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How to Solve Problems With Smells From Drains

"Not In Polite Company"

Alexander Cummings was a decent sort of a chap always good fun at parties but unfortunately he had one rather disconcerting ability – he had a very acute sense of smell.

He and his wife would be visiting the Frazers and, after some polite conversation over sherry, they would retire to the dining room and, just as the seafood bisque with basil garnish was being served Alexander would utter those inevitable words

“Oh I say what is that rather pungent odour that assails my nasal passages?”

“Oh I don't smell anything my dear” would say his wife knowing what was to follow and attempting the futility of distracting Alexander from his present conversational direction.”

“No, I can definitely detect a rather distinct fetor about this place” he would reply and, getting up from the table, he would proceed to search every corner of the house and track down the source of the offending atmospheric disturbance.

“Eventually he would return to the table mumbling something about pipes and toilet wastes to which his wife would say.

“Oh Alexander you mustn't talk about such things in polite company.”

“But my dear this house smells like a cowboy's tent after a pan of beans.”
“I think we'd better go.”

I was once in polite company you know. It was a Tuesday afternoon, the 10th of January 1985 in fact, we were celebrating Rasputin's birthday. As inevitably happened a gaggle of ladies turned to discussing one of the 20th century's most enduring mysteries, what really did happen to Dimitri Rasputin's most famous asset? Suddenly one of the gathered throng, a rather severe woman wearing a bonnet declared

“Oh we don't talk about such matters here, we're in polite company.”

It was Alexander Cummings who, in 1775, invented the “S” bend trap, a clever device that retains a small amount of water in the bottom of a U shaped bend in the pipe to effectively seal the pipe thereby allowing water and wastes to pass through it but preventing foul smelling gases to pass back up the pipe and into the building.

His original S bend design had some problems with syphoning (that unusual phenomen which enables young men to remove petrol from a car petrol tank using a rubber tube) and so there have been more recent developments notably the U bend, J bend and P bend (all of course named after the famous Bends brothers Uriah, John and Peter) and the lesser known X,Y and Z bends designed by the Russians for use in their space stations.

Here in Bali the name most people are familiar with is a “P trap”.

The humble U bend (oh all right P trap if you like) is probably one of the most important, though simple, items in your plumbing system.

U bends should be installed on all pipes connected to the sewer or septic tank including toilets, washbasins, sinks, showers and floor drains. There are two basic shapes. The most common is an S shape where the pipe comes down, turns upwards and then back down again for situations where the drain goes down into the floor.

The second shape is a P shape the pipe comes down, turns up again but then goes out sideways for situations where the waste pipe goes out through a wall. Yes I know, this is all getting very tedious but, if you are buying one, you should check the direction of the pipe the U bend is going into.

Ceramic toilets have the U bend cast into the ceramic itself and also come in these two basic shapes for vertical floor exit or side wall exit.

Unfortunately many buildings in Bali do not have U bends installed (I recently renovated two of the world's stinkiest toilets, easily fixed with $5 of plastic).

Very often in newly constructed buildings you will find that two commonly used but inadequate arrangements are made.

The first is the use of thin corrugated plastic pipes which are often used under kitchen sinks and washbasins. I recenty saw these thin corrugated pipes installed under bathtubs. These pipes are very thin and easily damaged. The corrugations block easily because, unlike smooth pipes, they catch things dropped down the drain. Connections to the plug fitting and the more rigid pipework is also usually poor. Probably the biggest problem with these corrugated pipes are that they are easily and quickly chewed away by rats. Rats can come up the sewer, chew their way through the thin plastic pipe and get into your house. This can give your pembantu a very pleasant surprise as she reaches into the cupboard for the dishwashing liquid!

The second is the use of floor and shower drains which have an inverted cup fastened under the grill which sits in a small circular trough. The small trough holds water to act as a trap. These devices are a feeble attempt at achieving what a proper U bend achieves. They block easily and in this climate the water in the small trough can evaporate in a day. In spite of the inadequacy of these fittings they are very widely used in new villas and apartments being built across the island.

The best solution is a properly designed and installed U bend. When sensibly installed allowance is made for maintenance, the U bend should be accessible for cleaning should it be necessary.

U bends are most often found under washbasins where they have a secondary advantage of collecting things inadvertently dropped down the plug hole. Well designed U bends are easy to unscrew should you need to unblock them or retrieve the wedding ring you dropped while cleaning your teeth.

Sad to say but well designed and manufactured U bends are not easy to find in Bali. Plastic are best as some of the metal ones have a tendency to disintegrate very quickly if you have aggressive water. Look for ones that are fully adjustable both in length and direction of bend and also ones that can be easily unscrewed by hand (you don't know when that wedding ring will get dropped but sod's law says it will be just as you are dressed to the nines and you are late for a fancy dinner engagement.

If your humble abode has the fragrance of the Titan Arum or perhaps the toilets at Calcutta Central on a hot day you should first check around the septic tank (a healthy, correctly operating septic tank does not usually smell much). If this is not the source you may well have a dearth in your U bend department.

Copyright © Phil Wilson 2009
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