HomeownerEducational: A-M

Drain & Sewer Cleaning & Repair

Drain & Sewer Cleaning & Repair

The Drain System

Sinks, toilets, and other household plumbing fixtures each have a drain. Every fixture drain is connected by a branch drain line to the main waste and vent stack, which in turn leads to the main sewer line, usually located near the lowest point of the house. Throughout this system, vent pipes also lead to the main waste and vent stack, which is vented at the roof; venting allows sewer gases to escape and regulates air pressure in order to keep fluids flowing smoothly.

What Causes Clogs

Obstructions of hair, food, and foreign objects are some of the most common clogs. Grease is another culprit. To avoid these clogs, homeowners can put strainers over their drains and make sure not to dispose of grease or large items via the drain. Over time, limescale, the chronic mineral buildup precipitated by hard water, can also impede drainage and hasten corrosion. In areas with hard water, installing a water softener is the surest way to deter limescale.

Despite preventative measures, some clogs habitually return. Recurring clogs might be due to improperly installed pipes—for example, sharp, 90-degree turns in the drain system; pipes that are not sufficiently sloped downward; or poor ventilation. If the circumstances call for it, a drain specialist will take a moment to check for congenital issues like these.

Unclogging Drains

Plungers and chemical drain cleaners are often effective for unclogging fixture drains, but both come with caveats. The suction caused by plungers is capable of damaging seals and causing leaks, while chemical drain cleaners are corrosive and can weaken pipes.

Many plumbers recommend the use of enzyme cleaners over more powerful, and more corrosive, liquid cleaners. Enzyme cleaners are not designed to unclog a completely clogged drain, but when used on a regular basis, enzyme cleaners will prevent clogs from forming.

Clogs in the branch drains and main waste vent stacks can be accessed from one of the system’s cleanout points; however, with the potential for backed-up waste to come rushing out, many homeowners prefer to hire a professional plumber to handle the job. In addition to their experience and knowledge, professional plumbers bring several specialized tools, including augers and drain rods, both of which are long, flexible tools that can reach and dislodge clogs farther down the drain system. Water jetting—using a long, flexible hose to shoot a high-pressure stream of water at the clog—is another effective method of drain cleaning used by professionals.

Signs of Sewer Problems

A home’s main sewer line is fed by all of the drains in the house. This main sewer line is attached to the municipal sewer line, which begins at the curb in most cities. The inner workings of a home’s sewer are hidden behind layers of building materials, so in order to catch a sewer problem before it becomes catastrophic, it is important to note any signs of a possible issue.

It is unlikely that a sewer will simply clog without warning. Rather, you may begin to notice sinks draining very slowly, gurgling noises coming from the toilets, water pooling around the floor drain in the basement, or waste backing up into the bathtub. In the case of a more advanced problem, such as a broken or collapsed sewer pipe, you may even see clues in your yard. Low or soggy spots in the yard or a collapsed section of the sidewalk or driveway are all signs of serious sewer problems that should be investigated by an experienced plumber.

Causes of Sewer Problems

In most cases, main sewer line clogs are caused by tree roots that have grown into the pipe. Sewer pipes in newer homes are typically made of PVC, which is a durable form of plastic that resists clogs. Older homes—those built before the 1960s—often have sewer pipes made of clay tile or cast iron. Cast iron pipes can last for many years, but clay-tile pipes have a lifespan of less than 50 years. If you know that your home has clay-tile pipes, there is a good chance that those pipes have cracks in them, making them susceptible to clogs from tree roots.

Sewer lines may be compromised by corrosion, shifting soil, tree roots, breakage due to old age, and problems in the municipal waste infrastructure. Professional assistance will almost certainly be required for diagnosing and solving these issues.

Resolving Sewer Problems

Sewer video camera inspections. When sewer line clogs periodically reoccur, a video camera inspection by a sewer specialist can help. With a nearly 100-foot-long snaking camera, the technician can see down the length of the obstructed pipe and more readily diagnose the cause. The video quality can appear grainy and difficult to interpret to the untrained eye, but professional plumbers will be able to clearly see any breaks in the pipe or tree roots or other material that may be causing clogs.

Trenchless sewer repair. Digging a trench to reach a broken sewer line is not ideal. It is a time-consuming, invasive job that can destroy landscaping and hardscaping. Luckily, many companies now offer trenchless sewer repair, using a machine that can insert a durable liner into the damaged pipe. Relining a pipe slightly reduces its diameter, but it will save the cost and trouble of destroying the yard in order to gain access to the pipe.

Bear in mind, however, that trenchless sewer repair may not be the best option for every situation. The new pipe will be laid in the same place as the existing pipe, so if there is already a low spot in the yard that cannot be repaired, the trenchless method should not be used. Instead, a trench must be dug so that the grading issue can be corrected.

Damaged sewer pipes that are close to buried utilities are also poor candidates for trenchless repair. Most trenchless methods break the existing pipe as the new pipe is installed. As the old pipe is forced out into the surrounding soil, it can cut or otherwise damage water lines or gas lines. Contractors must take the time to locate and mark any buried utilities before beginning trenchless sewer repair work. Be sure to hire a reputable plumbing company with plenty of experience performing the sewer repair method that will work best for your situation.

In most cities, any plumbing problems that occur on the homeowner’s property between the house and the curb are the responsibility of the homeowner, while sewer problems that occur from the curb out into the street are handled by the city. These regulations may differ depending on the city or county, so it is important to check your area’s laws to determine who will pay for any sewer main work.