Approximately five hours of my life last Saturday was devoted to trying to unblock the drain in our daughter’s bathroom. The saga followed most of the normal tributaries that any such matter normally does here in Poland and is therefore, perhaps, worth sharing as a kind of mini-guide book for new arrivals.
1/ Understanding the problem
This was the easy part. When you flush the toilet and it fills up to the brim you get an idea something is wrong. When the rate at which the toilet water goes down is matched by the rate of sewage coming up the shower drain and forming a crust in the shower tray you know you need help! Much as playing Sink the battleship with turds in the toilet-lake is fun, it can’t last forever.
Understanding why this was happening was also pretty easy. After many months of tipping supposedly drain-friendly cat litter down the toilet accompanied by Zosia’s wet toilet tissue also supposedly drain-friendly, the drain just succumbed to a little too much friendliness.
So there it was, blocked drain, no drain rods, need to get someone in.
Newcomers may find that understanding the problem is not always this easy.
2/ Who can fix it?
Now the fun starts. I confess I am pretty useless with the Polish Yellow Pages and were I to open them I might find a section called Drain Clearance Services and a list of companies like Dyno-Rod Polska or Czysty Rury Kanalizacyjny Sp z o.o. In my dreams I’d call them and a brightly coloured van would arrived stuffed to the brim with the latest drain clearing gadgetry. They’d hunt the block down and exterminate it in double quick time, charge me a flat fee and everyone would be happy. From Dyno-Rod web site:
How we do it
We fit the tools to the task. So, we might use a simple tool or we might need to get out the high pressure water jet. Rest assured, once we’ve found out what the problem is we’ll usually have the right equipment on hand to take care of it.
Instead of that we embarked on one of those “who do we know” sessions where everyone gathers round and throws out names until we settle on the one most likely to make a good fist of it. As per usual, none of the people on the list were what you’d call professional drain cleaners. We settled on ‘DrainExBud’, or whatever, and the visit was set for Saturday at eleven.
3/ The appointed hour
Against all expectations they turned up on the right day and within 5 minutes of the right time. This is not something you should get used to. Getting people to turn up at all is tricky and to get an appointment when you’re not supposed to be at work is almost impossible. So, for them to appear on a Saturday and at the right time is a small miracle.
What turned up was a large white van with a very empty part at the back where the tools should have been. There were three guys though and they appeared eager to get something done – I refer you to my earlier post on bystanding.
4/ The ignoring of the obvious
I think I’m missing the magic words po polsku that make it register with people that I really DO know what I’m talking about because every time I explain what I think the problem is they just ignore that and go exploring every other alternative. I explained that this problem was local to the affected bathroom, probably the pipe under the bathroom floor from the toilet to the next junction. After three seconds consideration they left the bathroom and started hunting down all drain covers within a 6km radius of our home!
5/ The red-herring
There is always a false dawn with resolving Polish problems. That moment when you think “Aha, now this is going to be easy!” but then you find you’re now even further away from a solution than you were at the beginning. In our case this was the big drain under the trampoline. After a lengthy drain hunt, which when everything is covered with 1m of snow is not easy, we settled on a big one lurking under the trampoline. We cleared the snow off the trampoline and moved it, then we opened up the drain and started into the cavern below.
It was at this point I realised why three people were needed because one of them dived down the hole head first while the other two grabbed a leg each. After much torch waving we decided to run the water from the main bathroom, kitchen and other toilets to see where it appeared. Nothing came through our open drain, not a dribble. It was at this point our thought processes diverged. They were thinking “Why no water, this must be blocked by ice in a pipe somewhere close to Venus” and I was thinking “These guys are losing the plot, time to call someone who knows how this place was built”.
They had repeatedly mentioned something called a kratka regulacynyszczyjyzżź, or something like that. I had no bloody idea what they were talking about but it was clear that until they found it we were destined to move our drain inspections further and further away from home. I had visions of us opening drain covers under the Palace of Culture by nightfall.
It was all going horribly wrong!
6/ The headless chicken
This is the stage where having failed at the first attempt everyone runs around trying everything else all the same time.
I called the golden handyman of the estate, the one who had already been told to fix the drain and had buggered off to Germany. He told the three amigos where the kratka costam was – inside the other apartment for which we had no keys. He did however call the administration guy, let’s call him Hans (because he’s Austrian). He’s the other one who had been told we had a drain problem but had chosen to ignore it. The reason why I’d got my own three stooges here on Saturday.
Hans turned up on the scene with keys for the other apartment as well as his own opinions about what was wrong (which also involved manholes a long long way from our bathroom). We then entered the ‘headless chicken’ phase where there are people running around everywhere looking at a hundred things none of which are close to where the actual problem lies but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves so I had a coffee and watched. As usual in the midst of this we had the debate about “Did the builders of the place really put things where they were supposed to be?”. To which the answer is usually “No!”.
The big drain with no water turned out to be for surface water only – i.e. rainwater – and was therefore the red herring I mentioned earlier. I should have sussed that one myself to be fair! A smaller drain was found by Hans and that was the sewage one. At least 45 minutes was spent fiddling with that. The kratka costam inside the other apartment turned out to be the smelly one with a small lake of stinky goo inside. They fiddled with that one for a hour or more. Hans foolishly mentioned another kratka that was somewhere between us and the lake, about 40m away and was buried under ground (the ground in this place being under 1.5m of snow). That didn’t stop one of the three amigos spending half an hour with a shovel clearing snow and tapping the grass in the vague direction of where the buried manhole might be. He eventually gave up with that.
When everyone started running out of energy and ideas I decided to remind them of what I’d said at the beginning, now about 3 hours ago.
7/ The return to the obvious
By now the power of logic was beginning to return to everyone’s minds and the, rather obvious, conclusion was being formed. Everything in the apartment was working fine – main bathroom, two toilets, washing machine, dishwasher, kitchen sink – apart from the items in Zosia’s bathroom. This tends to rule out any general problem with the drains and draws attention to whatever pipe is leading from Zosia’s bathroom to the main drainage system. The thing I’d explained at the beginning.
So it was that everyone came back to the bathroom and started poking ‘spirale’ down every possible orifice. Getting nowhere with that, it was time to remove the toilet pan and find a bigger hole to play with. The pan came out and attention was paid to the main drainpipe under the floor. Here we struck gold, or to be more precise sand (aka disintegrated cat litter) and a collection of Toddies. A combination of ‘spirale’ and arm-down-pipe collected a bucket full of this mess and my hope of a resolution was growing.
8/ The missing equipment
It was at this point that no matter how many men we had and how eager they were to fix this it didn’t really matter because we just didn’t have the right equipment. The three amigos had arrived with two spirale and a hose-pipe. One spirale 15m long and as thick as my thumb, the other 5m long and as thick as my little finger. Neither of those were making a lasting impression on the beach we had lodged in our pipe. The arm-down-pipe tool was only as good as the length of an arm and the hose-pipe was a complete waste of time.
A ‘spirale’ drain tool
What was needed was the kind of stuff Dyno-Rod and other specialists consider to be essential tools for drain clearance, things like high pressure water jets and pumps. But they require the back of the van to be full like the one below rather than empty, like our van was. They also require that ingredient so often missing in Polish firms – investment of money in equipment.
9/ The anti-climax
And so it was that we reached the all too regular conclusion of a complete anti-climax. This has to be the main lesson for any newcomer to this land – assuming you’ve got past the hurdle of having someone visit DO NOT assume that the first visit will see the problem solved. You have to remember it’s a process, one that has a beginning about five middles and then an end.
10/ No I couldn’t, could I?
We stood the toilet back over the pipe, we mulled over who might actually have the right tools, we said szkoda a lot. We did our best to clear up the mess that by now covered half the house and a couple of square hectares outside. The guys got changed and I offered them a token of my appreciation. They of course pretended not to be interested and I think they meant it to be fair but I was insisting and so some money changed hands and they can all enjoy a few beers on me.
This was not appreciation of having sorted the problem but more for them having come and spent five hours on a Saturday and tried the best they could with insufficient tools getting covered in cack in the process. Strange really, with Dyno-Rod in the UK I’d not consider giving them anything if they didn’t solve the problem and yet here I’m happy to fork out a little even to be left with a bathroom in worse condition that in started! It’s all about setting your level of expectation and here in Poland it is a lot lower than in the UK. Not because I want it to be, just that past experience has taught me that that’s where it should be.
We had at least proved my theory to be correct, we knew where the problem was and we knew what the problem was, we just couldn’t go that last hurdle and complete the task. That really is very Polish and in some perverse way more likeable than the Dyno-Rod way, although at times a little frustrating. I now look forward to going through a hopefully much shorter and ultimately conclusive process some other day!
I was wondering about this on the way back from watching ‘Avatar’ tonight. Is the fact (or myth) that every Pole is a DIY superstar holding the country back from developing a real network of proper professional technical service companies? Just a thought, there may be something in it though.
[UPDATE – we’ve found a company that has the right equipment but they want in excess of 600 PLN to come and do the job! That’s 130 quid and I’d estimate getting on for double what you’d pay in the UK for the same thing. As the image I used for the header suggests, you can get it done for $49 in Australia so 600 PLN really is taking the mickey. I refuse to be ripped off to that extent so the search continues.]