Sewers, Sewer Blockages and How Plumbers Fix Em’
UPDATED: July 17, 2017
We’ve done several pieces about sewers, sewer blockages and sewer rodding but mostly situational stories. This piece will be different, we will give you all the different types of sewer piping and how they relate to one another. We will share with you all the different types of drain cleaning equipment and how they are used, we will also go into detail about rodding techniques and how different heads are used. Lastly, we will show you some of the diagnostic tools plumbing professionals use to service the sewer lines. Pull up a chair you’re going to be here awhile. We intend to be as thorough as possible.
Rodding and Drain Cleaning Equipment
RODDERS – A rodder is any kind of semi rigid cable that when inserted in a sewer line either pushes a blockage out of the pipe or the blockage gets caught in the rod and it is pulled out. Below we are going to describe the different types of rods and how they are used.
TAPE ROD – A tape rod is the most basic of rods. It is a coil of semi rigid flat steel with a ball or plug on the end. It is used by pushing its length
through the blocked sewer line, pushing and breaking up the stoppage. These rods come in various lengths up to 100ft. Some of the limitations of tape rods are as follows:
- Only useful on straight runs. Because they are very rigid they do not make corners very well.
- They do not turn so they are limited as to the types of blockages they can clear.
- They are only equipped with one type of head so it is again limited to the type of blockages they can remove.
CLOSET AUGER – The closet auger is probably one of the most useful plumbing tools a homeowner can buy for their home. It consists of a spring cable ending in a self-feed auger head, at the other end is a handle. When the cable is inserted into the toilet the handle can be turned causing the end of the cable to break up a stoppage. It comes in two sizes ½” x 3 ½ ft. and ½” x 6ft. Buy the 6ft if you can afford it, the extra 2 ½”really comes
in handy and can usually push the blockage to the main. Some of the limitations faced when using a closet auger are as follows:
- The auger is used to clear stoppages in the toilet, because the longest auger is only 6ft if your blockage is farther away the closet auger is useless.
- The spring cable is fairly flexible so there may be some blockages it can’t work through.
- You cannot change the head size or type.
- Because a closet auger is manually turned your torque is limited by the person turning it. It isn’t meant for really tricky stoppages.
KINETIC WATER RAM: The Kinetic Water ram uses compressed air to jar loose any clog you may have. You literally pull back handle and pull a trigger. You can use it on toilets, bathtubs, showers, lavatories, kitchen sinks, laundry tubs and floor drains. The only warning we can give is to read the directions before using. The force of the compressed air that leaves the device is pretty intense and it’s possible to break a fixture while using.
SINK AUGER (CANISTER AUGER, DRUM AUGER, HAND SPINNERS): It is a flexible cable that is coiled inside a canister with a self-feeding auger bit on the end. The canister is usually connected to a handle and the canister has a knob to turn the rod. The rod is manually pulled out, a set screw is tightened around the cable and the cable is inserted into the clogged line; the rod is turned to break-up the blockage. This tool is very easy to use and is great for clearing blockages in kitchen sinks, lavatories and tub drain that aren’t too far from the fixture drain. The limitations of the sink auger are as follows:
- The diameter of the rod is small so the diameter of piping it should be used in should also be small. 2” diameter is the largest diameter pipe recommended.
- The drum only holds a limited amount of rod, usually 25ft maximum. So if you have a blockage beyond 25ft the tool is useless.
- The flexible spring cable is not rigid enough to take care of tough blockages.
- Only a self-feed auger bit is available for these types of rodders.
- This rodder is not meant to be used on toilet blockages. The cable isn’t big enough or rigid enough to take care of toilet problem.
GRAPPLER HOOK – This is a neat little specialty drain cleaning tool used for retrieving tools or solid debris i.e. rocks, cans, bottles. This tool is especially useful on roof drains, roof drains can and do get a ton of debris. Quite a few roofs have stone and rock on them, along with anything else that may be thrown or left on the roof.
POWER SINK AUGER – There are a few different types of models to choose from here. The most basic is a hand sink auger
with an attachment that allows it to be connected to a standard variable speed drill. The fancier handhelds are self-power and can be bought with manual or auto feed cables. These types of rodders also allow for some flexibility with regards to cables size and head types for different types of blockages and larger size piping. Even with the different heads and cable sizes this is still a specialty piece of rodding equipment and should not be used for rodding drain lines over 2” in diameter.
COMPACT SECTIONAL POWER ROD – Again there are several models to choose from in this category. Some Examples are the Ridgid K-50, Spartan Tool Model 502 and the MyTana Workhorse M500. Each has slightly different specs but they are designed for the most part to take care of medium blockage in the pipe from 1 ¼” to 3”. The Ridgid K-50 is a bit different in that it can be used with a drum with a preset length of cable or can be used without so that additional lengths of cable can be attached to reach blockages that farther from the point of entry. These machines are all very rugged and are available with changeable heads to tackle different types of blockages.
HEAVY DUTY SECTIONAL POWER ROD – This section is a bit crowded and all of the above companies make their version to tackle the tough stoppages. Ridgid’s K-1500 is probably the most popular and is considered the workhorse of
the group. It is a torpedo style much like its smaller counterpart the K-50. It is much larger, handles larger cable and can safely remove blockages in drain pipes from 3” to 8” pipe. The MyTana Workhorse M888 and Spartan 2001 are drum type drain cleaners and can safely remove blockages from 3” to 10” pipe at lengths of up to 300ft. The biggest difference between the Ridgid and the MyTana/Spartan models is that the Ridgid is not self-feeding. The MyTana/Spartan will feed the cable into the drain line mechanically where the Ridgid is a manual feed. Some of you might say well I’d rather have the machine do it because it is easier for the technician but that is not necessarily the case. More than a few plumbing technicians like to feel blockages to make sure the cable isn’t binding up leading to lost and broken cable. If you let the machine feed the line into the sewer you lose that tactile feel. Again more often than not this is a personal preference.
HYDRO JETTING EQUIPMENT
Again there are a variety of different types of jetter equipment but for the most part, they are categorized in the following ways.
COMPACT UPRIGHT JETTER – These jetters can be bought to handle pipes sizes from 1 ½” to 10” piping. They all have one thing in common, they are hooked up to an outside water source and can be brought to a cleanout or opening within a home or building. These units are designed to deliver a high-pressure low volume nozzle into a sewer line to scour the inside of the pipe to rid it of tree roots, grease, sludge etc.
COMMERCIAL TOW BEHIND JETTER – Although having adequate water pressure is a huge factor in how effectively a waste line can be cleaned another important factor is water volume. Most of the upright jetter deliver magnificent pressure however they do not deliver enough water to effectively clean the piping out once the debris is dislodged or cut. In fact, sometimes with older piping extreme pressure can actually damage the piping material. Expert Plumbing Services, Inc. recommends and has a tow behind jetter for most applications over three inches in diameter, in fact our custom jetter truck allows us to hook up an attachment that gives us the ability to bring an upright jetter into a home to clean smaller lines.
TYPES OF RODDING HEADS AND THEIR USES
C OR KNIFE CUTTERS – These particular rod heads are used to cut through grease and sludge. Grease and sludge can be a funny blockage.
Sometimes when you use a common spade cutter the cutter cuts right through. However, when you pull the rod back the blockage closes back in the hole and a technician can do this and never get anywhere. A cutter rotates, cutting the grease or sludge but keeps the debris in suspension so water can whisk it away. A knife cutter has two tines that are bent like a propeller to create more turbulence.
SPADE OR SPEAR CUTTER – These rod heads are used to cut through hardened deposits like lime or scale. It can also cut through grease but it may not clear it out properly.
DROP HEAD AUGER – This is a head that looks like spring ball but it rotates freely. It is used so the rod drops down in a certain
direction. If you place a rod in a sewer line and it comes to a fitting, especially in a vertical application, but it won’t go in the direction you want it to go a drop head can help. There are other ways to manipulate a rod head but we will get into that later.
SPIRAL CUTTER – This head is used primarily to cut through tree roots. It can be used to cut through leaves, cloth etc.. Traditionally when dealing with tree roots you would use a small cutter to cut a hole through the roots so you can get the drain moving, then you attach a bigger cutter to open a bigger hole and so on. Knowing what we know about tree roots leads us to lean against using rodding of any kind to tackle the tree root issue. More about that later in the article.
FUNNEL AUGER – This is a head used as a second step to break up organic material left behind after using a traditional auger head.
RETRIEVAL AUGER – This head looks almost identical to the one above which one above, however, the metal spiral is not as tightly spun and its sole use is to retrieve cable or heads that are stuck in a drain line.
SAW TOOTH CUTTER – This head is the heavy duty version of the spiral cutter but what makes it unique is the fact that it is tapered toward the back which allows it to be pulled back through tree root pulp.
CORK SCREW AUGER – This is used to break up debris in a similar fashion to the funnel auger however it is primarily used to bring back a sample of what is the cause of a backup or blockage.
GREASE CUTTER – This head looks very similar to a spade cutter however the blades are angled a bit differently to promote agitation and turbulence so grease can be rinsed away.
HYDRO JETTER HEADS AND THEIR USES
Jetter heads or nozzles can be bought with different jet configurations for different applications. Below are the most common however there are multiple configurations in each category.
REAR FLUSHING NOZZLES: These heads have jets that are placed in the back of the nozzle. They should be used after a blockage or obstruction is removed as they provide maximum pulling power and maximum vacuum.
PENETRATOR NOZZLES: Penetrator nozzles are milled with multiple forward facing jets to cut through or knock out pipe obstructions. Once the obstruction is removed and flow is reestablished the penetrator nozzle should be changed to a rear flushing nozzle to pull debris out of the pipe. YOU DO NOT PUSH THE BLOCKAGE YOU PULL THE BLOCKAGE.
SPINNING ROTARY NOZZLES: These nozzles are used primarily to cut through tree roots, grease, and even some hard mineral deposits. There are some rotary nozzles used to literally bored through and obstruction like a drill
CHAIN FLAIL NOZZLES: Water powered chain knockers or scrapers are used for removing hard mineral scale, hard grease and
rust build-up. The chains bang the inside of the pipe and the deposits fall and are swept away. Just a bit of caution when using chain nozzles, the condition of the piping must be taken into consideration when using. If the waste piping is in bad shape chain flails can and will destroy the piping.
SEWER VIDEO CAMERAS
Video inspection cameras are used to determine the condition of a sewer or drain line. They help in seeing where a problem is occurring or where there may be a problem waiting to happen. There are many different camera manufacturers and they all have
different features and benefits however they are all based on this common principle: a sealed camera head is attached to a rigid fiber-optic line because it’s fairly rigid it can be pushed into a sewer line. The camera head is outfitted with LED’s to give the camera a light source so “it” can see. As a side note, a sewer cannot see very well if a sewer is surcharged with water. Therefore, a sewer line should be opened via mechanical rodding before the camera is introduced to the sewer line. There is usually a location transmitter that is either embedded in or placed on the head unit of the camera. This allows the technician to use a location device above ground to locate where a blockage has occurred. Please make note, location devices have come a long way in the last 20 years so if the technician is well trained in how to read the locating device it is pretty accurate.
Consumer Tip: The average sewer video camera system costs around $8,500.00. This does not include the location device which can add anywhere between $1,000.00 to $2,500.00 to the cost. So when a plumbing contractor charges you for the service it isn’t to gouge, it’s an expensive diagnostic tool that they purchased to give you better information.
Different Types of Sewer Pipe Lines and Waste Receptacles in a Home or Commercial Building
We know drain lines are all the same, they all carry waste from our plumbing fixtures and drains out into the waste land. To some degree that’s true, however, here is a list of the different drains lines you could have in your home or office building. We will give the common size of the piping and most frequent cause of a blockage.
LAVATORY WASTE LINE – 1 ¼” Pipe.
BLOCKAGE: Hair, toothpaste, shaving cream, soap residue.
SHOWER WASTE LINE – 2” Pipe.
BLOCKAGE: Hair, shaving cream, soap residue.
TUB WASTE LINE – 2” Pipe.
BLOCKAGE: (Please see above)
TOILET WASTE LINE – 3” or 4” Pipe.
BLOCKAGE: Fecal matter, paper towels, feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, toys, diapers, you name it and we’ve probably seen it.
KITCHEN WASTE LINE – 1 ½” Pipe.
BLOCKAGE: Grease, food waste, soap residue.
LAUNDRY WASTE LINE – 1 ½” Pipe.
BLOCKAGE : Lint, soap/detergent residue.
FLOOR DRAIN WASTE LINE – 2”-4” Pipe, depending on your local codes and applications. BLOCKAGE: Oil, grease, soap residue, gravel, dirt, cement, grout, paint, food waste, etc. This is another one where we have found just about everything.
STORM SEWER LINE – 3”-10” Pipe, depending on local codes and applications.
BLOCKAGE: dirt, leaves, grass, roofing tar, gravel, rocks, vermin, and cats. I say that with the utmost respect to cat owners everywhere but, we have rodded out downspout piping and brought back a mummified cat on more than one occasion. You know what they say about curiosity.
HOUSE SEWER – 3” – ?? Pipe, this is entirely dependant on code and drainage fixture units (DFU)
BLOCKAGE: Fecal matter, feminine hygiene products, toilet paper, paper towel, food waste, dirt/mud, tree roots, pipe breakage, grease, sludge, etc.
VENT LINES/VENT STACKS – The pipe size is based upon drainage fixture units (DFU) and by the size of the waste lines the vents are serving.
BLOCKAGE : We know a vent shouldn’t be blocked with anything however, that is simply not the case. A vent line can become blocked several different ways. The most common way is through a sewer backup. When a waste line becomes blocked the fluid level rises inside the pipe. As the fluid level rises it brings with it suspended solids. As the water level recedes the suspended solids can stick to the vent piping reducing the diameter of the vent and eventually clogging the vent entirely. Another common vent blockage is ice. During the winter, the vent stacks remain fairly warm and creates steam, which freezes at the end of the pipe. Over the course of time layers of ice can form and completely close of the vent. Vents are normally sized to accommodate freezing however we see undersized vents on a weekly basis.
SPECIALTY DRAINAGE FIXTURES
CATCH BASINS – A catch basin is used in residential and commercial applications to catch floating solids (i.e. grease) so they don’t drain into the
municipal sewer. Here’s the basic info on how they work. A large pit is constructed and the kitchen is piped to the pit (that is the inlet), the outlet is lower than the inlet. The waste water flows into the pit and the water level rises eventually making it’s way to the outlet. The outlet is usually outfitted with a basin ell or a baffle of some sort to strain out solids. The water goes to the sewer and the floating solids stay behind. Over the course of months or even years, depending on use, the catch basin fills up with grease, food, gross stuff and must be pumped out. Sometimes the inlet and or outlet piping needs to be rodded or jetted as well to maintain function.
GREASE TRAP OR INTERCEPTOR – The grease trap works using a concept similar to the Catch Basin, however they are
much smaller. Their main function is to slow the incoming water down to allow grease to separate. Waste water enters the interceptor and the water runs through a series of baffles which slows the water down and the suspended solids rise to the top and the waste water flows out. Again, this is basic function. Grease traps are designed to hold a predetermined amount of solid waste, when the trap is full it must be cleaned out. If a grease trap is not maintained the waste line can become fouled and become completely clogged not to mention it can be pretty nasty smelling.
FLOOD CONTROL DEVICES – When we speak of flood control devices we are speaking mostly about backwater valves. A backwater valve serves as a last line of defense in the event that a city sewer is backing up or running to 100% capacity. If city
sewer is running full, water has nowhere to go and it backs up into the homes and businesses that are tied to it. A backwater valve is a large check valve that closes in the event of a sewer main backup occurs. Once again this piece of equipment needs to be maintained. Over time the check valve can be fouled by toilet paper, solids, etc. and should be cleaned. If the valve becomes fouled it can get stuck in the open or closed position resulting in a sewer back-up.
FUN FACT: The Chicago River is the only river in the world that flows backward, which was done in 1990 through a series of canal locks in order to divert sewage away from Lake Michigan’s water supply.
Here is an In-Depth Look at a Sewer Back-Up
ROOTS, ROOTS AND MORE ROOTS
PROBLEM: Tree roots are the biggest reason for clogged sewer lines in a residential application. In fact, tree root infestation is a recurring issue that can be controlled to some degree but never addressed permanently unless you either remove the trees or shrubs or epoxy lining the sewer line.
Before we explain the solution we must first understand the problem. Tree roots become a problem over time. As trees grow their roots dive deeper into the ground to look for water. When they find the sewer they’ve hit the holy grail of water supply and nutrients. Most older sewer lines in the US are cast iron or clay tile and in between each piece of pipe or fitting, there is a connection point or hub. Over time these connection points separate. This is the first place tree roots go to make their way into a house sewer line. Another common entry point is a break in the line. We see sewers on a weekly basis that have small cracks in the line and that is where the roots take hold.
TEMPORARY SOLUTION: The common solution to having roots in the sewer line is to rod the sewer. Usually, this is completed by putting a small root cutter head in the rodding machine to attempt to poke a small hole in the tree root infestation. If a hole can be made, the technician then increases the size of the root cutter, creating a larger opening until the line is sufficiently cleared to once again be used. There is a problem with this concept though, a rodding machine will never remove all of the roots or even enough of them so that the problem won’t return in a fairly short period of time. If there is adequate access to the sewer line, professional jetting is the only way to responsibly maintain a sewer infested with tree roots. Think of the high-pressure nozzles as a straight razor slicing the roots where they come into the line. We essentially give your sewer line a close shave using high-pressure water. We then apply Root X to the sewer line killing off any filaments left behind. If chemical treatment is used every 6 months the tree roots should be kept at bay. This maintenance will not keep the exterior roots and or shifting ground from weakening the piping.
BETTER SOLUTION: A more permanent solution would be to dig up the sewer and replace the piping. However, this repair is costly and intrusive. Depending on the amount and depth of the piping, your sewer could be down for a few days. Any lawn, landscaping, concrete, asphalt or brick paver repair would also need to be done after the repair is complete.
BEST SOLUTION: CIPP (Cured In Place Pipe Lining) is the ultimate solution when it comes to damaged or tree root stoppages. There are several different techniques when doing epoxy pipe lining
The Ever Famous Grease Blockage in the Waste Line
GREASE BLOCKAGE: A plumbing contractor cannot control how much grease a homeowner introduces into their sewer system. There are several ways grease can be flushed down a sewer line, the kitchen sink, the disposal, and the dishwasher are the most common. Grease can be a difficult problem to conquer because it’s impossible to see just how much grease is packed inside of waste line especially in a 2” waste line. We can camera the sewer line to get a better idea of the situation but that will still not prevent grease from falling down from the sides or the top of the pipe right after we punch a hole through the existing blockage. On many occasions, we can rod and open up a sewer only to have it close behind the rod as we remove it from the sewer line.
SOLUTION: If simple rodding isn’t getting the job done hydro jetting is the best way to scour waste piping. There are instances where the grease is so old and packed that even a high-pressure industrial jetter won’t clean the piping, in this case, the affected piping would need to be cut out and replaced. If the home or business has a serious recurring grease issue, installation of a grease separator is the final and ultimate option. The grease trap collects the grease and that trap must be maintained to ensure proper flow.
GARBAGE DISPOSAL: A plumbing contractor cannot control the improper use of a garbage disposal in a home. The majority of people that have garbage disposals do not use them properly. That are not meant to handle bones, potato peels, meat scraps, etc. The single biggest reason waste lines back up from garbage disposal use is from not using enough water to flush the waste line.
SOLUTION: This one is simple, don’t put waste down the disposal that isn’t recommended, use water, use water, use water and the last one is a bit dramatic but it is a solution, don’t have one installed.
DIRT, MUD, LEAVES & STONES: A plumbing contractor cannot control how much mud, leaves, etc. enter your sewer lines. These things enter your sewer lines from a number of sources, gutters, storm drainage and area drains are a few of the ways.
SOLUTION: Keep gutters and drains free of debris and periodic rodding or hydro jetting should keep things flowing freely.
FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS/PAPER TOWELS: We know that most say they are flushable but the fact is that they do not break down in water. If they get hung up inside of a sewer line they catch other things going by and you eventually have a blockage. You have no idea how many times we’ve had irate customers call us after having their sewer rodded complaining that their sewer is blocked again within days. We head out to rod again only to find that the sewer is blocked with feminine hygiene products and or paper towels. If your sewer line is connected to an ejector pump system these products can get bound in the impellers of the ejector pump and cause the pumps to burn up.
SOLUTION: DO NOT FLUSH FEMININE HYGIENE PRODUCTS OR PAPER TOWELS DOWN THE TOILET.
BROKEN SEWER CLEANING EQUIPMENT: There are occasions when a rod or camera or jetter head can get stuck inside the sewer line, most times it’s the severity of the blockage or line break that causes this to occur.
SOLUTION: There are tools available to retrieve some of these objects however many times the sewer line must be dug up and repaired.
COLLAPSED SEWER LINE: Over time, because of ground settling, freeze thaw cycles, tree roots or just plain wearing of the sewer piping materials a sewer line can shear at the foundation wall or collapse. You can maintain your sewer impeccably and still not avoid it at some point. If the sewer line shears at or near the foundation the piping usually drop so you essentially have a step or ledge where waste collects. No amount of rodding or hydro jetting will permanently solve the issue. The plumbing contractor can neither be responsible for a collapsed pipe nor the sewage that hangs up at the point of collapse or fracture.
SOLUTION: There is only one way to fix the issue and that is to dig up the sewer and repair it with a new piece of pipe. You may be able to rod the line to get it open for awhile but it is a very short lived fix.
IMPROPERLY SIZED OR PITCHED PIPE: We’ve come a long way from a sanitary engineering standpoint. Many sewer lines in old cities are undersized and have an improper pitch. If the size of your sewer line is undersized it’s prone to backing up. The next part of this is pitch and pitch can be a funny thing. Logic would say that more pitch would be better. The faster things move along the piping the better right? Not so with waste piping. We have a saying “a lazy sewer is a good sewer” When a sewer line has too much pitch the water runs down the pipe quickly often leaving behind what it is supposed to carry out of the sewer. When waste piping is properly pitched the water moves and keeps the waste in suspension carrying it down the waste piping and into the city main.
SOLUTION: There is only one real solution and it’s never a pleasant one for the home or building owner. Rip out the back pitched or improperly pitched pipe and replace with new. It’s that simple and it’s the only way a plumbing contractor can be held responsible for future backups.
IMPROPER PIPING AND OR FITTINGS: This ties in closely with the above, sewer piping layouts and fittings have improved over the years and some fittings that were used 50 years ago aren’t manufactured. Why you ask? Mostly because they didn’t work very well and were/are a source of sewer backups or they proved to be unsanitary. Examples of some fittings that aren’t made or are illegal are an S-Trap, Low Heel Inlet Closet Bend, Sanitary Cross and a Saddle Tee.
SOLUTION: Please see above. Tear it out.
SAGGING OR A DIP IN SEWER PIPING: Many places around the US have four seasons which means every year the ground freezes and thaws, so it continuously expands and contracts. Your sewer line is unfortunately subject to those same conditions and over time can develop a sag or a dip in the piping. This low spot is a perfect place for debris and waste to collect and eventually cause a blockage. Quite often some debris will sit in this low spot and decompose as other wastes pass by. This eventually turns to sludge which is an even bigger problem to remove because of its consistency.
SOLUTION: You can rod or hydrojet to remove the debris but it will keep backing up. As with the above, the best and permanent solution is to remove the piping and replace with new. Keep in mind that the backfill used for the repair is of great importance. If your plumbing contractor uses uncompacted existing spoils, you run the risk of the ground settling and having the same thing happen. If you use pea gravel or some sort of self-compacting fill it’s a much better installation. These are all things to keep in mind when choosing a plumbing contractor as well.
CITY SEWER BACK-UP: During a heavy downpour or extremely heavy usage a city sewer main may run full or surcharged. In the event of a fully charged sewer, the waste and debris has nowhere else to go but back up into the branches connected to it which can be your house and the rest of the houses on the block. It is not uncommon for city sewers to back up to the point of flooding basements.
SOLUTIONS: Have a backwater valve installed or have your gravity sewer moved overhead. You are essentially divorcing your basement waste piping from the house sewer. If you have a basement bathroom the waste must be pumped to the overhead sewer. There are some home center products that fit into basement floor drains that act like check valves but they are cheap and don’t work very well.
DISCLAIMER: Here it comes right? Quite often where there is smoke there is fire. If there is one problem with the sewer there maybe others as well. Remember that rodding a sewer line is only a cure for a sewer line that stopped up due to improper debris or a build-up of debris in the line. Rodding cannot cure sewer lines that are broken, sheared, sagging, infested with roots or are piped improperly.
How Plumbers Diagnose and Rod a Sewer Line
We are aware that rodding a sewer line may seem like a piece of cake and sometimes it is, however a significant part of the time it takes more diagnostic work than just throwing a rod in the sewer running it for awhile and leaving. Here is a step by step guide to how a professional plumber should tackle a sewer line blockage. The first step is the most obvious and we won’t include it as a step but we have to find the fixture, cleanout or floor drain that is being affected:
If a fixture is blocked, check to see if the other plumbing fixtures in the room are also blocked. Check by running water into the other fixtures. If none of the other fixtures are blocked you know that the obstruction is localized to the fixture or to the drain line servicing that fixture.
If the other fixtures are also backing up then you know it is at least the drainage piping serving that bathroom, kitchen or laundry room.
You then move to the next closest fixtures or floor drain to see if they drain. If they do you know you’ve isolated the blockage. If they do not drain you know the blockage is further down the sewer line and may even be a blockage in the house sewer line.
QUICK TIP: Here is a tip that will save you some time. If you have a blockage in a second-floor bath or laundry room and the rest of the house is functioning you’ve just eliminated the main sewer as the culprit.
If it is a local blockage you have to determine where you’ll rod from. If the blockage is on the second floor there may not be clean out so you’re the only alternative will be to pull the toilet and rod from there or to rod from the shower or lavatory drain. It doesn’t happen often but there are times when a line cannot be opened using the fixture drain. In this circumstance, a wall may need to be opened and a clean out installed to assure proper drain cleaning.
If it is determined that the sewer main is backed up it is important to find the cleanouts along the run of sewer main, especially if the sewer is over head. If the sewer is gravity and runs beneath the basement or first-floor slab there may only be one clean out just inside the house. We have seen on many occasions, especially in older homes where there isn’t clean out. The toilet is meant to be pulled and used as the cleanout. Unfortunately, on many of these occasions, an exterior cleanout must be installed to assure proper cleaning.
The next thing that needs to be determined is safety. Safety? Yes, rodding in confined spaces like crawl spaces or ceilings can be dangerous. Also if a blockage is a far distance from the sewer opening the cable can be quite heavy. In these cases, a second person is required to properly rod the drain line.
When you’ve finally punched through the blockage use water continuously to flush away the debris. When you pull back the rod, make note of the type of debris being brought back. It can help determine future maintenance plans or repairs.
As stated in the above there are many types of drain cleaning equipment, the technician must determine the best one for the job. A small power rodder can be used for small fixture drains and a larger power rod can be used for main sewer lines and the house sewer.
PRO TIP: This one is for the consumer and professional alike. We’ve seen many old time skilled plumber make this mistake. When you are using an electric power rod let the rod do the work. The blockage doesn’t break up any faster by forcing the rod into the drain line. The only thing that usually happens is the rod kinks or breaks ruining the rod. If you’re a plumber you know rod sections can be expensive. So extend the rod and engage the forward clutch and let the rod work it’s way into the line, pull some more rod out and engage the forward clutch. Work the rod slowly through the blockage. There will be some you can’t break through but forcing the rod in the line will only produce bad results.
Guarantees for Sewer Line Cleaning, Sewer Rodding or Sewer Jetting
It is our opinion that a video camera be used in all non local drain blockages. Let us explain, when most people call a professional plumbing
company they expect some sort of guarantee that what was rodded will stay clear for awhile. Now no plumber can guarantee that a customer won’t drop something down the sewer or that there won’t be a catastrophic failure in the drainage system however there is a real easy way to guarantee that the stoppage that was there has been removed and there is a real easy way to see the condition of the piping and the distance at which the blockage or blockages occurred. Use a video camera! There are some that think this is gouging because the customer has to pay for it but it eliminates so many variables. It gives the customer a clear picture of the condition of the piping after you’ve completed your work, it allows you to reference the video if you have to go back for a warranty call or for a call to do future work. It also allows you to see if the line may be prone to future or recurring blockages. You give yourself the ammunition you need to protect your company and the customer.
Contractor Tip: So it is our suggestion to a contractor that if you are going to give a customer a warrantee on a drain line go the extra step to see it’s condition.
Consumer Tip: Have the contractor give you options on how they can fix the problem. There is almost alway another way to fix a problem. Maybe there is a short term solution or a long term solution. I think contractors get in trouble when they don’t explain the problem in its entirety because they are too afraid to let the customer know “this maybe real expensive but here are your options”.
Sewer Pipe Collapse, Pipe Shearing, or Sewer Pipe Deterioration and the Dig
No homeowner wants to hear the words, “we have to dig up your sewer line to repair” but the fact remains that sometimes it’s the only way to fix. Here are the common reasons for having to dig up and repair your sewer line.
Sewer Pipe Deterioration and/or Collapse – Whether you have cast iron or clay tile or PVC, they can all collapse over time and for different reasons. The first reason and they are no particular order is pipe deterioration. When cast iron or clay tile have been on the ground for long periods of time they are susceptible to the elements, heating and cooling cycles, moisture, acidic ground, organic debris and tree roots in the piping, etc. Over the years as the piping is exposed is begins to weaken and eventually collapses in a spot or in several and must be dug up and replaced.
Sewer Pipe Shearing – Pipe shearing can happen for a number of different reasons but the result is the same the pipe needs to be dug up and section needs to be replaced. Pipe shearing occurs most often right next to the outside foundation wall. The ground around the pipe settles and the piping cracks and moves leaving a ridge where debris can get caught eventually leading to a blockage. Pipe shearing can happen at any point in the sewer line but occurs most often at foundation walls, driveways, sidewalks etc.
Quick Comment on Drain Chemicals
There are only two chemicals we recommend be used on sewer lines and they are as follows:
Root-X – There a few different root killers on the market but this is the first of it’s kind and there are still none better. It is considered a
non-systemic root killer in that it kills the roots it touches but not the tree. It also foams when it hits water so it hits the roots hanging down from the top of the pipe. This is considered environmentally friendly. Do not use any root killer with copper sulphate. Copper Sulphate kills everything including bacteria and other live organisms that help our ecosystem work. Think about copper sulphate running off into a pond.
Bio-Clean – Bio-Clean is a brown powder consisting of natural bacteria and enzymes that literally eat organic waste, like soap scum, grease, hair, food, paper etc. The powder is mixed with warm water and poured into a drain line. Bio-Clean can also be safely used in septic systems, in fact we would recommend all homes on septic systems use Bio-Clean. The enzymes and bacteria keep a septic system running smoothly. The only warning I would give regarding Bio-Clean is that it is long term maintenance option. It will not work fast enough to open a clogged drain line now.
FINAL SEWER RODDING QUESTION AND ANSWER
Q: What is a cleanout?
A: A cleanout is an access point within a waste piping system that allows for rodding or other equipment for drain maintenance. As we’ve mentioned before most homes have at least one as the sewer leaves the home. However we have seen homes with none. Most homes built from 1980 to the present are required to have a cleanout installed outside the home. Most normal homes in our area have a 4″ diameter sewer line exiting the house which transitions to a 6″ diameter line outside underground.
Q: I had rodding done outside and the technicians were done much quicker than when I had it done inside, is that normal?
A: Rodding and drain cleaning is not an exact science, each home can have different issues. We would say if the company that did the rodding in a confined space like a crawlspace or they took the time to make sure everything was neat and clean when they were done then it could take longer for sure.
Q: We had one contractor do rodding with one person and another company use two people. Is it usually a two man job?
A: It really depends on the size of the pipe, the equipment being used and the area where the work is taking place. Some rodding and drain cleaning equipment is extremely heavy and cumbersome so for the safe of safety two people should perform the work.
Q: A plumbing contractor came to my house to hydrojet. They started in the basement and ended up flooding the basement when they turned on the jetter. What happened because they just said we were 100% blocked.
A: Well they did tell you a partial truth. You were 100% blocked. But what they didn’t tell you is that you should never ever hydrojet in a basement when the sewer is surcharged (completely filled). Because most commercial hydrojetters put out a tremendous amount of water, the sewer has to be partially opened to give the water a place to go.
Q: Do I really need a new sewer in my front lawn? I’ve had one plumbing contractor say they can just do periodic maintenance and another insist replacement is the way to go.
A: We would say that the contractor that gives you the pros and cons for each option or options is the person to go with. The plumbing contractor that wants to keep rodding your sewer is aiming for job security the one who insists on replacing is looking for a sale. Have them show you the condition of the piping, it should be fairly clear whether you are close to a collapse. Better yet ask them for the video and send it to us @ firstname.lastname@example.org. We will let you know the truth.
Q: I’ve heard about getting my pipe relined, is it cheaper?
A: Good question, in our experience having a qualified contractor lining your pipe cost darned near having it dug up and replaced. The prep and manpower it takes to ready a drain line for lining is much more labor intensive than having a backhoe and a few technicians performing the repair. A couple thoughts on this, quality epoxy pipe lining leaves the pipe stronger than ductile iron and 17% smoother than new PVC so you are getting a real permanent fix. Also if you’ve spent a lot of hard earned dollars landscaping your yard, or the piping is under a sidewalk or driveway, lining is lot less intrusive. You won’t have to spend the extra money replacing sod, shrubs, concrete or asphalt
Q: The plumber I had out to my house broke a rod in my drain and now the company wants to charge me to dig up my front lawn to repair the sewer. I’ve had this line rodded many times in the past and this never happened.
A: The first thing we would urge you to do is, if you’ve had a licensed plumbing contractor out to your house many times in the past and they have done good work stick with what you know. There are times when a plumbing technician forces a rod into a blockage and the torque of the rod may get caught in an existing break. However, more often than not after years of maintenance the sewer finally collapsed and the rodding equipment is stuck through no fault of the plumbing technician.
As a final comment, thank you so much for reading. This piece is not for a quick read. It is also a living document so feel free to post or email us to add content you think should be included. HAPPY RODDING!
*A big thank goes out to Jim Madden with Ridgid Tool Company for helping me get to those pictures and to Mongoose Jetters for allowing me to also use their fantastic pics.
*RIDGID® is a registered trademark of the Ridge Tool Company
*Also special thanks to Ashley Trueblood with Sewer Equipment Co. of America for the use of jetting equipment pictures.
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