When faced with sewer backups or blockages, one of the most common questions we receive is regarding whether to clean, repair or replace the sanitary sewer. In this article, we will examine several different scenarios in hopes to educate you, the homeowner, should you ever experience a sanitary problem at your home or office. Sanitary sewer backups are costly, terrifying and destructive. They require urgent attention to minimize further loss and damage. Each year, sanitary sewer and waste line backups cost the American Insurance Industry over 2 billion dollars in damages.

When your storm drain begins to backup and flood, or when you see or smell raw sewage in your basement and floors drains, you assume that you have a sewer backup. This is correct, but there are multiple causes that a plumber or sewer contractor must examine before offering to repair or replace the sanitary line. The first step is to reduce or minimize the backup by opening the sanitary sewer line. This is accomplished by attempting to clean your sewer line from the house to the street. The cheapest and easiest way to do this is with a sewer drain snake. The plumber or sewer contractor will access your homes sewer or waste line via a clean-out, and begin to operate the snake in the direction of the road or street.

Generally, and in ideal situations, running a drain snake thru the line will open the clog and allow the sewage and water to drain out of the house and back towards the sewer mainline. An experienced technician can roughly pinpoint the location where he encountered the clog or obstruction by calculating the length of snaking used during cleaning. If snaking alone opens the line, the next and most important step is to send in a camera to in to visually inspect the line. Our team will inspect the entire line to the street, but will focus primarily on the distance to where the drain snake encountered the clog or obstruction. Remember, sanitary sewer cameras will not work under water so its imperative that your sewer line be cleaned and well-draining first.

The technician will now focus on the problem areas identified by the snake and will record the camera activity for future playback. What we are looking for here are breaks in the lines, shifts in the sewer pipe, evidence of obstructions, tree root intrusion or valleys in the pipe. If the camera finds evidence of nothing wrong, it would be safe to assume that an object was lodged in the line and was pushed out of the line during the drain snaking and cleaning. Such is often the case with children flushing hairbrushes, action figures, toys and other nonflushable items down a toilet (yes, we have seen it all). However, if the line is free of damage or obstruction, and your backup or flooding only occurs during periods of heavy rains; the issue might not be on your end, and instead be due to an overtaxed or surcharging sanitary sewer main. The sanitary sewer main belongs to the city of municipality where you live and should be reported to them soon so they can assess the cause of main line backup.

In the event that the camera discovers tree roots growing into your sanitary sewer line, a repair or replacement will be required depending on how much root intrusion you have. If the roots are in an isolated area, a spot repair can occur. If the entire line is clogged with tree roots, a replacement is generally recommended. In homes older than 30 years, the sewer pipe was generally built using short sections of clay tile butted together with a resin gasket. Tree roots are infamous for finding breaks in this gasket-joint material and growing into the clay sewer line. The only way roots could intrude into a plastic line would be through a crack or break in the pipe, conversely. Additionally, some of older sewer and waste lines were made from cast iron which was an extremely tough and durable line. The problem with cast iron lines is that the inside of the pipe becomes scaly and causes buildup of sewer and waste over the years. While cast iron pipes rarely have a actual break or suffer root intrusion, they clog from the inside due to defective nature of cast iron when exposed to water, sewage and household chemicals flowing inside the line. Cast iron sewer drains and lines are the most problematic type of sewer construction and require constant maintenance.

If there is no photographical evidence of tree roots, the technician will begin to look for breaks, sheers or separations in the sewer line. Many times, we can easily detect problems with the actual line itself, and quickly, as these issues are most obvious. Breaks, shifts or separations in older pipes require immediate repair or replacement. And again, depending on the severity of the problem predicates a spot repair or entire sewer line replacement. One thing for mention, though, is that a spot repair on a damaged or decayed line is usually only temporary. Its generally an indicator that similar problems will continue as more sections of the old line fail. Our recommendation at this point is usually a complete replacement of the line to avoid repeat service calls and repairs

One situation we see a lot of is valleys or settling of the pipe. In this scenario, there is no actual break or damage to the drain line but more of a sagging or settling effect of the sewer pipe. Over the years, and due to improper stone bedding, settling of pipes is common. While there is no breach to the integrity of the line, a valley is formed which allows household sewage and solids to settle in. Over time, these solids begin to build up in the valley and eventually they cause a complete line blockage. When this occurs, cleaning the line is a temporary solution as the problems will certainly return. If the client is more comfortable with routine cleaning and snaking every so often, then it’s a more fulltime solution. If the client isn’t willing to chance the next sewer backup, a spot repair can fix this problem once and for all. However, like the above scenarios, if your sewer line has multiple valleys and numerous signs of settling, its best to replace the entire line.

Lastly, we will exam the issues of those backed up sewer mains owned by the city. As we described in the beginning of this article, city and county owned sewer mains can also become old, brittle, backed up and overtaxed. Residents and property owners illegally connecting storm sewers to the sanitary system can overload the sanitary main during periods of heavy rain or during spring thaws. When the main sanitary sewer backs up or surcharges, it will force water and sewage back up your sanitary line and into your basement or floors. This is perhaps the most violent form of sewer backup in that the line pressure is unforgiving and dumps thousands of gallons of sewage and water into your house. Damages to flooring, appliances and personal property are greatest during these types of backups. Often times, the drain snake and line cleaning offer no help to you as your sewer line is working properly but the main line is back feeding the water and sewage to your home. In this situation, the only relief you will experience is either by waiting for the storm water and runoff to subside so that the city and county main line can relax in flow, or; having a backflow valve installed in your yard, on your sewer line. Backflow valves are extremely fast acting and 100% effective solutions to immediately stop the back flow of sewage and water into your home. There are some down sides to this method of repair and your technician will explain this to you during the assessment.

Both spot repairs and full replacements carry with them the same construction principles and standards. The products used today, by far, exceed survivability of previous cast iron, copper and clay sewer drains and waste lines. Most cities and counties have adopted unified construction standards for sanitary sewer repairs and rebuilds which allows plumbers and contractors to become well-familiar with rules and regulations. As such, PVC (poly vinyl chloride) pipe is the new gold standard for sewer and waste line use. It varies in diameters and lengths, but provides the consumer with a lifetime guarantee against pipe failure, root intrusion, and other problems associated with materials of the past. The newer PVC pipes have heavier crush ratings allowing them to be buried deeper as well. And most all new sewer repairs and replacements will utilize a neoprene, gasketed slip-joint between pipe lengths allowing for expansion and movement of the pipe without compromising the integrity of the joint. Girard Construction Group also takes extra measures to protect your project by installing limestone bedding, compacted to a thickness of around 12 inches underneath your new sanitary sewer pipe. We then provide 2 to 3 feet of cover stone to prevent the weight of the earth from crushing the pipe; sometimes more stone if the excavation is deeper. These are the absolute Must Do’s when having your sewer drains repaired or replaced.

In summary, sanitary sewer lines are a complex network of piping, fixtures and connections. Understanding the cause of your sewer backup is vital before making any repair decisions. Inexperienced companies almost always promote entire line replacement from a sales standpoint with little regard to the client’s financial situation or the actual requirements of the problem. Entire line replacement can be very expensive often time ranging between $3500 to $9500 depending on the length of the line, depth and obstructions to the excavation equipment. Knowing, and seeing, the internal functions and issues with your sanitary line is the baseline before repairs or replacements can be determined. Girard Construction Group has full time plumbers as part of our sewer contractor operation. We operate 24 hours a day, year round and have outstanding relationships with most cities townships, counties and sewer authorities. Please call us for any concerns or emergencies you may be experiencing and enjoy the peace of mind by having experts handle your sewer line problems and backups. We look forward to working with you!