Outhouse, City Water, Sanitary Sewer System, Flush Toilet, Water Trap, Soil Stack, Sanitary Lift Stations, Weir Dam and Overflow Spillways

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 11th, 2012

Technology 101

Before Indoor Plumbing People had to Walk some 50 Feet in Rain, Snow or Shine to go to the Bathroom

On the American sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, Jed Clampett wasn’t sure if he should move his family to Beverly Hills after they found oil on his land.  He asks his cousin Pearl for advice.  She says, “Jed, how can you even ask? Look around you. You live eight miles from your nearest neighbor. You’re overrun with skunks, possums, coyotes, and bobcats. You use kerosene lamps for light.  You cook on a wood stove, summer and winter. You’re drinkin’ homemade moonshine, and washin’ with homemade lye soap. And your bathroom is fifty feet from the house. And you ask should you move!?”  Jed thinks about all of this and replies, “Yeah, I reckon you’re right. Man’d be a dang fool to leave all this.”  (This exchange begins at 11:40 on The Beverly Hillbillies (Season 1 – Ep. 1) The Clampetts Str).

On the American sitcom I Love Lucy, Tennessee Ernie Ford comes to visits the Ricardos in New York City.  On the day of his arrival, as he prepares to go to bed, he walks out of the apartment through the kitchen door with his suitcase.  Lucy and Ricky look at each other perplexed.  After a few minutes he comes back in and walks out of the apartment through the living room door.  After a few minutes he returns and approaches Ricky.  And whispers in his ear.  Exasperated, Ricky points and says, “Through the bedroom.”  In stunned disbelief Ernie says, “You mean it’s in the house?”  Ricky nods.  Ernie walks towards the bathroom and says, “Wait till I tell Mama about this.”  (See I Love Lucy Tennessee Ernie Visits).

Once upon a time, before indoor plumbing, people headed out of their house some 50 feet to go to the bathroom.  In rain, snow or shine.  To an outhouse.  Away from the main house.  Because of the stink.  And to keep their waste from seeping into the water table.  So their waste didn’t contaminate their drinking water.  So when they ever felt the call of nature they took that long walk.  Pushed open the door and squatted.  (Interesting fact: all outhouse doors open in for safety.  For if you were inside when a strong wind tipped the outhouse over you could open the door and then stand up, lifting the outhouse upright).  Or if it was a deluxe outhouse you may have sat down on some wooden planks.  Living like this was all well and fine when your nearest neighbor was 8 miles away.  Or in a suburban community with deep backyards.  For you could put your outhouse at the back fence.  Like your neighbor across the fence.  You can.  And some have.  But it’ll put a stink in the air.  And provide little privacy to do those most personal of things.  For when your neighbor sees the lady of the house walking back there it’s no secret what she’s going to do.

Flush Toilets are Possible thanks to City Water, Sanitary Sewer Systems, Water Traps and Stack Vents

Moving the bathroom into the house gave us true privacy.  So a lady could have a bowel movement without her neighbors knowing about it.  Two things made this possible.  City water.  And a sanitary sewer system.  These two things gave us the flush toilet.  A true marvel of engineering.  A porcelain bowl that holds a small amount of water.  Sitting on top of a pipe that ties into the sanitary sewer system.  A thing that makes the stink of an outhouse seem like a bouquet of roses.  Yet that stink doesn’t enter our homes.  Why?  Because of a simple thing called a water trap.  They come in a couple of shapes but typically have a u-shape somewhere in them.  Water enters and leaves at higher elevations.  Leaving the lower part always filled with water.  Providing a water seal between us and the stink of the sewer.  Thus preventing gases from entering our homes.  We build this trap right into our toilets.  On some models you can actually see the curly path the bowl drains into on the side of the toilet.

On top of the toilet base is a water tank.  With a valve and a float.  City water (under a slight pressure from the water plant) enters the tank through this valve.  When the tank is empty the valve is open and the water flows into the tank.  When the tank fills the float rises and closes the valve, shutting off the water flow.  At the bottom of the tank is a flapper valve.  When the tank is full of water the weight of the water presses down on this valve, sealing it shut.  When we flush the toilet we lift this flapper valve via a chain connected to a lever we operate with the flush handle on the toilet.  When we lift the valve the water in the tank can flow into the toilet bowl, washing the contents of the bowl into the pipe the toilet sits on.  As the water empties from the tank the flapper valve falls and seals the tank.  And with no water in the tank the float falls, opening the valve so water can refill the tank.

While the toilet tank fills because of the slight pressure they keep our city water under, the sanitary sewer system works under gravity alone.  All sewer lines in a building slope downward.  When they join other pipes they join in a ‘Y’ connection to make sure the new water entering another pipe enters flowing in the same direction of the water already in the pipe.  So as not to create any agitations or backpressure to the gravitational pull on the water.  To keep this water flowing in the downward direction.  If you have a basement in your house you can see a lot of this.  Downward sloping.  Y-fittings.  And you’ll also see one or two vertical pipes.  Soil stacks.  That other horizontal pipes run into.  Your sanitary waste (from floor drains, showers, sinks and toilets) flows to these soil stacks and down to a pipe under the floor that runs out to the sanitary line under the street.  If you follow these soil stacks up you’ll notice that they run all the way through the basement ceiling.  They in fact run all the way up and out through your roof.  Those little pipes you see protruding from your roof are stack vents.  These stack vents are critical in helping gravity work in your sanitary plumbing system.  By keeping a neutral pressure inside the pipes.  Making air pressure inside the pipes equal to the air pressure inside the house.  By equaling the air pressure on either side of the water traps the water stays in these traps.  If the system wasn’t vented the water wouldn’t stay in these traps.  As the column of falling water would compress the air below it creating a high pressure.  While creating a low pressure or vacuum above it.  Which would suck the water from the traps into the system above the falling water column.  And blow out the traps below the column.  Which would be rather nasty in the bathroom.  For it would blow raw sewage out of your toilet.  And onto you should you be in the bathroom at the time.

Sanitary Lift Stations have Backup Power and Failsafe Designs like Weir Dams and Overflow Spillways

At the beginning of all sanitary sew systems the pipes are their smallest.  Like inside a house where they connect to a floor drain, shower, sink or toilet.  As they join other pipes the pipe size increases.  To accommodate the increase in water volume.  The biggest pipe in a house is the one running to the sanitary line under the street in front of the house.  Which is a much bigger pipe as a sanitary line from each house connects to this line.  So it has to be big enough to handle all of the flow if everyone flushed their toilets at the same time.  Like at halftime during the Super Bowl.  And the pipes these ‘street mains’ connect to have to be even bigger.  For multiple ‘street mains’ connect to them.  And as more pipes join together they connect to even larger pipes.  And every one of these pipes is sloped downward to maintain the flow of water.  Pulled along by gravitational forces alone.  Which causes a problem.  Because continuously sloping bigger and bigger pipes downward will drive these pipes deeper and deeper underground.  Which can’t go on indefinitely.  As the ultimate destination is a wastewater treatment plant.  Which we typically don’t build underground.

So along the way we have to raise this wastewater so it can start its downward course again at a level closer to the surface.  We call these points sanitary lift stations.   Where a big pipe enters a wet well inside the station at a low elevation.  And exits the station at a higher elevation.  As water enters the wet well the water level slowly rises.  When the level reaches a certain elevation an automatic control system turns on pumps.  But not just any kind of pumps.  Some pumps with teeth.  That can grind up any solid waste that enters the sanitary sewer system.  From human waste.  To used condoms.  To feminine hygiene products.  And the myriad of other things that we shouldn’t flush down our toilets but do.  These pumps can pretty much grind up anything and spit it out into the discharge pipe of the station at a higher elevation.  So this wastewater can continue its journey to the wastewater treatment plant.

Some cities have a combined storm water and sanitary sewer system.  Which can tax the system during heavy rains.  For the water flowing into these wet wells will keep that level rising to a point the pumps may run continuously.  And should there be some damaging winds that take down the electrical grid these lift stations will throw-over to an emergency backup generator.  To keep those pumps running when we need them most.  To keep the water from rising too high in the wet well.  And the pipes feeding it.  For if those pipes fill up completely there will be no place for new water entering the sewer system to go.  Water will rise in manholes.  And out onto our streets.  Even out of our floor drains and into our houses.  As this would be a grave public health concern they often build failsafe protection in the sewer system.  The feed to the lift station will be a Y-connection.  Just past this will be a weir dam in the pipe.  A dam that blocks only the lower portion of the sewer pipe.  The pipe past this will run to some spillway into a river, lake or ocean.  If the flow in the pipe is too great for the lift station’s capacity it will spill over the weir dam and flow untreated directly into a larger body of water.  While this is bad it doesn’t happen often.  As it typically takes a ‘once in a hundred years’ rain to overtax a system.  And when it does there is so much storm water in the system that it greatly dilutes the harmful pathogens in the wastewater.

Our Sanitary Sewage Systems allow us to Draw Clean Drinking Water in the Same Room we Poop In 

Sanitary systems are gravity systems upstream.  As they get further downstream they get an assist from pumps.  As well as other powered valve and gates to redirect the water flow as necessary.  The bigger our cities get and the denser our city populations grow these active components become ever more critical to the gravity systems upstream.  So we provide backup power systems and failsafe designs.  We do everything possible to keep that wastewater flowing downstream and out of our homes.

Some of the greatest public health crises happen when these active systems break down.  For the power of gravity may influence our world a lot.  But the power of water is something to fear.  Especially when we lose control of it.  From tsunamis that overwhelm sewage systems in our coastal areas.  To 100-year rains that overwhelm our sewage systems in our interior areas.  To lift stations that fail and reverses the flow of wastewater in our sewage systems.  Worse yet is the discharge of raw sewage into our freshwater supplies.  That contaminate our fresh drinking water.  It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s a health crisis of the first order.

But most times these systems work so well that we never think about them.  And can’t even imagine what life was like when you had to bundle up in the middle of winter and wade through thigh-deep snow to get to your bathroom.  Sitting on wooden planks in an unheated structure with the wind blowing through the slats.  Today we’re spoiled.  Not only do we not have to bundle up our bathrooms are heated.  And only a few steps away from us.  Because they are in the house.  Thanks to our sanitary sewage systems.  That can keep up with the waste production in our largest cities.  And allow us to draw clean drinking water in the same room we poop in.  If you really think about that it’s hard not to be as amazed as cousin Ernie was in I Love Lucy.

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Wells, Cesspools, Night Soil, 1854 Broad Street Cholera Outbreak, Fresh Water, Sanitation, 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 10th, 2012

History 101

Overflowing Cesspools in 1854 London led to a Cholera Outbreak along Broad Street

People eat and drink.  And, as a consequence, they poop and pee.  This made moving into cities a little more complicated than living in the country.  Or on a farm.  Where you drilled a well for your drinking water.  And built an outhouse (or privy) to do your business in.  Basically a small structure over a hole in the ground to provide a little privacy while you contemplated world affairs.  You kept the two separated so your business didn’t seep into the water table that fed your well.  As people moved into cities they brought their poop and pee with them.  Obviously.  And before plumbing and sanitary sewer systems people used chamber pots and dumped them out of their windows after using them.  Or built cesspits (or cesspools) to store their human waste.  Under their houses.  Where the liquid would leach into the ground.  While the solids broke down.  As the pile of the remaining solid waste grew men came around at night to remove this ‘night soil’.  Which they turned into fertilizer.

There were drawbacks with this, though.  For human waste is full of disease-causing pathogens.  Which made it a little risky to use as fertilizer.  Worse were these disease-causing pathogens leaching into our drinking water.  Which it did in London.  In 1854.  In the Soho district of London.  Where the new sanitary sewers did not yet reach.  On Broad Street.  That ran along the River Thames.  Where the water table is relatively high.  So when you drill a well you don’t have to go too deep.  Or you could get your water directly from the River Thames.  As the city’s population grew more and more people packed into houses.  Greatly increasing the production of human waste.  Quickly filling the cesspools beneath their homes.  And as they filled to capacity they overflowed.  And leached into that high water table.  And into the River Thames.   Which took in this burgeoning growth of disease-causing pathogens.

But then people start getting sick.  A lot of them even dying.  From a nasty outbreak of cholera.  Spread by disease-causing pathogens.  Back then people thought ‘bad air’ caused cholera to spread.  As well as other diseases.  Something John Snow refused to believe.  So he studied the pattern of deaths.  And he found a common factor.  The people who were dying drew their water from the public pump on Broad Street.  Determining that the source of the cholera outbreak wasn’t ‘bad air’.  But bad water.  Coming from that pump.  Contaminated from those overflowing cesspools.  Such that people were drinking their own waste.  This marked a new beginning in public health.  And public sanitation.  Perhaps the greatest of public goods that allows people to live in crowded cities.

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami took out the Systems that kept Wastewater from Contaminating Fresh Drinking Water 

As cities and regions became more populated this balancing act of fresh water and sanitation became more critical.  Where fresh water flowed into our homes and wastewater flowed out and into the sanitary sewer system.  And on to the wastewater treatment plant.  Where treatment made the water safe to reenter the ecosystem.  And our drinking water supplies.  If all the pieces worked well the water flowed in only one direction.  Towards the wastewater treatment plant.  But if something should happen to interrupt or reverse that flow the wastewater would contaminate our drinking water.  And, sadly, something often happens.  Events that damage the infrastructure that manages that flow.  Such as war.  Earthquakes.  And tsunamis.

An earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Sunday, December 26, 2004, created a massive tsunami.  Sending walls of water as high as 50 feet crashing into Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and other coastal regions surrounding the Indian Ocean.  The damage these waves caused was devastating.   The advancing water just swept away communities on the shore.  After the waves receded more than 150,000 were dead or missing.  Millions were homeless.  In a hot and humid climate.  Where corpses everywhere began to decompose.  And injured people with open wounds invited infection.  As bad as the horror of that day was there might be worse yet to come.  For the conditions were perfect for pandemic disease.  For included in that destruction was the infrastructure that managed that water flow to wastewater treatment plants.

This was the greatest fear.  The tsunami waves wiped out the electrical grids that powered the pumps that maintained that water flow.  So the wastewater backed up into the drinking water.  Dense populations in tropical conditions with no fresh drinking water available to drink and with raw sewage backing up into the streets spelled a world of trouble.  Because people need to eat and drink.  And, as a consequence, they poop and pee.  But when the infrastructure is gone that separates the one from the other humans can’t live for long.  Because their waste is full of disease-causing pathogens.  Especially when the prevailing weather conditions create a natural incubator for these diseases.

In America’s most Populated Cities you can Turn On Any Water Tap and Drink the Water without Worrying about Cholera

Thankfully those areas hit by the 2004 tsunami did not suffer greater population losses due to outbreaks of cholera, diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid or hepatitis A and B.  Thanks to a fast-acting international community.  Providing some $14 billion in humanitarian aid.  Delivered in large part by the U.S. Navy and other military forces.  Who possessed the resources to move that aid inland to where the people needed it.  Chief among that aid was fresh drinking water.  And sanitation facilities.  To prevent the spread of disease.

It took some time to understand the connection between clean drinking water and public health.  But people did have some understanding.  Which is why a lot of people drank beer in early communities.  Because the brewing process killed the pathogens in the water.  Perhaps our first water treatment process.  They may not have known this.  They may just have correlated drinking beer to healthier living.  A good a reason as any to drink and be merry.  For those who drank beer did not suffer some of the same diseases that befell others.  As in the cholera outbreak in 1854 London.  Where the monks in a monastery adjacent to the outbreak area escaped the pandemic.  Why?  Because they only drank the beer they brewed.

Americans travelling to Mexico are careful about what they drink.  Drinking only bottled water.  Or beer and liquor.  To escape an unpleasant condition that can result from drinking the local water which is not as ‘treated’ as it is in the U.S.  Emphasizing a point few appreciate in America’s most populated cities.  Where you can turn on any water tap and drink the water that comes out of it without ever worrying about cholera, diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid or hepatitis A and B.  Which we’ve only been able to do for about a century or so in America.  While poor and developing countries are still struggling to do this even to this day.

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LESSONS LEARNED #42: “Romantics often don’t have a clue about what they romanticize about.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 2nd, 2010

From Underwear to Fashion Thong

Nowadays, underwear is more of a fashion statement.  A thong rising out of a lady’s low-rise jeans with a tramp stamp above says, hey, I like to be sexy.  It doesn’t say go ahead and enjoy that bran muffin.  Unless you carry wet wipes in your purse.

Disgusting things happen under our clothes.  Being mammals, we poop and pee.  Sweat.  And get dirty.  Most of us shower daily.  And use deodorant.  We didn’t always.  But we always pooped, peed, sweated and got dirty.  And probably always will.

As we entered more modern times, we started to wear nicer clothes.  Clothes that weren’t so easy to wash.  And were expensive.  We weren’t bathing all that often yet.  So we came up with an idea of how to keep all our bodily filth off of our spiffy new clothes.  Underwear.

Gallant Knights no Doubt had Skid Marks in their Armor

People are fascinated with medieval court life.  Dashing princes.  Gallant knights.  Fair maidens.  Chivalry.  The stuff of fairy tales.  Every little girl dreams of having Prince Charming sweep her up onto his steed and gallop off into the sunset.  If you brought these people into our modern world, though, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near them.  Their stench would make you want to vomit.

Modern people would not believe how bad this stink was.  Of course, back then, when everyone stunk, it didn’t smell so bad.  Stink is, after all, relative.  Someone would have to stink a lot worse than you for you even to notice their stink.  But filth is absolute.  So we started to wear underwear to keep the skid marks off of our fancier outer clothes.

Even the dashing ladies and gentlemen of 19th century America were still pretty smelly.  They didn’t bathe every day.  And they didn’t wash their outer clothing all that often.  But they tried to do like mother said.  And wear clean underwear.

Clean Underwear is as Good as a Shower in the 19th Century

One of the finest military memoirs ever written were those of General Ulysses S. Grant.  He would advance to command all Union forces during the American Civil War.  One time, his army was advancing so quickly that his baggage trains couldn’t keep up.  And with no baggage, he had no clean underwear to change into.  For many, many days.

Back then you wore clean underwear when soiled.  Today, you shower.  And if you don’t have clean underwear, you still shower.  Some may turn dirty underwear inside out to wear.  Some may go commando (not wear any underwear).  But we wash to keep our outer clothes clean.  We don’t depend on underwear alone to do that job.

Because of that, our underwear got smaller.  Instead of covering our entire bodies, most wear it to just cover our naughty bits.  Or enhance our naughty bits.  Like a piece of ‘floss’ running up a lady’s butt crack.  And some even go without.  We have come a long way.  With underwear.

Drinking the Water you Poop in will Give you Cholera

With going poopies, too.  Before modern toilets, we pooped into a bowl.  If we were in an upstairs room, we would just dump it out of a window.  If we were wealthy, our servants would empty our chamber pots for us in the morning.  They’d fill a large tub full of our waste and then trudge it down to the river.  In early New York City, the Hudson River received many a tub of poop throughout any given day.

Convenient, yes, but we also did something else with rivers.  We drew our drinking water from them.  And the interesting thing about our poop?  It’s not potable.  You drink it and you get sick.  It took us a while to figure this out, though.  And during a cholera outbreak in London, we did.  Well, John Snow did.  With an able assist from the Reverend Henry Whitehead. 

The Broad Street well drew drinking water from an area of the Thames River with a high concentration of human waste.  In those days, people had cesspits under their houses.  They collected their poop in them where it would eventually dissolve into the ground.  And into the ground water.  To keep them from overflowing, they’d sometimes transport some of the waste to, you guessed it, the Thames River.   Ergo the cholera.

Smell that Smell

You ever work in a sanitary lift station?  Smell that fragrant odor as it wafts up to you from an open manhole?  If you have you know what I’m talking about.  And how it buckled your knees the first time you smelled that smell.

We take a lot for granted these days.  Like smells.  And the lack of them.  Because once upon a time, we didn’t have sewers.  We had cesspools.  And open gutters for our waste to flow in.  Down to a river.  Now that’s a special odor.  And few today can really appreciate it.  Unless they’ve worked up close and personal in one of our waste water treatment systems.

A little more than a hundred years ago, that odor permeated some of our bigger cities.  And it was everywhere.  Where our kids played.  Where we cooked our meals.  Where we ate them.  It was with us when we slept.  It came out of our pores.  It was horrible beyond belief.  This stink.  Made by the gentry of high society.  Those beautiful people we romanticize about.  Like Scarlet O’Hara.  Dashing princes.  And fair maidens.  Of course, there was an upside to this foul stench.  It concealed our vile body odor.

Screw the Past

There’s a lot to being human that is disgusting.  And the farther back you go, the more disgusting we were.  The fact that a woman can wear a thong or go without underwear these days says a lot about how far our hygiene has advanced.  We can wear less and we’ve never been cleaner.  Or smelled better.  You can romanticize all you want about those quaint, charming days before the 20th century, but you can’t beat the here and now. 

We’re clean.  We don’t stink.  Our cities are clean.  And they don’t stink.  We have flush toilets.  And safe drinking water.  And if you want to find a cholera outbreak these days, you have to go to a third world country.  Call me new-fashioned, but give me the here and now and “screw the past” (to borrow a line from Perfume by Sparks).

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