Thursday, April 06, 2006

Chaos Theory

Our life has been once again in a state of upheaval. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, turmoil and chaos descended upon us here in Gramlingville. And by our choice, no less.

It all began just as things were starting to get calm again. After living the last five months of last year under a siege of dust and dirt, pounding hammers and power tools, with the constant presence of workmen within a stone's throw of our front door, you would think we would have had enough.

Well, we had had more than enough. But ... we also hadn't actually finished all of the work that the original project entailed (reform of the swimming pool and patio, for example, went unfinished); but since the first segment of the project overran its budget (and deadline) we had decided (vehemently) to postpone the second leg indefinitely.

As we put the holiday season behind us, we realized, however, that there were a couple of loose threads that couldn't be put off any longer: for one thing, we haven't yet laid down sod, so our yard still looks like a construction site -- and turns into a mud pit whenever it rains. I won't get into what that means to our quality of life here, particularly with a large, juvenile, playful, and exciteable labrador retriever on the loose. I have written about that before (and that was back when we supposedly had grass!)

The main episode that triggered our recall of the construction crew, however, was yet another overflow of the grease trap.


The Grease Trap

I am not sure if this interesting device exists in other countries; I'm pretty sure that in the United States, the fat and grease that makes it down the sink and through the garbage disposal goes straight into the sewer. However, building regulations in Brazil require that every legal residence has a "grease trap", designed to do exactly what its name implies: capture the greasy residue which tends to solidify in the sewer lines (note that we don't have our own septic tank ... this requirement is for connection to the public sewer system). I also can't exactly say what makes this kitchen grease more noxious to the public sewage system than the ... ahem ... other "solid waste" hailing from the privies. This may be important in Brazil because having hot water in the kitchen sink is more of an exception than the rule (this was an example of a difficult cultural adaptation for me -- washing dishes in cold water!).

Whatever the precise reason that makes this device a necessary part of building code in Brazil, in our particular case, the "grease trap" has been nothing but an almost constant headache for us. The grease trap is underground, but sports an iron lid that looks like a midget manhole cover for cleaning and inspection. The goal of the grease trap is to "trap" the grease: but then what? Well, at some point you have to remove the grease, because otherwise, it just stays there, until the pit itself is filled. I think I probably needn't go into too much detail of what cleaning this grease trap is like: just imagine a bucket, rubber gloves, and several months accumulation of putrifying lard and food scraps (let it be known that we don't have an electric disposal either!).

But as bad as cleaning the pit is, the alternative is worse: when the grease trap overflows, you have a malodorous oil-slick on your hands, a small-scale disaster worthy of HAZMAT team intervention.

A curious architectural decision made by my first contractor has both the grease pit and the sewer inspection pit right on our front porch! Beneath the kitchen window. This is our varanda, where we typically sit with friends and family for whatever get-togethers we happen to be having. It was also our favorite place to have lunch or dinner, particularly when it was hot and we could sit outside and overlook the pool and yard with a cool breeze carrying the song of the cicadas and ...

the putrid smell of rotten grease and sewage!

It took us maybe a week or so after moving in to the house to realize that the localization of these basic plumbing items was an error, and that's not even taking into account the aesthetic aspect of having a couple of iron manhole covers embedded into our expensive white ceramic floor. I'm sure I must have offered approval to Francisco (the contractor) on this decision. I have no recollection of the event, but I imagine the exchange went something like this:

Francisco: "Eh ... I'm thinking about putting the grease trap and sewage inspection pit right about here. That OK with you?"

Me: "Are you sure that's the best place?"

Francisco: "Well, if I put it down there I'll have to dig another hole..."

Me: "Oh. Well whatever you think is best."

This was how most of the big decisions were handled during the last months of construction of our first house (or, the first construction of the first "wing" of our house .... whatever!). I quickly caved in to most of his decisions, being under the delusion that this would somehow accelerate the overall pace of construction. Of course that was not the case: by that time, Francisco was being paid by the week. I should have realized something was amiss when I noticed he was cultivating corn and tomatoes in the yard ... ahhh, now there's another story!


The problem with the grease trap was two-fold: first, neither the grease trap nor the sewage pit lids were air-tight, making it a generator of unsavory fragrances in a very inappropriate place. This problem was remedied easily enough with a bit of silicon caulking, passed liberally around the edges of the lids. Secondly, and more critically, some mysterious defect or mistake that Francisco made when he installed said device left it with a significant propensity for overflowing. What´s worse: it overflowed not because it was full (which should take from six months to a year at most), but because the wastewater drainage tube that connects it with the sewage system would become obstructed -- with exactly the grease that the device was supposed to trap!

This problem had been occuring, on average, every one- or two-months. When it happened, I not only would have to scoop the greasy scum out of the trap, but I would have to open the sewage inspection pit and run a line (roto-rooter kind of thing) between the two chambers until I managed to clear the blockage. Then, I would have to scrub down the varanda with hot water and soap and ... to finish off the job ... re-seal the lids with silicon to prevent the escape of noxious fumes!

Allow me to reiterate: over the last two years, I´ve had to do this every couple of months. Sometimes, when the quality of my efforts failed to live up to my customary levels of diligence, I would have to repeat the job within a few days.


Needless to say, this is a problem that has been high-priority for some time now. You can imagine the scenario: guests are soon to be arriving for a party; food is laid out on the table; everything is ready, when suddenly ...!

(I am happy to inform that, never, as far as I can recall, have any guests actually been directly exposed to any of the objectionable consequences that I have been describing, thanks to our assiduous efforts behind the scenes! Well ... maybe a stray fume or two, but nothing that we couldn't pass off as coming from Kevin's diaper!)

I had certainly had enough of this sisyphean endeavor. The definitive solution to this problem, unfortunately, was not to come easy. Several attempts were made to solve the problem in situ, to no avail. The problem seemed to be that the kitchen wastewater entered the pit too low, causing the water to pass under the trap before the cooler pit water caused the grease to solidify. The Final Resolution would require the destruction of nearly 10 square meters of our varanda, with the consequent substitution of ceramic tiling. It also caused a chain reaction which, in the end, catapulted us back into the midst of a major construction project.

Loose Threads

I called the grease pit a "loose thread", and it really was: throughout the entire first stage of construction, the removal and relocation of these two pits were on the "to do" list; but in the rush to finish the work-in-progress before Christmas, this task never got bumped to top of the queue. It turns out there was good reason to put it off as long as possible.

Like the metaphorical unraveling of a fabric with the pull of a single loose thread, my contractor again found himself back in business. It went something like this:

  • To move the sewage inspection pit, new holes for the pit had to be dug, farther from the house.
  • To dig the new holes, 30-year-old stonework on the patio surrounding the pool had to be torn up. This stonework would be impossible (and undesirable) to replace.
  • Rather than leave a cement space with manhole covers surrounded by ancient cracked and powdery stonework right next to the pool, we decided to tear out all of the stonework, replacing it with concrete.
  • We would have to, however, leave at least some of the stonework as a border around the pool, or replace the border of the pool with new stonework. We elected to leave the old stone around the pool.
  • We then realized that we would have to either 1) pour a thick layer of concrete around the pool to cover the patio, avoiding a highly "trippable" step up to the border of the pool, or 2) poor a thin layer of concrete, making a very "trippable" difference in height. This question was significant, in that if we would want to eventually (some day) place stonework on the patio in lieu of the concrete, we would need to poor the concrete slab thin.
  • We elected to poor the concrete slab thin, and, furthermore, decided to go all out, replacing the stonework of the entire patio instead of just pouring concrete. This was the key decision which caused the true unraveling, or "domino effect" which ensued ...
  • With the decision to replace the patio made, we realized that we had to check the pool plumbing: the pool was at least thirty years old, and any future problems in this area would require tearing up the stonework to get to the plumbing.
  • Since we were digging up the pool plumbing and stonework, I decided to take advantage of the moment and have the crude, homemade "skimmer" replaced with a decent, functional skimmer embedded in the pool wall.
  • Diagnosis of the pool plumbing resulted in the recommendation of complete and immediate substitution, which would require digging down and underneath the pool, and replacement of the pool's drain.
  • This required draining of the pool, which in turn revealed the sorry state of the pool's tilework. I knew that, but we had no intention of resurfacing the pool, in spite of a large number of cracked and broken tiles.
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think this gives a good idea of what ensued ... it took us at least another week before we gave in to pressure, and went from "substituting a few broken tiles" to "stripping the entire pool and replacing all tile work".

That's where we are now. Of course, I left out a number of details: new guttering on the house, drainage plumbing for the patio, cleaning of the cistern, installation of outdoor lighting, new steps for the varanda ... oh, and we still haven't got to laying down sod!

That's more than enough for now. I leave you with the following sequence of pictures:

The loose thread:

The unraveling:

Getting close!


At April 07, 2006 10:01 AM, Anonymous said...

Could I ever relate to this blog!


At April 07, 2006 10:27 AM, Kim said...

The domino effect! That is exactly why we procrastinate to START projects because one little upgrade almost always leads to an entire makeover as you have just described.

2 years ago, our then neighbor offered to replace the ugly linoleum in our kitchen with ceramic tile, which meant we had to repaint the walls because the green in the tile clashed with the green in the wall and then the darker wall color darkened the room so we thought we'd paint the cabinets white which led to the removal of the cabinet doors which led to the need to replace the crappy doors with nicer doors, and let's not forget the need to paint the rest of the wood (baseboards AND trim) in the room white to match. That's when we really took a good look at the rest of the wood in the house and, lo and behold, it's all connected and therefore adds needing new doors to the mix after we paint all the baseboards and trim that goes into the living room and down the hall.

Now, what I have failed to mention is that when we realized the monumental task of "lightening the room(s), we decided to "stop right there!" and to this day not only do we not have the wood painted in the rest of the house, we STILL don't have the cabinet doors refinished and back on the cabinets.

In a nutshell, after we got the floor in and the cabinets painted, we stopped working. We still don't even have the trim nailed down in the kitchen (although it is in place!) Unfortunately, 4 months of unemployment did nothing to motivate your brother to actually finish this little project because, naturally, we didn't have the money to do so. Now, I'm at the point where I am ready to just simply (HA!) replace the cabinets, which will start the domino effect all over again because The countertops will need replaced, then the sink, then the appliances (to match one another!), and the dining room table and chairs.

Did I mention that I decided I didn't like the cabinets white after all?

At April 07, 2006 12:22 PM, Mom said...


The pool and patio look great. When you are finally finished, I'm sure you will be glad you ended up doing everything. At least you won't have to worry (hopefully) about going back and tearing out the new and replacing it to do something else.

I think there are very few projects started that don't have that string effect.

Our decision to change the flooring in the family room, went to better include the kitchen and breakfast room; and then all of those rooms will have to be repainted. The woodwork looks bad. (cat scratches etc.)It will need to be refinished.

A lot of the old tile in the entry is broken and we will have to take it all up and replace with new tile, which means the bathroom next to it will have to have new tile, which means the walls will need to have some tile and also be repainted. Now the dining room, living room, hall, and up the stairs will have to be repainted, they clash with the other rooms. Not to mention the carpet in those rooms and up the stairs to the second floor..... Oh, the second floor!

Then when taking up the carpet in the family room,low and behold, the french doors are rotted on the bottom and some of the sub flooring around the door is also rotted. We now have to replace the door and replace the sub floor. Who knows what else we will discover. We have just begun.

However, I will take our project over your project any day !!!

Well written blog. I enjoyed the way you told the story.

I'm really sorry you are having to go through it all. I can relate.

At April 07, 2006 2:21 PM, Anonymous said...

This is exactly why we bought the travel trailer and leave home on weekends : )


At April 07, 2006 4:45 PM, Anonymous said...

P.S. Looks great Jim - that pool is going to be NICE!!!!!!!


At April 10, 2006 12:27 AM, Mark said...

My wife could stand to live in a mess like any of the above described for about 0.3 seconds. That's why we've never bought a house more than four years old (except once, when the location was out of this world -- and did we ever pay for that in the end).

Looks like you're making great progress there. Just be glad you live in a country where there are codes about sewage. Good thing that back in the day you didn't fall in love and run off with a woman from a place where open canals direct the waste.

At April 10, 2006 9:37 AM, Jim said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody. We filled the pool this weekend and actually started using it ... the only big thing left is the stonework. And the sod. Well, those are the only things for now,until we come up with something else!

Sandy: I know you have a number of stories which would make excellent blog posts ... between the island, the boat, and the rest. I'm particularly anxious to tell someone about how you dealt with your "squirrel problem" in OP! the Final Solution!

Kim: yeah, but-- at least you got started! Now you have an incentive to eventually see the project through!

At April 10, 2006 9:42 AM, Jim said...


I'm sure we will look back on this all and laugh some day. I just hope we don't look back and cry! "What have we done!" Our main fear is that we have made a great "weekend getaway" or vacation house for someone, but not a very practical dwelling for a family of three living year-round. Well, we shall see!

Looking forward to see the work you guys have done on the house!

At April 10, 2006 10:12 AM, Jim said...


I think your solution is a pretty good one ... except, it probably wouldn't have solved my sewer/grease trap problems!

Hopefully that problem is behind us now: and we now have room for guests, so what are you guys waiting for???

At April 10, 2006 10:13 AM, Jim said...

Greg ... it will take you only about a month or so to get down here in your trailer! Think of the adventure!

At April 10, 2006 10:15 AM, Jim said...


You have a good point about the sewer codes: it definitely could be worse!

At April 11, 2006 12:49 AM, Anonymous said...

Family of "three"? You missing someone?


At April 11, 2006 7:25 AM, Jim said...


I meant ... "family of three kids": obviously our lives as adults revolve around them to the extent that it negates our very existence, making it unnecessary to cite ourselves when referring to the "family"!


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