one.

You will be excited to learn that there is an interactive map of the San Francisco Sewer Collection System which looks exactly like the sort of thing you'd see on a heist show, where the hacker in the van pulls this up and dramatically intones, "I'M IN". What they never say, though, is, "Give me a minute, the site is kind of slow, SFPUC doesn't have much of an IT budget." But from this map we can see that the DNA Lounge drain is "Lateral Service Connection L-157660, 6" diameter" (Pizza being L-157390), and the destination is "Eleventh Street Main Sewer P-98524, 36" diameter". It feeds south to "Harrison Street Main Sewer P-76719, 7' diameter", installed 1911.

The map says that the DNA lateral was installed in 1998 and the sewer in 1997, but that cannot be true. I'm reasonably certain that they were not digging up the sidewalk here in 1998. We didn't do our plumbing excavation until 2000, and that all stayed inside the building: we did not open the sidewalk. So that's a bit of a mystery.

The Eleventh Street Main Sewer feeds into the Mission & Fourth Street Tunnel P-98155, 8', installed in 1972, and thence to the "Transport / Storage Boxes" under The Embarcadero. These are vast, 35' tall, miles long cisterns (photos here!) that serve as buffers in case of high flow from rainfall, and in storms will let the sewers vent directly into the Bay (after "slight decantment") instead of backing up into your kitchen. This is necessary because San Francisco has a single system instead of separate sewers and storm drains, as in most other cities. As far as I can tell, the reason for that is "it seemed like a good idea during the Barbary Coast days, and it would cost billions to change now, so yolo."

The arrows on the interactive map aren't very clear on this next part, but my understanding from the SFPUC site is that the next step of the journey depends on whether it's raining. Normally everything flows from the Transport / Storage Boxes to the Southeast Treatment Plant which vents into the Bay ("Outfall") via Islais Creek, but sometimes it is also allowed to flow to the North Point Wet Weather Treatment Facility, which vents along Piers 33 and 35.

(Points West instead use the Oceanside Facility near Lake Merced. SF has two "sewersheds" that divide the city roughly in half vertically, which is why there are only two graphs on the COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Network.)

I'm not sure when the (extremely scenic) Mission Creek Channel Pump Station comes into play.

Anyway, let this be a lesson to you: the movies have lied to you. Only the Harrison Street sewer widens enough for a dirtbike, and even then only barely. Most of these sewers could not fit an alligator of any distinction. It's the Transport / Storage Boxes where the real action is.

For a detailed description of the SF sewer system, including its history going back to 1899, check out the San Francisco Sewer System Master Plan, 2010. I also enjoyed skimming SFPUC's Sewer System Emergency Response Plan. It's full of flowcharts and checklists, worksheets for computing overflow volume, and pictures of their awesomely-named drill bits: "Select appropriate nozzle for breaking a stoppage. This would be either a Pipe Wolf (6"-15"), Tadpole/Polywog with penetrator (18"-24"), Warthog or Bulldog with penetrator." (And if you're into that kind of thing, you may also enjoy the FDNY Forcible Entry Reference Guide, or "Care and Feeding of your Halligan Tool".)

I love this stuff because we are extremely focused on checklists to keep this place running, and it's fun to see how other organizations do it. The title of the DNA Lounge employee handbook is literally "Checklists Get Shit Done". 72 point type, right on the cover.

In conclusion: I have no idea how expensive this shit is going to be, so please contribute to our Patreon, AKA the DNA Lounge Adopt-a-Sewer program.

23 Responses:

  1. CSL3 says:
    2

    Anyway, let this be a lesson to you: the movies have lied to you. Only the Harrison Street sewer widens enough for a dirtbike, and even then only barely. Most of these sewers could not fit an alligator of any distinction. It's the Transport / Storage Boxes where the real action is.

    What? Next you'll tell me that sewers don't flood with toxic waste every night at midnight, turning undead killers into very-dead children. How can you even call it a sewer if there's not one goddamn CHUD ? Or maybe a lion-faced Ron Perlman?

  2. PRW says:
    3

    Well there's your problem, you shouldn't be propitiating Poseidon, but Cloacina.

    • Elusis says:
      1

      Oh please, jwz, as you sort this problem out, please install a tiny statue of Cloacina's shrine on top of the juncture before it's covered back up.

      • Anonymous says:

        Also, don't forget that Romans pronounced 'c' like we pronounce 'k' -- it's probably annoying to have someone pray to you but then mispronounce your name. I mean, I'm assuming, not having yet enjoyed people praying to me.

  3. Eric garner says:

    Portland also has a combined sewer and decided to actually attempt to fix the problem. The Big Pipe project has ended up being pretty successful.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      It's not really "fixing" the problem so much as kicking that can really far into the long grass (metaphor intentionally mixed for environmental pun).

      In London the same "fix" is in progress, but because almost everything in inner London already has important stuff built underneath it, the new tunnel isn't just near to the river (as with Big Pipe), it's literally underneath it. Thames Tideway is the name.

      As in Portland this won't and can't actually fix CSOs just reduce them, but despite being eye-wateringly expensive it's much cheaper than actually fixing the problem entirely.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      It's not really "fixing" the problem so much as kicking that can really far into the long grass (metaphor intentionally mixed for environmental pun).

      In London the same "fix" is in progress, but because almost everything in inner London already has important stuff built underneath it, the new tunnel isn't just near to the river (as with Big Pipe), it's literally underneath it. Thames Tideway is the name.

      As in Portland this won't and can't actually fix CSOs just reduce them, but despite being eye-wateringly expensive it's much cheaper than actually fixing the problem entirely.

  4. 1

    Paris's sewers are not motorbike sized but they are pretty big, they are round, and they get cleaned out by balls. http://theballreport.com/the-sewers-of-paris-are-cleaned-by-giant-balls/

    • Doctor Memory says:
      1

      And you can see some of them in person! You can take your Lourvres and your Musee d'Orsays -- the Sewer Museum is the most awesome thing in Paris.  (Note: I recommend against going in midsummer.)

  5. Tim says:
    2

    The title of the DNA Lounge employee handbook is literally "Checklists Get Shit Done". 72 point type, right on the cover.

    Checklists are a huge part of aviation too. A good checklist to run through during an emergency can prevent a crash, and other routine everyday checklists help prevent things from getting that bad in the first place.

    • Jim says:

      We also have checklists in software development:

      1. [ ] Write software.

      2. [ ] Test software.

      3. [ ] Fix software.

      4. [ ] Go to 2.

      5. [ ] Read the email from management saying you should have written software tests first, to comply with memo ISO-5000-TDD-TPS-69.

      6. [ ] Go to 1.

  6. MattyJ says:

    I used to live a stone's throw from "Richmond T/S Overflow to Mile Rock" and some years back during a very large rain storm, it did it's job. But not quite well enough as the rainwater lifted some sewage onto Cabrillo around 47th or 48th Avenue.

    People were splashing through it with their cars like it was any old rain puddle.

  7. o.o says:

    how expensive this shit is going to be

    ISWYDT.  In Atlanta you'd probably be looking at $5k, minimum, for a residential job like that.  For a commercial job in SF, maybe 4x?

    We also had combined storm and sewer until just a few years ago, and every time a big storm came through the Chattahoochee River would get flooded with shit and be closed to the public.  I'm not surprised to hear that it was common practice 150+ years ago.

  8. Andrew G says:

    I believe we also have a combined sewer system in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Similar "billions to change, yolo" situation.

    I was really compelled to comment because of checklists, though. I can't live without checklists. We have a checklist taped to the inside of our apartment door so that the kids remember to put socks and shoes on before leaving.

  9. Not sure if this is useful info, but for our Upper Haight condo building we were supposed to get a larger connection to the mains owing to some upgrades in one of the units. There were two cost components involved: (1) the city coming out and digging up the sidewalk and (2) a water contractor preparing some plans and putting in the new pipe. The city quoted about $16K for (1); our contractor gave estimates in the $8K-$10K range for (2).

    I can't tell you the actual cost because the contractor went AWOL on our building after the planning stage (and of course no other contractor can reuse the plans, we'd need to start from scratch), and the unit owner who was driving the upgrade moved out...

  10. Carlos says:

    Just yesterday I thought to myself that "jwz hasn't posted any plumbing disasters in a while, and the club's been open... how's that going?"  For that, I deeply apologize.  It may be my fault that Poseidon's half-brother with the three-headed plumber's helper turned up to fuck up your weekend.

    The city I live in has evolved its sewer strategy over time.  Originally there was a single sewer, and like all such sewers, during intense rain or melting periods, untreated sewage ends up flowing to the outfall.  But newer areas, as they were built, got separate storm sewer lines installed, which empty into miniature-valley green spaces and act as temporary holding pens for stormwater, eventually draining out of the city as surface water.

    C.

  11. granville says:
    1

    I admit that I've sometimes wondered where my poop goes, it's incredible that a city has developed an interactive map to satisfy my curiosity.

  12. 1

    Checklists are how you program humans.

  13. Can I just take a moment to mention that it's nice that when I click on a picture here to make it bigger, that it actually does get bigger?

    And that when I click it again because I want more detail, it gets even bigger and provides more detail?

    Thank you for this.

  14. not digging says:

    See if trenchless repair is possible... they basically form a new pipe inside of the old pipe, *without* digging anything up

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