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Question DetailsAsked on 9/23/2014

why is the water in toilet bowl too low and then next time it wont flush at all

The day after I moved into my new "luxury" apartment the main bath toilet backed up and needed a plunger. Thought it was a fluke. Over several months it has continued to be a periodic problem, worse after a rain. Have two bathrooms, after one toilet does it then the other does it. Then we repeat the cycle. Apartment maintenance comes in and flushes the toilet which fixes nothing. Two weeks ago a plumber came in and snaked both toilets and broke some solid loose. They also peered in the clean out. Now suddenly the water in the bowl will be exceedingly low with a gurgling sound -- likely meaning a blocked vent pipe. Maintenance came back and flushed it a few times -- whoopee!. I've had better plumbing in third world countries. Supposedly no one above me or elsewhere in my building is having a problem. My apartment is on the lower floor with apartments on either side and above. Decent attention from the apartment management but after three months all of us are sick of this. What is it?

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1 Answer


I have seen this sort of situation a few times - couple of times it was floating toys in the sewer that sometimes caused a temporary blockage that cleared itself when the next toilet flushed in the building and floated the item out of the way. A couple of other times it was because the vent pipe was connected to the sewer pipe downstream of all the bathroom fixtures instead of upstream like it should be, or came in at side of sewer pipe instead of through a wye off the top, so it plugs up at times but then when a slug of water comes through from washing machine or flushing or tub emptying clears out again.

The upper level apartments don't see the problem because there is enough head (elevation) from their apartment to the sewer main that the water forces its way down even if it has to push air ahead of it - though that sometimes causes overflow on lower levels.

One other possibility, especially since you said it happens after rains, is the sewer pipe is backing up almost to your floor level, then when you drain large flows of water it cannot handle it so it backs up - even though small amounts like from sink or basin or running shower would drain OK. The backup could be from high water level outside, or could be from a partial blockage in the building sewer to the street (downflow of your apartment) that is causing large flows to partly back up.

One other alternative - possible but unlikely, if your sewer run is in-ground BEFORE it connects up with the main stack from the rest of the building, is a broken pipe letting soil in, which periodically blocks off - and could be worse after rains as higher groundwater washes more into the pipe.

I think the only way this is going to get solved is running a camera down ALL your sewer pipes and then all the way to the street (including down cleanouts) to see if there is a partial blockage, some floating item causing blockages at times maybe lodging in a wye most of the time but coming partway down into the sewer at others; if your vent is downstream of the fixture drains; or if air vent pipe comes in low on the sewer pipe so is not acting as a vent when there is significant flow in the pipe. In the latter case, the problem is usually limited to high-flow drainage (washer, toilet, maybe full tub emptying) both because it blocks the vent opening, and also because there is enough water to actually back up to the fixture drain and cause a backup or slow draining.

Cost for a sewer and drain contractor to do this cleaning and camera run, from 2 toilets, is probably going to be in the $300-450 range including full-diameter scraping of the sewer pipe and camera run (which should be color to be useful, and building maintenance and preferably the building manager should be there to see it too) - more like $200 range if they will run the camera without cleaning the sewer pipe first, which many contractors will not do for fear of getting the camera stuck - and of course if not cleaned first then you do not see the condition of the pipe well either, so always better to scrape (not just snake) first.

You could convince the building manager that without the camera run you guys are chasing your tail, and the main sewer pipes should be scraped out full diameter every 10-15 years in an apartment building anyway, so maybe it is about time for that part as a preventative maintenance action, so "your" additional cost is only a couple of hundred - probably less than a couple plumber visits if the problem is allowed to persist.

Answered 5 years ago by LCD

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