Why does my toilet backup with soap and water and what can we do?
January 4, 2009 6:59 AM   Subscribe

My toilet is constantly backing up with soap and water to the point where it overflows and floods my condo! What is the problem? What are my legal options?

My partner and I bought a condo in June and soon noticed that the toilet backs up with soap and water. It first makes a loud gurgling noise and creates large bubbles. After the gurgling ends, the toilet bowl (and kitchen sink occasionally) will fill up with soap. In October the bowl overflowed all over the bathroom floor. We told the super who did nothing and told us there was nothing that could be done. Then in November I came home one evening to a bathroom, hallway and several feet into each bedroom of foam and water up to my knees. It destroyed our floors (laminate), doors, trim and bathroom vanity.

Since October we've had the toilet back up 7 times and only once I threatened with a lawyer did the building manager send a plumber to my place. They put a camera down the toilet and flushed the drain finding nothing. The building manager has said it's not a plumbing problem and that there's nothing to do. He's dead set it's a bubble bath problem... rather than a serious plumbing problem.

The condo building (10 floors and I'm on the first floor) is almost 40 years old, but was renovated in the last few years allowing every unit a front loading washing machine and dishwasher. I think it is likely a hydraulics problem (the pipes are too small for the increased water traffic) or a ventilation problem. Since the pipes aren't mine and are the building's I'm not allowed to hire a plumber.

I also found out that the man who lives across the hall (and almost everyone else on the first floor) has this same problem... their backups haven't ruined their floor though. The man across the hall reported it over a year ago, before we bought. The other condo owners who it happens to aren't willing to support me because it hasn't inconvenienced them yet (or destroyed their home). The man across the hall has recently moved into a nursing home, but his grandson said that they would search for a record of when the plumber came for them last year. Their kitchen sink backups haven't been fixed either and it's the same as mine (soap and water).

I want to know what my problem is... and any advice to solve it. Neither the building manager or condo board will help me even though we've been living on concrete flooring afraid to put in a new floor since it's happened as recently as Christmas Eve morning.

Is it possible to force them to buyback our unit since we can easily prove it was a problem before we moved in? (ie. full disclosure)

Is it possible to legally force them to fix the problem? My mother's heard of a similar problem in another apartment building and they had to rip out the floors and walls and replace the plumbing b/c it was a hydraulics problem.

Should I be suing for my condo fees back since we've been living with flooding since October?

With the market slump, and 18 other units for sale in the building... selling it isn't really an option unless we take a huge financial loss (not to mention we'd have to disclose there's a plumbing problem and explain why there's no flooring!).

I've called all the city and province (I'm in Ontario, Canada) and none of the health agencies will help me b/c I own rather than rent.
posted by DorothySmith to Home & Garden (16 answers total)
I'd see if there isn't a clogged vent...if the camera didn't show any blockage (how far down did the camera go?), I'm thinking vent issues.

That said, it's possible that the waste piping is undersized with the addition of a laundry tray. I'd ask to see the plumbing plans (or discover them in a lawsuit) and compare the pipe sizes with those mandated by the applicable plumbing code.
posted by notsnot at 7:31 AM on January 4, 2009

Response by poster: I mentioned to the building plumber that I thought it could be a ventilation problem and he adamantly denied that it was possible, however he hasn't checked out this suggestion. How do they check the vents? After the gurgling, all the water is sucked out of the toilet before it foams back up, so it sounds like a potential ventilation problem.

The put the camera down the toilet in the unit above me and then down mine. I think that they put the camera down about 40 feet, but I'm not positive. They won't tell me a thing.

What type of lawyer do you think I need? I contacted one from a reputable company, but the guy doesn't seem to know anything about condos, which worries me (I haven't retained him yet, he's checking into condo laws before we do anything).
posted by DorothySmith at 7:39 AM on January 4, 2009

IAAL in Ontario. IANYL, however, and TINLA.

I would suggest that you talk to a lawyer who practices condominium law. This area is quite specialized, and any cause of action you have against the condo association is likely to be impacted by the various laws and by-laws that apply to your condo association and condo associations in general.

When you talk to the lawyer, they are likely to want to know what representations were made to you about the condition of the unit before you bought it, along with the agreement of purchase and sale and any other documentation you have pertaining to your purchase of the unit and your problem with the plumbing. Make sure you have all this information organized, and if you haven't been documenting things so far, now is a good time to start.

If you do intend to seek legal redress, I would also caution you to be very careful in your communications with people who may potentially be involved with the matter (neighbours, members of your condo association and so on). Litigants can sometimes unintentionally make things difficult for themselves by saying or writing things while they're feeling frustrated and emotional. Minor exaggerations or threats to seek redress which seem perfectly reasonable in the moment can come back to hurt you: for example, your credibility may be called into question, or even a counterclaim for defamation may be advanced against you (successful or not, you still have to defend it, and that will cost money). When it is necessary to communicate, make sure you are calm and say only what is necessary; and be truthful. I'm not saying this because I get any particular impression from your post that you would do otherwise, but I have seen this so often I think it's worth pointing out.

Also, you should note that litigation is expensive, lawyers do not take these cases on contingency, and these matters can become very drawn-out: legal fees, which you will be paying out of pocket, can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

So, to sum up, I would talk to a lawyer sooner rather than later to ensure you're going about this properly from a legal perspective, but explore other avenues of resolving the problem. Hopefully litigation will not be necessary, but if it is, it should be your last resort.

You can call the Law Society's Lawyer Referral Service, or if you're in Toronto I might be able to give you a name or two.
posted by AV at 8:01 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

FWIW, "ventilation" is absolutely not the correct term. "Venting" is. "Ventilation" has to do with your heating and cooling, which is why you were dismissed by the plumber.
posted by notsnot at 9:04 AM on January 4, 2009

but was renovated in the last few years allowing every unit a front loading washing machine

After the gurgling, all the water is sucked out of the toilet before it foams back up

This absolutely sounds like a venting problem, possibly made worse by undersized pipes. Newer, front-loading washing machines are often equipped with pumps that can empty them very quickly, dumping water down the drain much faster than older models did. For this reason, horizontal drain pipes serving washing machines must now (in the U.S. at least) be 3" in diameter, whereas 2" used to be sufficient. If the pipe is on the small side then it can fill completely with water; it's as if there's a plug moving through the pipe, away from the washing machine. This creates a vacuum behind that moving, watery plug. Vents are necessary to allow air into that part of the pipe, to relieve that vacuum. I suspect you have no such vent, or the vent is clogged. The plug of water from the washing machine goes on its way, creates a vacuum behind it which sucks the water out of your toilet's trap, which leaves an opening for suds to back up through.

Best thing to do is set your (justifiable) rage aside and tackle this as the logistical problem that it is. The situation is clearly untenable, and the plumbing is clearly not up to code. This is not a matter of mere inconvenience, it's a matter of law. When your building manager claims nothing can be done, he's only demonstrating his own incompetence, and he knows it, and that makes him all the more defensive. Calm but firm will see you through this.
posted by jon1270 at 9:47 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a bit of a long shot, but since you're in Ontario, I'd try to contact HGTV and get your place fixed on Holmes on Homes. Usually I think TV renovations are a little shoddy, but from what I've seen, Mike Holmes may be the exception.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:39 AM on January 4, 2009

It also sounds like it might be a design problem, as jon1270 says- it's not up to code if it does that. Most places I know require separate drain systems for bathroom waste and for kitchen/laundry waste. At least up to the point of exit in the building, if not all the way out to the street.

It is SUPER not good for a toilet backup to affect a kitchen sink! This is not just a building code violation but a health code violation. Depending on your stomach for causing trouble, call the health department. However, they may well have the authority to de-certify the building for occupancy, causing you and others in the building inconvenience...

(This happens when you aren't using your own shower or laundry, right? And were you able to determine whether the bubbles are bath bubbles or laundry bubbles?)
posted by gjc at 11:40 AM on January 4, 2009

Frontloaders tend to make a mess if someone uses too much detergent, or uses sudsy detergent. A neighbor may be causing this problem.
posted by theora55 at 11:44 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dorothy emailed me and asked for my input based on a past question. Figure I should answer publicly for anyone else's sake....

This is above my pay grade, but it looks like you got good answers above. I don't have any plumbing advice for you but I would offer you this big of logistical advice: they tell you that you can't hire your own plumber, but what they mean is that you can't hire a plumber to fix it.

You can certainly call a few plumbers and tell them you're looking for a consultation and written report, which you can then use as further ammo in dealing with these uncooperative building jerks. It'll be an expense but it'll also be one more thing you can use to demonstrate that you're not a bozo and that you have a leg to stand on.

Beyond that I'd say you should start documenting every incident and interaction you have with management. Make detailed notes of times and things so you can point to them again later and use them to trip your memory if this gets to involve other people.

If the law in your area requires that your association hold public meetings then get on the agenda and relate the situation. This'll put it in the minutes and make it harder for them to keep brushing under the rug, as well as put them in the position of making it harder to justify failing to disclose in the future.

Realize one thing though: you might not have as many allies among other residents as you think. If this is an expensive repair they might have to make a special assessment to pay for it, which, no matter how necessary, might not thrill your neighbors.
posted by phearlez at 12:54 PM on January 4, 2009

Response by poster: GJC -

I had the water tested and although she couldn't say for certain, the lab tech said that she believed it was laundry soap due to certain particles in the water.

The strange part is that it happens during all hours of the day. Some days around dinner time, other nights at midnight, Christmas Eve at 8am. So, I wouldn't think it would be high water traffic times.
posted by DorothySmith at 2:57 PM on January 4, 2009

Response by poster: pseudostrabismus -

I've filed a better business bureau complaint and also contacted local news. The news wasn't interested, but I've tried the CBC marketplace (hasn't responded yet).
posted by DorothySmith at 2:58 PM on January 4, 2009

Response by poster: theora55 -

Let's say, that someone is using the wrong soap for a front loading washing machine... shouldn't the pipes be able to handle this and have mechanisms in place to prevent the backup into the first floor's homes? I'm just thinking as well... front loaders don't have much water and that time I mentioned in November, I came home to soap up to my knees with about 2 inches of water underneath the foam. I think it was too much water to have been a washing machine alone.

I'm not sure though... anyone else know?
posted by DorothySmith at 3:01 PM on January 4, 2009

Response by poster: Also, if it was a venting problem, how would that be determined? Is this something a plumber should be able to determine fairly easily?
posted by DorothySmith at 3:14 PM on January 4, 2009

Friends of mine had the same problem, bottom floor of a condo building, laundry from upstairs was overwhelming the drains, and they had suds in the sink etc. It was a new building though, so the repair was under the warranty from the original builder.

Find out how the authorization for the laundry in each unit was put through. Sounds like somebody majorly screwed up and forgot to do their homework and have the plumbing checked when doing the renovation. Can you find out which firm did the renovation?
posted by defcom1 at 3:56 PM on January 4, 2009

We had a problem with a rental unit recently (I am the owner) which was nearly identical to yours…my property manager and I both thought that it was a venting issue. Turns out it was a clog/bad slope in the main waste line leading away from the unit (it is a single person cottage with its own line to a shared main). When repaired, all was well. Note that the line was over 20 years in the ground and this problem only occurred in the last year. And note, in our case, the line looked clear even with a scope down the first 20-40' of its length.
posted by Dick Paris at 4:06 PM on January 4, 2009

"I want to know what my problem is... and any advice to solve it."

You know this but obviously there is a plumbing problem. It could be insufficient capacity though that would be rare as the city inspection shouldn't have allowed the renovation to proceed if the building's plumbing couldn't handle the load. You might want to check with the city whether a plumbing permit was issued when they added washers to each suite. Assuming the drains were checked properly it could be a venting problem. The toilet being emptied points that.

It could also be back flow from the city sewer system.

A bandaid solution would be to install a back flow prevention valve on your sewer line. You should be able to do this even in a condo as the line usually belongs to you from the point where it tees off the main stack.

DorothySmith writes "How do they check the vents?"

By running the same camera they put down your toilet down the vent stack. This involves getting up on the roof which, depending on your roof style and snow load, can be kind of tricky in the winter.

Also I'd be lawyering up pronto. The condo association should be paying for this damage not you. The building manager's erroneous insistence that this is your problem needs to be rectified.
posted by Mitheral at 8:40 PM on January 6, 2009

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