Sewer lines are an afterthought for most homeowners until there is a problem. Sewer lines can back up when you least expect it causing nasty flooding and serious damage. If the cause of the backup is a damaged sewer line a costly replacement of the sewer line can make matters worse.
Most sewer lines need regular maintenance a fact most homeowners ignore. If you’re buying a home, it’s essential that you know the condition of the sewer line, before you close. The time to discover a problem isn’t after you own the home it’s during the inspection phase. This gives you time to negotiate a resolution before it becomes your problem.
The sewer line inspection should be a part of the general home inspection. While your “Home Inspector” won’t do this inspection, they will look at things like a sump pit and sump pump. The general inspector can recommend a specialist for the sewer lines. Sewer line inspections can range from about $150-$300 while repairs can cost tens of thousands. This makes a sewer line inspection a smart add-on when buying a home.
The Root of The Problem
The most common cause of sewer line damage comes from tree roots. Tree roots seek water and since sewer pipes carry water, tree roots grow in that direction. Any void or gap in a sewer line creates an opportunity for tree roots to invade and grow into that space.
As the roots grow they wedge into the gaps and over time ball up in the pipe creating an obstruction. The gaps can become large enough that the entire line can collapse.
Sewer Line Materials
The materials used in the creation of sewer lines have evolved over the years. While these changes have made lines more reliable, each one presents different issues.
Before 1970, sewer drains were made with clay tile pipe. These pipes were set in the drain trench end to end from the house to the sewer main. Small gaps created at each pipe union created opportunities for root intrusion. This made it necessary to snake or clean these drains to remove these roots every 6 months to a year.
Many homes built between 1945 and 1972 used Orangeburg pipe for their sewer lines. Orangeburg is a fiber conduit made with wood fiber and tar pitch. Named for the primary manufacturer, Orangeburg Manufacturing Company located in Orangeburg New York. Orangeburg was an affordable alternative to metal for sewer lines.
The problem with Orangeburg was its general lack of strength. The product had a life expectancy of about 50 years but in many cases would fail in as few as 10 years. Additionally, the fibrous nature of the product made snaking and hydro-jetting a problem. The pressure of a hydro jet could destroy the line. While, snaking could tear the line causing greater damage as well
Orangeburg is no longer used for sewer drain applications since the advent of PVC.
Thin-Walled PVC Pipe
In the 1980’s we began to see sewer lines installed with PVC (PolyVinyl Chloride) pipe. This was a better alternative to Clay tile and Orangeburg because it was seamless, rigid and affordable.
The only problem with early PVC sewer line installations was that the early PVC was thin and brittle. This product could fail under pressure causing the same problems associated with Clay Tile and Orangeburg.
Today we refer to this type of PVC as “Thin-Walled PVC”. Although it was an improvement, there were still problems with dependability.
Thick Walled Schedule 40 PVC
We began to see the implementation of Schedule 40 think walled PVC for sewer lines in the 1980s. This product is still the product of choice for this application today. This type of PVC is more resistant to pressure, breakage, and breakdown.
Sewer line problems aren’t just for older homes
A common misconception is that only older homes have sewer line problems. In this case, older homes mean anything built prior to 1980.
It’s true that homes with Clay Tile and Orangeburg Pipe are more susceptible to sewer line issues, modern homes can have issues as well.
In modern homes (post-1980s), problems generally occur because of installation, not materials. The sewer line generally lies in a trench that goes from the house to the sewer at the street. This trench is backfilled and compacted after the line installation.
The soil can be over-compacted, breaking the line, this is rare. It’s more likely that a rock can end up next to the pipe and the subsequent compaction of the soil will crack the pipe and cause problems down the road. Failing to properly glue the PVC joints also creates big problems down the road.
Another problem with modern schedule 40 PVC lines comes from shifting. In areas with expansive soils or seismic activity, sewer lines can shift, crack or belly (sag). This can create a stoppage as well as opening up cracks for root intrusion.
Inspect Your Sewer Line No Matter What the Age of Your House
No matter what product your sewer line is made from, it makes sense to inspect it at the time you buy your home. An inspection will help you determine what type of sewer line you have and the condition of that line. Additionally, you will be able to figure out what type of maintenance you’ll need to do moving forward.
If the line is damaged or deteriorated, you’ll have the opportunity to address these issues before closing on the property. You don’t want to be surprised by a sewer line issue after closing.
Problems with sewer lines often occur when there is some type of change in the volume the line is handling. For example, a property closes, new owners move in with more family members then the old owner. This means more showers, more toilet flushes, etc… This type of added volume can be the tipping point that causes a damaged or constricted line to finally back up.
When you don’t inspect the sewer line before moving into a home, this is usually how you find out you have a problem.
How the Inspection Works
It’s a good idea to schedulae the sewer line inspection at the same time as your general property inspection. Any issues the technician finds with the sewer line can be shared with your home inspector. This way the results can end up in the inspection report.
The technician will start by looking for a clean out, this is a capped pipe, protruding from the ground. This pipe is connected to your sewer line and allows easy access for maintenance, cleaning and inspection.
The clean out is generally located next to the house and close to a bathroom, sidewalk or property line. In older homes the clean-out may be in the basement, the technician should be able to locate the cleanout.
If there is no clean-out at the property, the technician will look for an alternative way into the sewer line. Removing a toilet is generally the fastest way to get into the sewer line in the absence of a clean out.
Modern sewer Line inspections use small video cameras attached to a long cable. The technician feeds the camera through the sewer line looking for breaks and blockages. The camera continues until it reaches the sewer main or meets an obstruction. The camera can travel up to 200 ft. which should cover all but the longest lines.
The camera records its journey through the pipe while the technician monitors and records what the camera sees. Most vendors will provide you with a video of what the camera saw in addition to a written report. The video is valuable because if there’s a problem it provides proof to the home seller of any issues that need to be addressed.
The results of this inspection should give you the following information.
- What type of sewer line you have
- Clay Tiles
- Thin-Walled PVC
- Schedule 40/Thick-Walled PVC
- The condition of the line
- Type of repair and/or maintenance that will need to perform moving forward
Next Steps For Home Buyers
If the inspection is for a real estate transaction, the written report and video are all you need. The written report will give you the language for your Inspection request to the home seller. The video provides visual confirmation of any problems.
If the line is in good shape, you will simply need to do the appropriate ongoing maintenance while you own the home. The technician that performed the line inspection can provide maintenance advice.
Cleaning and Repair Solutions for Sewer Lines
Snake Sewer Lines
In most of the cases, tree roots are the biggest problem. This is usually corrected by having the line snaked by a professional. Professionals have the appropriate equipment and know how to access the sewer line. They also know how to handle any problems that might arise like jams and snags.
A snake is a long metal cable inside of a flexible metal conduit. The cable has auger blades attached to the end which cut through or grab obstructions in the sewer line. Professionals will use a large motorized snake with a cable long enough to reach the sewer main at the street. This is the most common method we see when it comes to cleaning the sewer line.
Hydro Jetting Sewer Lines
If the line is severely clogged using a Hydro Jet might be a good option. The Hydro Jet uses highly pressurized water through a hose that attaches to special heads. This extremely high pressured water does a great job of clear drains. This is an effective method if the sewer line is made of the newer Schedule 40 thick-walled PVC pipe.
If the drain is made of any of the older materials we have previously discussed, snaking is going to be your best option. Hydro Jetting might cause serious damage to the line and possibly force a more costly repair.
Here is a good look at how hydro jetting works. This video shows why the process is only appropriate for strong pipes.
Damaged Sewer Line
If the results of the test reveal a damaged sewer line there are several options moving forward. The first thing you need to determine is whether or not the line can actually be repaired or if it’s going to require a costly replacement.
There are a number of different options for sewer line repair, the most affordable being the “Trenchless Technologies”. These are methods used to actually line the inside of the damaged pipe. The most affordable form of pipelining is the “cured-in-place pipe” method. This method inserts a new resin coated liner into the existing pipe. This is a difficult process to explain, so here’s a video that does does a better job then words.
The other trenchless method it’s called pipe bursting. This method costs a little more than the cured-in-place method but is a more common solution. Bursting sends a line through the pipe and then drags a new, line back through the pipe essentially bursting the old pipe in the process. Once again, here’s a video that does a great job of showing how pipe bursting works.
To use these trench-less methods, the trench the line lays in has to be in good shape. This means positive flow from the house to the sewer main at the street. Additionally, the line can’t have bellies or sagging.
Bellying occurs when the soils in the trench aren’t correctly compacted. This allows a section of the trench to settle causing the drain pipe to move with it. The belly creates a place for water and debris to collect. These areas can become obstructions which can create opportunities for a backup.
If the trench is the problem because of grading or bellies, trenchless technologies can’t be used. The trench needs to be fixed before the line can be repaired or replaced. In most cases, this means that the entire line will need to be dug up and replaced.
This is the most costly option and you can expect this method to cost from $50 to $250 per linear foot. This price depends on the length and depth of the existing sewer line. In our experience we generally see line replacements come in around $107 to $110 per foot.
Will Homeowners Insurance Pay?
When faced with a full sewer line replacement, the first question homeowners ask is if their insurance will pay for it. In most cases, homeowners insurance will only pay if the break was caused by an “Act of God”. This means something like a tree falling across the line and breaking it or some type of seismic activity like an earthquake.
Most sewer line problems occur due to installation and tree root infiltration. This means that homeowners insurance will most likely not pay for line replacement. This is why it’s so important to learn about your sewer line before you close.
Sewer line repair or replacement can be costly. The time to discover problems is before you buy the house. Don’t find out about problems after closing, make sewer line inspection a part of your home inspection due-diligence.
The best way to accomplish this is with a video sewer line inspection, it might be the best money you spend before you close on a home.