The average homeowner probably knows that sewer lines help transport waste water from the home to underground sewer mains. Beyond that, most homeowners give little thought to their sewer lines until they have some type of clog.
A sewer line clog could lead to a raw sewage backup coming out of the drains, which could lead to significant damage to the home and an expensive sewer line repair or replacement.
Homeowners who understand and respond to their home’s early warning system can stave off severe sewer and plumbing issues. Here are some things you should pay attention to.
The most common red flags, sewer main cleaners say, are water backing up out of a drain or the toilet plumbing, or a gurgling sound coming from the drains.
“Your house is basically going to talk to you,” says Tammy Sims, senior technician with R & S Sewer Cleaning in Indianapolis. “If you notice that when you’re done with the washing machine, the toilets start percolating – it sounds like a coffee pot percolating – or you’ll get water around the floor drain in the basement, that’s one of the first telltale signs.”
Clogs can occur in the main sewer line or one of the secondary lines, Sims says.
“Your house is basically set up like a tree,” Sims says. “You have one main trunk line that runs out of the house and then you have all these small branches off of that. If the clog is in the main line, that means any water you run in the house will cause problems. If it’s a secondary line, it’s just going to be isolated to that secondary problem.
"If it’s just the bathroom sink, (for example), it will not go down or it will come back up into the bathtub, but you can flush the toilet and it works perfectly fine," she adds. "But if it’s the main line, anything you run will cause the toilet to percolate and come up into the bathtub or the basement.”
Tree roots are the primary cause of a clogged sewer line, especially in an older home. In newer homes, common sources of clogging include feminine hygiene products, paper towels and even certain types of thicker toilet paper.
“A lot of people have broken-down drains in the ground that have tree roots in them,” says Jay Bedell, of Bedell Plumbing in Carmel, Indiana. “That would be the No. 1 reason why people have drain problems. They have older pipes that trees in their yard have actually crushed.”
Experts say slow flowing drains, and gurgling noises from your tiolet bowls are the first signs that your sewer system is being affected by tree roots. If you don't take some action to remove the roots, a complete sewer line block will occur.
If you get a clog in your home and suspect that a blocked sewer drain is the cause, Sims says it’s important to shut off the water at the source or at the main if it’s a main line clog.
Homeowners who have access to their sewer cleanout line — typically a short, round, white pipe with a rubber cap located in the yard near the house — can remove the cleanout cap during a backup to release pressure build up; and send water outside instead of into the house.
Bedell's recommendation for keeping lines clear and avoiding plumbing problems doesn’t involve chemical-based drain cleaners.
“Fill your sinks to the top and then drain them once or twice a month,” Bedell says. “That (water pressure) will help ensure you have proper flow through the pipes and move out any waste that’s sitting in the line.”
Sewer line cleaning companies typically run a cable, also known as a drain snake or auger, through the clog to clear it. A simple cleaning or cleanout typically costs less than $150. If they can’t find the problem, many companies recommend a camera inspection. Experts warn consumers to avoid companies that offer a camera inspection before trying to clear the clog.
“A lot of companies out there now do that as a way to find work,” Bedell says. “They’ll inspect your sewer to (seek out) problems, not to help you, but to help themselves. We’ll run a cable through it with a cutting device on it to try to open the drain first. That’s the first defense against a clogged drain pipe. If the drain can’t be opened with the cable, at that point, we’d give option to run a camera through the drain.”