To be honest…probably not. When one thinks of sewers at all, one is likely to envision that (most likely rat-riddled) complicated network running under city streets. If you’re like most folks, you may not realize that your home contains a microcosmic sewer network all its own…where each drain contains its individual pipeline which ties in to that larger, subterranean conduit, which, in turn, hooks your home to your town or city’s sewer network.
These secondary lines are ripe for all manner of plumbing issues, including blockages. In a similar vein, resultant problems in the main line can, if not dealt with in a timely fashion, cause major property damage. (It’s important to remember that homes with septic systems or digesters operate with different function than those residences with conventional sewer systems, so not all of the information that follows may necessarily apply.)
The sewer network in your home was created to make sure water doesn’t ever flow in the wrong direction; as it leaves your drains, it courses through a succession of features whose purpose is to keep the system free of gasses and wastewater that might reverse their natural, intended direction. It’s a great system, when it works as it is supposed to, but, as we know even the best systems can break down, many of which could be dire enough to cause health issues or property damage.
Let’s Look at How a Home Sewer Network Should Work
As water moves from your toilet or sink, it should course through a P-trap—a pipe with a U-shape. An amount of water always remains in this pipe, designed to keep gasses from erupting from the drains and exiting the home via a vertical vent conduit. As this happens, the pipes containing wastewater connect to the sewer lateral—the main sewer pipe which exits your home and connects with the Swede line of your municipality. This latter pipe is a large conveyance called the sanitary main, which courses beneath the center of the street outside your home.
What Causes Backups?
Items flushed down the toilet constitute one of the chief causes of backups in the sewer. Too much toilet paper—even though it is crafted for easy breakup—can easily cause a troublesome blockage. Water pressure buildup can force the clog deeper, compacting it into a mass that calls for a proper draining cleaning to effectively remove the issue. Other potential hazards include baby wipes, paper towels, and personal care objects. Should these clogs find their way to that main sewer pipe, backups can result, household-wide. Landscaping, a less obvious feature, can also cause problems, when deeply burrowing roots puncture the sewer lateral; if not addressed, they can completely block off the pipe. If the tree happens to abut a public sidewalk, it can wreak havoc involving pavement removal, generating significant expense to extricate the compromised pipeline.
An additional occasional cause of backups is flooding, especially that which occurs following a drought. Junk can accumulate in your property’s outdoor drains and in the sanitary main, which can lead to floor drains and cause the basement to flood. This latter misfortune can also owe to poor drainage near the foundation. If you’re unsure of the exact cause, a professional examination can help narrow this down.
Detecting Backup or Risk Indicators In the Sewer System:
Here are a few things to look for:
> Hair, grease, and other debris are chief culprits of drain clogs.
Single clogs, which can be easily removed, are common, but should you notice multiple, simultaneous clogs, this probably means that the sewer itself has a blockage, especially if it occurs in rarely used drains.
> Because drain systems have been engineered to avoid backups, it’s relatively simple to identify existing blockages when you hear bubbling or gurgling noises in other drains throughout the household. Learn to listen for little signs like a shower that gurgles when a toilet is flushed, or when that toilet bubbles when the washing machine is running.
> Be alert should your drains issue a foul odor, which can mean that gasses are not being properly blocked by the P-trap and are being forced to the vent pipe. Gas that escapes can hint at blockages that create sufficient pressure to supersede the water flow in the P-trap.
> Overflow of the basement drains can indicate a potential problem in the sanitary main, the sewer lateral, or both.
Dealing with Drain Backups:
The issue of handling clogs in your sewer system—depending on the degree of severity and the location of the problem—are simple enough to to outline. Though many of the suggestions are comparatively inexpensive, keep in mind if the sewer lateral is damaged, you may be looking at expensive measures, such as excavations. It’s always a good idea to keep a photo record and an inventory of items that flooding may have damaged beyond repair.
Should a clog appear, you may have to enlist a professional plumber, who will use a snake (or drain machine) to clear the clog, a process which typically is not a complicated scenario.
In the Aftermath of a Backed-Up Sewer…
In addition to wreaking flood damage, sewer backups also carry the risk of contamination, making eye protection and gloves vital if there is a risk of coming into direct contact with raw sewage. If standing water is present, make sure to disconnect electricity prior to tackling any cleaning.
Prior to initiating insurance filing, it’s a good idea to photograph any damage, following up, thus:
> Use a sump pump, rag, or wet vac to get rid of any and all standing water.
> Take care to to discard all contaminated materials and solid waste after you’ve removed them. This includes any furniture or carpeting the sewage might have compromised.
> Get rid of any sewage or trace dirt by completely scrubbing down the contaminated area, and wait for it to dry.
> Employ a mix of nine parts of water to one of bleach to thoroughly clean the area, permitting the solution to dry.
Might the Municipality Be Held Responsible?
Backups on your property are primarily your responsibility—even though the city oversees its sewer system, including the sanitary main; the homeowners must maintain the sewer system in their homes, including the pipes on their property and the total lateral that leads up to the sanitary main. The only time the city may incur responsibility for cleanup is if it is found in negligence of the sanitary main’s maintenance. Usually, the homeowner must bear the onus of any and all repairs the backup causes, including sidewalk replacement. Should a tree owned by the city be deemed responsible for any root damage, it’s possible the homeowner may be on the hook for only part of the repair bill.
An Ounce of Prevention…
So, how can homeowners reduce or prevent the peril of a sewer blockage? There are simple ways to keep the sewer system flowing smoothly, just as there are alternative tactics to minimize damage caused by storms. To list but a few: fill your sinks periodically, allowing them to drain at the same time, creating pressure that can ease any debris through the pipes; when the tub or sink appears to drain sluggishly, use an enzymatic and bacteria cleaner such as Bio-Clean. The use of chemical cleaners can damage the plumbing system and are not environmentally safe; consider enlisting a sink trap to collect hair of food particles and prevent them from entering the drain; and, judicially dispose of grease, feminine napkins, and sanitary wipes, to minimize complications.
Be Mindful of Storms.
Though city sewers are supposed to manage wastewater, they may be put to the test when a major storm generates flooding. To minimize damage in this quarter, keep an eye on downspouts and gutters to make sure there’s no drainage into the lateral pipe. Drainage valves to protect against backflow and prevent flooding are also an efficient, and relatively inexpensive investment.
Should your terrain have shrubs or trees, consider accessing a property map to locate your sewer lateral, and look into removing fauna near the pipeline to ward off any invasion of roots. If the lateral pipe is a segmented or older line, investigate PVC as a lateral pipe replacement. Lastly, remember to seal foundation wall cracks to head off flooding, especially if your home is at a lower elevation from the road, a scenario that can cause a sanitary main overflow.
Does Insurance Against Sewer Backups Make Sense?
Because such coverage is generally not a part of conventional home insurance policies, a sewage backup rider is worth investigating. Such coverage usually runs in the neighborhood of $100 annually. It’s difficult to judge the status of your home’s lateral line without enlisting a camera inspection, but it’s important to remember that the plumbing in all homes saddles some measure of backup risk. Newer homes carry a reduced chance for problems, but older homes—or those in locations that might flood or be susceptible to backups—are likely candidates to make such a rider at least worthy of consideration. Any additional expenditure now just might save money for a homeowner over time.
For More Information:
The IICRC (Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification) is a Standards Developing Organization that serves more than 25 counties, providing certification and guidelines for companies engaged in professional cleanups. Consult the iicrc.gov website for a searchable database of certified cleanup companies.
Additionally, the Connecticut Department of Public Health has made available a fact sheet that specifically addresses sewer backups. With its 2020 revision, the tips on prevention methods and dealing with sewer backups remain up-to-date. The City of Papillion, Nebraska has produced a document that provides an extensive explanation of where a municipality may carry responsibility for backups, along with some useful sample guidelines that might facilitate filing a claim.
For answers to these and plumbing issues involving your household, please contact A & A Plumbing & Drain at (402) 827-3207. Check out our website— anaplumbing.com.