Everything you need to know about sewer line clogs

Your sewer line carries wastewater away from the sinks, toilets, and showers of your home. It travels underneath your yard to the street, where it connects to the municipal sewer. Most homeowners don’t give their sewer line much thought: beyond the fact that the entire operation of waste disposal is a bit unsavory to think about, the sewer line also fulfills its important function without much issue.

However, when problems do occur, the results can be disastrous. A sewer line clog can lead to sewage and wastewater backing up into your home. Known as a sewer backup, this event is a homeowner’s worst nightmare.

In this article, we’ll provide a complete guide to sewer lines, the issues they can encounter, and how you can prevent a sewer backup in your own home.

We’re your sewer line experts

At ABC Cooling, Heating & Plumbing, our team specializes in sewer line inspection and repair. Our team of plumbing professionals has the tools and expertise needed to quickly diagnose issues with the sewer line and then recommend the right fix. We also fix storm drain issues.

Since 1953, homeowners in Hayward and the Bay Area have trusted our team with all their home service needs, and we’re proud to continue that tradition of great service into the present day.

Need a sewer inspection or repair here in Hayward, San Leandro, Union City, or surrounding areas? Fill out the form to schedule service with our team.

Common causes of a sewer line clog

Tree Roots

Many sewer line clogs have their roots in, well, roots. The sewer line runs from your home to the street, often passing under a front or side yard. Any nearby trees, bushes, or shrubs are a potential danger to the line. Over time, their thirsty, moisture-seeking roots will burrow down to the line, where they either enter it through an existing crack or put enough pressure on the line’s exterior to crack it open.

As the roots attempt to take in more and more moisture, they eventually grow into the line, partially—and then fully—obstructing it. This leads to a sewer line blockage and the high risk of a sewer backup.

If you have trees in your front yard, you should be aware of the threat they may pose to your home's sewer line.

If you have trees in your front yard, you should be aware of the threat they may pose to your home’s sewer line.

What types of trees pose the biggest threat?

Any tree within 10 feet of the line is a potential threat. Some tree species have faster-growing roots than others, making them more dangerous to the sewer line than others:

Less Dangerous

These trees have slow-growing, less aggressive root structures, and can be planted 10 feet away from the sewer line.

  • Maple species
  • Dogwood species
  • Crabapple trees
  • Ginkgo trees
  • Smoke trees

More Dangerous

These trees have fast-growing, aggressive root structures, and should not be planted near sewer lines.

  • Ash species
  • Poplar species
  • Cottonwood species
  • Oak species
  • Sycamore species

How can tree root incursion be prevented?

  • Plant all new trees, bushes, and shrubs at least 10 feet away from the sewer line on all sides.
  • If you have existing trees near the sewer line, consider having them moved to another part of your yard as a preventative measure.
  • When planting a slow-growing tree, plan on replacing or moving the tree in the next 15-20 years.
  • If you are planting a fast-growing tree, plan on replacing or moving the tree in the next 8-10 years. Depending on the species, this is typically representative of how long it takes its roots to expand the distance to the sewer line.

Grease & Waste

Many homeowners don’t give much thought to how they use their garbage disposal, or what they put down it. However, just how you dispose of kitchen waste can have a big impact on your home’s sewer line.

In general, the most dangerous thing to put down the sink is anything that is a liquid while hot but solidifies upon cooling.

An ABC plumber cleans out a sewer line clog at a local home.Grease

Grease is the most famous example of this. The homeowner pours hot cooking grease down the drain. As the grease travels through pipes, it begins to cool. By the time it reaches the sewer line, it may be much cooler than it originally was, and begins to solidify with the temperature change. This partially solidified grease sticks to the interior of the line. Time after time, disposing of grease in this way adds to the building blockage in the line. Eventually, it’s enough for a clog to start to form.

Food Waste

It’s not just grease that’s a problem. Here is some food waste that you should never dispose of down the sink drain:

  • Coffee Grounds: Besides grease, coffee grounds are the number one cause of sewer line blockages. These grounds can become stuck in pipes when they adhere to other materials deep inside of the line.
  • Eggshells: As the shells fracture in the garbage disposal, tiny pieces of shell shrapnel travel down the lines and become stuck in the sewer line.
  • Oil & Butter: This is essentially the same story as grease: fats and oils can coat the inside of the line and congeal deep inside of it. While it is a kitchen staple, coconut oil is especially dangerous, since it solidifies at room temperature.
  • Rice & Pasta: Anything that physically expands upon continued contact with water is bad news once in your sewer line. A half-cup of uncooked rice can bloat to a sewer line-blocking mess once exposed to water.
  • Flour: When combined with water, most flours become sticky and adhesive. This is not something you want inside of your sewer line.

Bathroom Waste

Inorganic bathroom waste is a major cause of sewer line issues. Just because something can be flushed down the toilet doesn’t mean that it should be. Avoid putting non-biodegradable items down the toilet drain. A few common examples include human hair, sanitary products, plastics, baby wipes, or flushable wipes. That latter one is a common misunderstanding: despite what their marketing says, ‘flushable’ wipes are not actually flushable and can cause a clog.

Sagging Sewer Line

Your sewer line does not use electricity or gas to move wastewater from one place (your home) to another (the municipal sewer). Instead, it accomplishes this by using gravity. The sewer line is slightly sloped diagonally so that the end at your home is several inches higher than the end at the street. This helps facilitate the movement of water from one location to another. In most cases, this gradient is very gradual: about a one-fourth of an inch drop for every foot of pipe length.

The Sewer Line “Belly”

No matter how perfectly installed the sewer line was originally, there are some potential problems that can crop up as time goes by. First, the movement of soil around the line. Throughout the year, soil can shift and move due to changes in moisture and local topographic factors. As it does, the line moves, too. If a certain patch of soil sinks, the line also sinks. This can cause a “u” shape to start to form, disrupting the gravity-assisted flow of water out of the system.

This is often known as a sewer line “belly,” and it can cause several issues. First, it creates a place in the line where wastewater gets perpetually stuck and pools. This can lead to foul odors as not all the waste is being discharged from the line. Second, if the wastewater can no longer “climb” back up the other side of the “u,” it may eventually start to back up the line and back into the house.

Dealing with a sagging sewer line

Generally speaking, there are two ways to fix a sagging sewer line. The first is relatively self-explanatory: the plumber digs up the sewer line and fixes the sag, either by replacing that section of line or by restoring it to its original position. However, this requires digging a trench in your yard to get to the line, and may not be practical for every home. Plumbers have two other options in such cases:

  • Guidance Method: Using this method, the plumber pushes the old pipe out using the new pipes and compacts the soil around it as they go, maintaining the slope.
  • Sliplining: The plumber inserts a smaller sewer line into the current one, and then pulls away the old line. The only downside of this method is that the smaller diameter of the new sewer line may be easier to clog in the future.

Schedule a camera inspection

The best way to diagnose sewer line clogs, leaks, and other issues is by using a sewer line camera tool. Most plumbing professionals—including ours here at ABC Cooling, Heating & Plumbing—have specialized snake tools that allow us to feed a small camera down the drain and into the line. As the camera moves through the line, we can see any points of trouble and any partially formed clogs.

If you have reason to believe that your sewer line is experiencing issues, a sewer line inspection is the next step. Talk to your local plumbing professional about scheduling a camera inspection.

Warning signs of a sewer line blockage

There are many potential warning signs of a sewer line clog or leak. Here are the two that you need to be on the lookout for in your home:

Simultaneous clogging

When a single drain pipe in your home is clogged, you’ll notice that the sink is backing up, the toilet won’t flush, or the shower basin is starting to flood. This is a pretty regular occurrence, and—in most cases—the problem can be solved locally by running the garbage disposal, plunging the toilet, or cleaning out the shower drain.

However, if all the drains and toilets in your home are clogged at the same time, this is almost as sure a sign as any that something is wrong deep inside of the sewer line. You should immediately turn the water off and call a plumber for service.

Slow-moving drains

Not every sewer line clog starts as a complete and total blockage. In most cases, sewer line clogs are first noticed when they only partially block the line. You’ll start to see your drains draining more and more slowly as this happens.

Call ABC for help clearing a sewer line clog

The above are the most common reasons for a residential sewer line clog. You should contact the licensed and certified plumbers at ABC to come and diagnose the exact reason for a clog. After assessing the reason for, and the location of, the clog, our plumber will use professional tools to efficiently get your sewer system working again.

In case you reside in San Jose, Hayward, or the surrounding locations in much of the Bay Area, you should contact our team for expert help for sewer line clogs. Our professional plumbers will quickly diagnose the problem and resolve any issues with your home plumbing.

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