Most homeowners address the issues of home maintenance on a periodic basis. You’ll remember to have your air conditioning and heating systems checked seasonally, getting the gutters cleaned before the rain and snow starts, and winterizing your outside faucets to prevent frozen pipes. However, having your sewer line inspected on a regular basis is a task most homeowners overlook.
This is probably the most overlooked home maintenance task, but can potentially lead to the costliest, worst (and smelliest) damage to be had. Don’t wait to find out the hard way that your sewers are backed up and in need of a serious cleaning!
What Causes Sewer Line Backups?
There are several reasons a sewer can back up. Common causes are FOG’s (fats, oils and grease), tree root intrusions, and pipe erosion from the inside (also known as delineation). Before we discuss how often you should have your side sewer pipes cleaned, it is important to know what types of pipes you potentially have.
Clay Sewer Lines
If your home was built before the mid-50’s, you may have a clay sewer line. This type of sewer line was originally installed in sections of about 3 feet in length, with joints at either end. Most sewer lines average approximately 40-50 feet from the house transition to the main sewer line in the street or alleyway. These joints leave several paths for tree root intrusion to occur, as the roots look to feed off the water running through the pipes. If the roots are left unchecked, large root balls will grow, blocking the path of any solids that need to pass through, thus creating the blockage. Even worse, the roots could grow so large that an already age-weakened pipe could crumble as the root balls grow larger than the pipe’s diameter.
Fiber Conduit Lines (Orangeburg)
From the late 1950’s through the 1960’s, a “new and improved” pipe material hit the scene, and was installed in most residential homes. Fiber conduit, made from rolled wood pulp and tar, and got its nickname from the factory town it was created in, Orangeburg, NY.
Tree root growth in these lines is very rare, but this material does devolve over time. Much like wet cardboard, Orangeburg pipes tend to oval out in shape, and can flatten over time, causing disruptions in the flow of your sewer line. The egg-shape will no longer allow larger solids to flow out to the main sewer line, and causes another potential blockage. This type of pipe also tends to blister or bulge, creating another potential blockage.
Cast Iron Sewer Lines
From the 1970’s to present day, heavy-duty cast iron pipes are the sewer line of choice. Unlike the clay and Orangeburg materials, cast iron has fewer joints and is incredibly strong. The downside to this material is the formulation of scale within the pipe. Large barnacles, much like that on a ship, form in the line and catch solids, which leads to blockages.
Cement / Concrete Lines
The earliest known cement sewer lines date back to 180 B.C. in Rome, and the first documented concrete sewer lines used in the Unites States dates back to 1842, in Mohawk, NY. Though the main materials remain the same, such as cement, aggregate, and water, breakthroughs in technology and science have created stronger and more durable concrete pipes. However, as with all of the previous types of pipe discussed prior, concrete pipes have their own weaknesses. After several decades of use, concrete pipes tend to delineate, meaning that the aggregate begins to break down, causing rough spots within the pipe. These rough spots will then snag smaller waste materials, which builds up into larger accumulations of waste materials, resulting in sewer blockage.
Plastic (PVC and ABS) Pipes
Although it is unclear when and where exactly polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was discovered (some sources say as early as 1835 in Germany, while others state around 1920 in the US), we do know that the first tubes created from PVC appeared in 1932 in Germany, and that the general usage of PVC exploded after World War II, when it had been discovered that PVC was an amazing new alternative to rubber insulation for wiring. The first usage of PVC pipes in wastewater and sewer systems in the US in 1952; however, Germany had been using it for that purpose since 1936.
Most residential homes built since the 1970’s used PVC pipes (or cast iron, as discussed earlier) for the water and sewage draining systems. PVC is extremely strong, and seemingly impervious to chemicals or corrosion. However, PVC can succumb to the elements (such as becoming brittle if exposed to high heat for extended periods), or excessive weight (such as flattening if hardscaping structures are erected over the in-ground pipes).
Cleaning and Clearing the Lines
Now that you know the different types of sewer pipes you may find in your own yard, its time to determine the most common options to clean them.
In most situations, clearing the lines is best accomplished by a thorough Hydrojetting. Essentially, this system uses high-pressure water to clear the lines, with a power range of up to 3000 cfpm, and any number of specialized jet nozzles. This system can clear most blockages, including root balls.
Many companies recommend snaking a line; however, we have found that this rarely cleans the lines completely. It merely pokes a hole in the center of the blockage, instead of cleaning it out. As such, you may need a repeat visit from your service provider in a very short amount of time. That is not conducive to anyone’s pocketbooks, and not a service we recommend.
If the blockage is thicker than a jetting will clear, a Picote™ system is used. This is a fast-twirling, multi-chain cutting system that clears as it cuts.
If the lines are full of rocks, cement, or other hard material, a vactor boom is used. Just like it sounds, this is a very large vacuum system that is used to suck out all of the heaviest materials.
It is always best to have a full CCTV camera inspection completed on your side sewer system, from the transition of the house out to the city main sewer, to determine if your lines are healthy enough to be cleaned. Routine camera inspections (once every two to three years) will help to ensure you know the condition of your sewer system, and potentially save you thousands of dollars in costly repairs.