By Dave Twombly


In Stephen King’s classic film (and one of my favorites) The Shawshank Redemption the denouement occurs when the main character, Andy Dufresne, escapes prison and a tyrant warden. He’d tunneled through the wall of his cell and then escaped by breaking open the sewer pipe.  If you have seen the film, you’ll recall that he crawled through, as the narrator says, “500 hundred yards of smelling foulness that I can’t even imagine. Or maybe I don’t want to.”   Unfortunately for me, unlike the narrator, I can imagine it.  I had a pond of that foulness in my basement.

For me, one of the joys of living in Cambridge is its history.  If the ultra-modern, new construction type places aren’t your cup of tea, then living in Cambridge or most places in the Boston area affords you the opportunity to live in classic old buildings.  One hundred year old buildings are a dime a dozen around here.  They are quaint, stylish and often well constructed (they’ve been standing for a hundred years).  One drawback, however, is they often have old plumbing (and wiring, but we’ll get to that another day).

Whether you live in a multiunit condo building (Cambridge is full of triple deckers) or a single family, you have a large (about 6 inch diameter) pipe that connects your house to the main city sewer that runs down your street.  All waste and wastewater from your house, from the toilets, sinks and showers to the appliances, run through this main pipe.  (Think about your overall water usage, there’s a lot going through there).  When your hundred year old house was constructed, cast iron was the material of choice (nowadays the pipes are PVC).   The pipes were cut into relatively short sections and joined to make the required length. The joined pieces were sealed with cement.  Over 100+ years, cement deteriorates allowing thirsty, hungry little tree roots to snake their way into the pipe.  If you think about what’s going through those pipes you’ll realize that there is a ton of fertilizer. Perfect for a hungry tree.

At our place, when they removed the pipe and replaced it (which called for an excavator, heavy equipment and a police officer on detail–lots of fun to watch from your 3rd floor unit with your one year old), there was essentially a Brillo Pad of tree roots in the pipe.  This 6 inch pipe had 5 inches of roots filling it up.  The only thing that could get through the mess by this point was shower water (once again, think of everything that goes through that drain, especially in a condo building with multiple units).

Why am I telling you this?  Simply because I love each an every one of you.  Also because I don’t want you to go through what we did.  We had a stench that reminded me of a PortaPotty on Day 3 of Woodstock (okay, so I wasn’t there, you get the metaphor) that crept up three floors from the basement to our unit.  We had to remove everything from the basement (not a pleasant undertaking given the circumstances) so the plumbers could fix the pipes in the building and the cleaners could decontaminate and clean the floors, walls and stairs.  For the second time in two weeks I had to haul boxes up three flights of stairs (I thought we were done with that!).

So, whether you are just getting started in home ownership or you’ve lived in your condo for years, if you don’t know if your sewer pipes have been replaced since 1920, get your condo association to have a plumber come check out the health of your pipes by snaking a camera through them.  (It will cost you a few hundred bucks).  If you have an old, cast iron pipe to the street, get your association to start putting away your pennies now (this is a big job, in the $15,000 – $20,000 range).   With an old pipe, replacing it will be inevitable. Cleaning out the pipe by cutting back the roots growing inside every few years is only putting lipstick on a pig.  By taking these proactive measures you can prevent having a river of filth and disgustingness, and everything that’s associated with it, from running through your basement.