Ageing sewage infrastructure can cause billions in damages for cities. On a smaller scale, a sewer backup can cost you thousands to repair and thousands more to clean up.
The best thing to do is prevent a sewer backup before it happens. To do this, you need to follow these tips on maintaining your sewer or septic system.
Just in case you've already got a sewer problem, we'll also tell you what to do to fix a sewer backup. Preventative maintenance is the key to living a clean, waste-free life with your septic system.
1. Types of Drain Lines Found in the Home
Sanitary Sewer Lines
Not all drain lines in the home are the same when it comes to size, flow, and maintenance. The piping installed for the toilet waste lines are different from the tub waste line. Just like the waste lines coming from the kitchen sink is different from the laundry waste line. Each one of these lines is a bit different in order to accommodate the specific waste that they will be flushing away from the home.
All of these drains eventually come together in your home’s sewer pipe underneath the concrete floor of your basement. The sewer pipe runs through your yard and directs all of this waste to the municipal sewer if you live in an area with these services. Generally speaking, for those in urban Edmonton and the surrounding suburban areas you have municipal sewer lines that your sewer pipe drains to.
If you reside in a rural area, your sewer likely drains to a septic tank. We’ll explain more about these further down.
Storm Sewer Lines
The design of storm sewer lines is to direct water away from the home. Water needs directing away from the home to prevent damage to the foundation and home in general.
Storm sewer lines include weeping or drain tile, sump pump discharge lines, window well drain lines, gutter downspout lines, and area yard drain lines. All wastewater lines coming from your home should be clear to direct the water away effectively.
If these lines aren’t draining properly that water will usually end up in your basement which is never good.
Storm sewer lines often drain into your sanitary sewer pipe which drains into the municipal sewer. However, in some neighbourhoods the city has a separate storm water drainage system that they may connect to.
2. What Causes a Sewer to Back Up
The main reason for a sewer backup is when the sewage system becomes compromised in some way. If you suspect that there is a problem in your sewer system you can have a plumber come out and do a camera inspection so you can see what is happening inside your sewer.
Trees and shrubs have roots that will make their way into the sewer lines in search of moisture and nutrients. These roots start sneaking into the sewer pipe as extremely fine hair-like roots through the tiniest openings and cracks in the pipe.
As the plant grows, so do the roots. As the roots get bigger, the crack or opening becomes larger. Sewer piping joints are especially vulnerable to roots.
Tree roots can travel long distances through the lines. Since the roots of different plants act differently, you can use the roots to identify which tree is causing the problem.
Tree roots are the most common problem we find in homes with clay tile sewer pipes as the roots often infiltrate the pipe joints over time.
Ageing Sewer Systems
One of the major reasons sewer lines back up is because the lines are ageing. As time goes by technology and building materials, have become much better, but many older homes still have the original materials in place.
No Corrode (also known as tar paper) sewer pipes are generally found in Edmonton’s oldest homes. This material is similar to asphalt shingles laminated into a pipe shape. Tar paper sewers generally fail by blistering or by pancaking. A blister occurs when the inner lamination blisters inward blocking flow. Pancaking happens because the product doesn’t resist outside force very well causing it to flatten from ground settling. A sewer that is slightly flattened can continue to operate, but soon it will likely compress too much for waste to flow through properly. .
The next generation of sewer pipe material is known as clay tile. Clay tile consists of 3 and 4-foot sections of clay pipe. The clay is susceptible to root infiltration at the joints and can crack or crumble apart when force is introduced from settling or pressure from root growth.
After clay tile, sewer pipe materials improved and plastic pipes became the norm. While plastic sewers can still have issues they tend to be far better than their predecessors.
If you know your system is older, it would be wise to consider replacing your lines before an issue arises or at least perform a camera inspection to see what kind of shape your sewer is in.
Water in the Basement
Water in your basement can happen for a number of reasons, especially in older homes. If you see the water coming into your basement from the floor drains or sink drains, it's likely a sewer problem.
Often when there are heavy rains the sewer systems get overwhelmed and can't handle all of the extra water. The water will backup the system, often all the way into people's homes.
This type of backup can also happen if the sewer on your property is backed up from grease, tree roots, or broken lines. This type of backup can be dangerous to your health, and we recommend that it be dealt with by professionals.
3. How to Prevent a Future Plumbing Backup
The key to preventing a sewage backup is preventing foreign materials from getting into the system. Some can be prevented such as grease and trash. Others you have less control over such as tree roots.
Dispose of Grease Properly
Grease is the #1 cause of kitchen sink backups that we see. Do not pour your grease down the drain. Pour used grease in a heat-resistant container. Once it has cooled off dispose of it by getting rid of it at an approved location. There will always small amounts of grease that comes off of your dishes when they are washed, but it could take many years for this to amount to a blockage.
Hot grease that is poured down the drain quickly cools and then solidifies.
Do not think that pouring the grease down the drain with hot water will make it ok. The grease will still solidify in the sink drain line or the main sewer line.
Dispose of Paper Products Properly
Bathroom tissue disintegrates quickly making it ok for it to be flushed. Items like paper towels, disposable diapers, baby wipes, and feminine products do not disintegrate quickly.
Because these items do not break down quickly they can clog and cause issues in no time. Instead throw these items away in your trash.
Other Drain No-No’s
You might be surprised by some of the things we find when cleaning drains, or maybe not. Basically, the only things going into your drain system should be wastewater, toilet paper, and human waste. If you have a garburator or waste disposal then you can use it to dispose of non-expandable food items but you need to wash it down with lots of water, or your lines will be clogged in no time.
Here is a handful of common drain disposal infractions that we have come across: toys (no surprise there), condoms, rice, dry dog food, whole cucumbers, watermelon rinds, rags and towels, and underwear. The list could go on forever, but you get the idea.
Replace your Sewer Line with New Plastic Pipe
Replacing your lines with new plastic pipe will help prevent tree roots from getting in your lines. This can be an expensive option but so is hiring a plumber once or twice a year to clean out your sewer! Replacing that old sewer is often the best option for the long term, especially if you have finished your basement or are planning to.
Illegal Plumbing Connections
Certain types of drains should not be connected to your sewer lines. This would include French drains and sump pumps or other flood control systems.
Connecting these lines to your sewer is illegal. The silt and other debris that will be flushed into the system can cause it to clog. Also, if your sewer does clog, these drains will keep on draining into it which will cause basement flooding.
Install a Backwater Prevention Valve
A backwater valve functions as a one-way flow controller. They install onto your sewer line so that the sewage can then flow out, but not come back.
There is often some misunderstanding of what this valve can and cannot do for your home. A backwater prevention valve is designed to only allow flow in one direction. It works best when the city sewer backs up as it will prevent it from backing up into your home. It won’t, however, prevent your own sewer backups.
If you have a clog in your sewer after the backwater valve, your sewer will still back up because there is nowhere for your home’s wastewater to drain to since the sewer is blocked. If you keep using water, it will still backup.
With that being said they are still extremely valuable to have because when the city sewer backs up all that sewage will go somewhere. If you are the only one on the block without a backwater valve, it’s probably coming your way, and you are going to have a very bad day.
4. What to do When You Have a Sewer Backup
Sewage backup leads to the destruction of your home and valuables. It's vital that you fix the problem and begin the cleanup process promptly.
First things first, it is time to call a plumber. You’ll need a plumber to determine what is causing the sewer backup and attempt to clear it for you. Make sure you hire a plumber who has the equipment to both clear the drain and inspect it with a sewer camera afterwards so that you can see potential issues in your sewer pipe.
If you are lucky your plumber was able to clear the blockage and your sewer line looks to be in good condition. If you aren’t, your sewer may be in need of repair or replacement. If that is the case, make sure you see the issues with your own eyes and have the plumber explain why it is a problem.
By cleaning up right away, you can avoid electrical issues, minimize inconvenience, prevent mold and extensive damages. When you arrange for a cleanup service, confirm that the service addresses all of these issues. The plumber you called may have a flood restoration company that they can recommend if you aren’t sure who to call for help.
If you are going to do the cleanup yourself here is what you’ll need to do:
The area needs to be wet vacuumed to remove any spillage.
The floors of your home need to be mopped and the walls wiped with soap and disinfectant.
Any wet carpets or drapes need to be removed or steam cleaned.
If there is any damage to the walls from moisture they need to be repaired. This usually involves removing damaged drywall and replacing it with new.
Moisture is usually drawn into the wood studs from the water exposure. A dehumidifier will draw that moisture back out of the studs to dry them out again.
The ductwork may need to be cleaned and sanitized which would need to be done by a professional.
If all of these things are performed then your home should be sanitary and safe for your family again but as you can see there is a lot to it. We recommend consulting a professional so you can be sure the cleanup is done right
5. Don't Use Drano or Liquid Plumr
This is a common mistake that many homeowners make when they experience a clogged drain. These off the shelf options use harsh acidic or basic chemicals to break up the clog.
Even if these chemicals were effective at clearing a clog, the problem is that they won’t get to the clog to clear it. For example, if your kitchen sink drain is clogged the clog is usually 20-30 feet down the drain line. If you were to pour a drain cleaning chemical in your sink, it is not going to wander down the drain to the clog and get to work. Instead, it is going to sit in your nice sink and eat away at the metal.
You might be thinking that if the drain isn’t completely clogged that the chemical will make its way down to the clog, and you are right. However, the chemicals will damage the drain pipes all along the journey as the chemicals will react with everything they come into contact with, not just clogs in the drain. This damage won’t happen overnight, but eventually, it will result in some very expensive damage to your drain pipes. Instead, contact a plumbing professional who can help you make the best decision for your clogged drains.
If you have a drain that is slow, a bacterial drain maintenance product may be the way to go. The bacteria is introduced into the drain lines and then slowly consumes organic deposits over time. Our Mr. Rooter exclusive product, BioChoice ES is an environmentally friendly bacterial drain maintenance product that does just that. It works very well on slow drains in the home but it will not do anything to combat root issues or other major sewer issues. It also can’t help if your drain is completely clogged, you’ll need to clear the drain first before it helps prevent future clogs.
The best thing about BioChoice ES is that it won’t damage your drains and it is not harmful to the environment so you don’t need to feel guilty about putting it down the drain. The bacteria will actually not just work on your pipes but will help process the waste as it flows in the municipal sewer lines as well.
6. Does Insurance Cover a Sewer Backup
Most homeowners policies do not automatically cover a sewage backup event. Homeowners with a septic tank will need to let their insurance company know they have a septic tank so that coverage can be added on.
Adding on the extra insurance is usually a small additional yearly fee. The total cost will be forty to fifty dollars a year, but that will vary.
Homeowners should also be aware that you are responsible for the lateral line. This is the pipe that goes from the home to the city sewer. The point where it transitions is usually at your property line, and that is where your responsibility ends
In the event of a sewer backup, you’ll usually need to call a plumber to clear your line first. They can usually tell if the blockage is beyond your property line or not.
7. How to File a Claim
Your insurance company is going to want pictures of the damage. You will need to show them before and after pictures of the damaged areas.
Create an itemized list of your property that has been damaged or lost. Save any receipts from the event.
This can include the actual repairs, cleaning, and damage costs. If you are making a claim make sure to get professionals in to do the cleanup so that you can be sure it has been done right. Be sure to contact your insurance agent as soon as possible.
Excavation is the process used when you need to replace your sewer tank and/or lines. Your plumbers will dig a trench, remove all of the old drain pipes and replace them with new ones.
The proper slope will be calculated to prevent clogging and encourage even flow of waste. Insufficient slope will cause backups over time.
Once the pipe has been laid and is in place, the line will be tested for flow. If everything is flowing as it should the the excavation will be backfilled and tamped to reduce settling.
If the line goes under your sidewalk, driveway, or other concrete, it will usually have to be torn out to replace the lines.
In some instances, there are other options besides excavating, but it really depends on the condition of your sewer.
9. How a Septic Tank Works
For those of you living in more rural areas you likely have a septic tank. Septic tanks work by filtering the wastewater in addition to bacterial digestion of the solids. There is often no centralized sanitation system in these areas so a septic tank is usually the only option.
The wastewater pipes in your home all come together to combine into one main sewer pipe that leads to the septic tank. The tank is a watertight tank that holds the waste so that it can separate.
The solid waste either floats on top or sinks to the bottom and the grey water seeps into the secondary tank.
The grey water will then travel out of the tank and into the drain field or be pumped out to a mound which is an open discharge. The drain field is a series of pipes with multiple holes for slow filtration into the surrounding soil. The water is expelled from the moisture dense system to the less moist surrounding land. The soil acts as a final filter and dispersing system. The expelled water becomes groundwater as it filters through the soil.
A healthy septic tank will have a good supply of anaerobic bacteria that feed on the solid waste in the tank. These bacteria help to break down the solids in the tank and extend the amount of time required between pump outs.
To get a healthy bacterial culture started, I’ve heard lots of interesting methods including adding a pound of yeast, a dead chicken or cat carcass, and even adding cow manure. While we don’t really recommend these methods, the idea of starting a good bacterial culture does hold merit. We suggest the same product that we use for drain maintenance, BioChoice ES. This product can quickly introduce a healthy bacterial culture in your septic tank to keep breaking down the solid waste.
If there is a healthy amount of bacteria working in your septic tank, it will keep warm, even in the winter from the bacterial activity. This is an added bonus as a healthy tank shouldn’t freeze.
One thing to keep in mind would be to limit the amounts of bacteria-killing products from going into your septic system. The 2 primary products are antibacterial soaps and chlorine bleach. If these are things that you use occasionally it is a good idea to have a routine of adding a bacterial product like BioChoice ES to your septic system so there is always more being added to offset what is killed off from the antibacterial products.
10. Backups when you have a Septic Tank
Depending on the amount of water you use, it is recommended that you get your septic tank pumped every two to five years. The more people in your home, the more water will be used.
When you have a backup in your home the first step is always to check your septic tank. If your tank is full, then this is likely the cause of the backup and not a blocked sewer pipe. A full septic tank is responsible for most of our sewer backup calls when septic tanks are involved.
First of all, locate the septic tank before your call a septic truck for a quote. If you have can’t find the tank you may have to get a plumber out to locate it for you which may require special equipment. When getting your quote, be sure to ask if there are extra fees that may apply including dumping fees and travel fees.
There is usually an extra fee for digging to uncover the septic tank lid which you may prefer to do yourself to save some money. You may also want to ask about the potential costs if it is discovered that the tank hasn't been maintained properly.
Take Care of Your Septic System
Your septic tank is designed to last for many years if maintained properly. With some regular maintenance and care, you should be able to not worry about a sewer backup.
Avoid putting materials that will not break down and harsh chemicals including acids and antibacterial cleaners into the system.
Regularly monitor the trees in the area to ensure they do not encroach on the lines. You may also want to consider installing an alarm to alert you when the tank overfills. A septic tank should last for many years so take good care of it to make sure you get the maximum lifespan from yours!