How to Prevent Sewer and Drain Backups

sewer and drain back ups

Backups are highly recommended for your computer files, not so much for your sewer and drain pipes. Since no one likes backed up pipes, in this post we will look at the proverbial “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” regarding:

  • What a sewer lateral does
  • Signs of a blocked or broken sewer line
  • Common sewer lateral problems
  • How to prevent drain line problems
  • When to call a plumber

What Is a Sewer Lateral, Anyway and How Does it Relate to Sewer Backups?

Underground sewer laterals connect from the main sewer line to your home. This pipe carries household wastewater (from flushed toilets, loads of laundry, bathroom drains, etc.) out to the public sewer drain. 

Maintenance of the public sewer drain is the responsibility of the municipal utility authority. As the homeowner, the sewer lateral is your responsibility to maintain. This is why it is often referred to as a PSL – private sewer lateral or private sewer line.

Sewer laterals can be made out of a variety of materials:

  • Asbestos
  • Terra Cotta
  • Cast Iron
  • PVC
  • ABS
  • HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

There are two parts to your PSL:

  • Upper: Pipe that connects from the cleanout at your home to the curb cleanout located at your property line (usually the sidewalk or the street)
  • Lower: Pipe from the curb cleanout (close to the street or sidewalk area) at your property line that connects to the public sewer main.

Needless to say, when a sewer line backs up or, worse, breaks, it’s an unpleasant situation. 

broken sewer line

Signs of a Broken or Blocked Sewer Line

Slow draining water over an extended period is usually an indication of a blocked or clogged sewer. Depending on the location of the breakage and where water leaks other signs can include:

  • Foundation water damage 
  • Yard deterioration, e.g., grass/plants dying and/or not growing
  • Increase in pests 
  • Mold
  • Bad odors

Slow flowing drains and gurgling noises from your toilet are the first signs that your sewer system is being affected by tree roots. If you do not take action to remove the roots, a complete sewer line block will occur.

Causes of Sewer Line Damage and Sewer Backups

According to the This Old House Reviews Team, “One of the most common causes of sewer line damage is tree roots. A tree’s roots follow sources of water as they grow. Since sewer lines carry liquid waste, roots are naturally attracted to the source. Once in contact with a sewer pipe, tree roots begin to wrap around and break into pipes, clogging, weakening and even breaking the structure. Clay sewer pipes, typically found in older homes, are the most susceptible to damage from tree roots.”

sewer backup caused by tree roots

The purpose of sewer lines is to carry wastewater, human waste and toilet paper out of your house, and not much else. In newer homes where trees have been cleared and new growth is not as established, a primary culprit of clogged sewer lines can include a range of items from feminine hygiene products and paper towels to baby wipes and even certain types of thicker toilet paper. Kitchen grease is another common source for backups, as is the habit of some young children to flush objects such as toys and garments.  

Pipe failure usually comes in the form of cracks or blockage in the pipes. The situation is worsened by rain run-off and groundwater that enters through the cracks and hastens pipe corrosion.  As a sewer lateral ages, it becomes more vulnerable to this kind of breakage, especially if you live in an area that has endured extreme cold weather conditions.

As a sewer lateral ages, it becomes more vulnerable to breakage. The average lifetime of a private sewer lateral depends on the material used to construct the pipe. Clay pipes are the most common. Often their old-style hub and spigot joints fail, causing the pipeline to break. 

Today, cast iron is a common sewer lateral material, and should be expected to last about 30 to 50 years. However, one drawback is that steel pipes are prone to corrosion due to calcium and magnesium build up. Another material, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), is now widely used in the industry, as it offers durability, low cost, faster repair and 100+ years of life.

How to Deal with Sewer Backups

As a solid preventative measure, sewer lines should be cleaned once every eighteen to twenty-four months. Note that if you have older style clay pipes, cleaning is not recommended; it actually contributed to deterioration. 

If your home has been experiencing frequent problems with your sewer lines, it is recommended that you contact a plumber and schedule a video inspection

Video inspections can show root intrusion, separated pipes, offset pipe joints or broken pipes. A camera inserted into the interior of the sewer pipe provides live video of the sewer line’s condition and blockages. The video inspection uses locators to determine the place and depth of the sewer line blockage  from above ground, allowing for spot repairs if possible. Needless to say, the sooner you address a small problem, the less likelihood it turns into a bigger, more expensive problem.

sewer video inspection

A pipe must be draining to perform a video inspection. Consequently, if a pipe is found to be broken, some repair work may be necessary to provide a thorough inspection.

How to Deal with Drain Line Issues

Many of the same principles for maintaining sewer lines also apply to your houses’ interior drain line plumbing. Obviously, what you put down your drains flows into your sewer line. 

What can potentially clog a sewer line? Anything other than waste water and toilet paper can cause clogged drain lines. In fact, given the smaller diameter of drain lines, they are more likely to clog with hair, thick paper towels, kitchen grease and soaps being used on a regular basis. Drain line clogs are a common occurrence. In fact it would be more unusual to not experience a clogged drain line than to experience one.

It never fails. A drain always gets clogged at the worst possible time. Clogged drains are a headache to deal with and can be costly to resolve. No one wants to deal with water that won’t drain!

clogged sewer pipe

While it may not be possible to prevent every clog from occurring, you can take steps to prevent most of them. Here are some tips:

  • Flush drains regularly, once a month or so. Hair, grease, and other gunk build up in drains over time. Use a non-corrosive drain cleaner or homemade solution to clear them out of your drain lines. Do not use a commercial drain cleaner, as these can contribute to pipe corrosion. 
  • Keep out the hair. Place wire meshes over drains to collect hair and clean them off frequently. 
  • Install a lint catcher on your washing machine hose. Most people don’t think of this, but lint entering your drain from laundry water is another kind of “hair” problem. 
  • Do not dump grease down the drain. This is positively the worst thing you can do. Dealing with grease is yucky, we get that. Dealing with a drain clogged with grease is even yuckier. Pour grease and grease products in a container and dispose of it properly. The same goes for food debris. Even if you have a garbage disposal, it is still better to collect food waste and compost it—better for your drains and your garden!
  • Your toilet is not a garbage disposal. Dental floss, hair, wet wipes, feminine hygiene products and cotton balls, even small toys we plumbers find in drain lines are more appropriately disposed of in the trash can. Different kind of can, but the more appropriate one.

When to Call a Plumber for a Sewer Backup

If in spite of all your best efforts, you have a drain line issue, there are some DIY steps you can take to see if you can unclog the problem. But if you’re not handy with a snake, or even if you are, your best bet might be to call a professional plumber. Even if you manage to fix the problem, there may be other issues going on that may cause you even bigger problems down the line if left unattended.

For any and all plumbing jobs related to your home, Ongaro and Sons provide a variety of residential services including inspection, installation and repair. Our technicians are experienced with drain cleaning, maintenance, and repair, including installation and repair of garbage disposals. 

Our experienced, certified plumbers carefully and thoroughly explore your plumbing, using drain line cameras when necessary, so that we can identify the problems and fix exactly what is wrong.

Contact us with any questions or to discuss your needs, and experience 100% customer satisfaction.