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Identifying Sewer Line Problems: Key Tips for Troubleshooting a Break

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Although you might not pay much attention to them at first, sewer line problems will make themselves known through extensive damage to your home if left untreated. Luckily, there are symptoms such as clogs, backups and other sewer problem warning signs that can alert attentive homeowners to hidden damage before things get out of hand.

Diagram of several hypothetical sewer line problems causing backups in a home.

These are the things you should look for when you think there may be a break, blockage or another sewage issue in your home. If you identify any of these sewer line problem warning signs in your home, call a professional and schedule a video inspection right away.

Top 10 Symptoms of Sewer Line Problems:

  1. Slowly draining sinks and other backups – Water backing up in fixtures is one of the most common symptoms of sewer lateral issues. Even if the backup is only occurring in certain fixtures – e.g. the bathtub is backing up and the toilet works fine – there may still be an issue with a secondary sewer line as opposed to the main line. Your plumbing system has multiple branches, similar to a tree, and problems may occur in one or all of them.
     
  2. Using one fixture causes a backup somewhere else – If flushing the toilet causes water to backup in the bathtub, for example, it may be because the water is being forced upward due to a clog in your sewer line. These backups may appear in multiple places like sinks or basement drains.
     
  3. Backups in multiple fixtures – When water is backing up in many places – laundry, sink, toilet, etc. – this is a strong indication that there is some kind of blockage in your home’s main sewer pipe. Household snake cleaners won’t do the job in these situations. It’s time to call a trustworthy professional to inspect your lines.
     
  4. Sediment in backups – Pay close attention when the water that backs up is dirty. The appearance of sediment indicates that water has backed up from the actual sewer line, not just in your home’s internal plumbing. The sediment will appear dirt- or mud-like in appearance.
     
  5. Clammy smell – When no sewer line problems are present, your pipes should be airtight. Blockages can lead to cracks and other openings, which will release the foul smell of sewage into your home or yard. If you begin to notice a gassy stench in or near your home, there is some kind of problem with your drains.
     
  6. Big trees in the yard – Believe it or not, tree roots are one of the most common causes of sewer line problems. Root structures can reach far beyond the above-ground footprint visible to the naked eye, and over time they will crush water pipes and other drains buried underground. If you have large, old trees anywhere in your yard, it may be the cause of your problems.
     
  7. Water backs up when it rains – This may indicate that you need to install a backflow prevention device on your sewer line, so that water is only permitted to run out of your home but not into it. (Foundation issues and other problems could also be the culprit in this case, however.) 
    Illustration of a cleanout backflow prevention device blocking sewage backup
     
  8. Mold on your walls or ceilings – If a sewer pipe breaks in your wall, the resulting humidity will quickly lead to dangerous mold growth. There may also be a foul smell in these scenarios.
     
  9. Lush patches of grass in the yard – When sewage leaks into your yard, it may have the ironic effect of feeding and fertilizing the plants in that area. An extra green appearance in one area of your grass could mean there is a broken sewer line beneath it.
     
  10. Plunging and clearing the J-trap doesn’t solve it – If you’ve tried all the common strategies for dealing with clogs, like using a plunger or pouring in an eco-friendly drain cleaner, then it’s time to call in a professional.

You've Identified a Sewer Problem is Likely – Now What?

If you are experiencing any of the issues above, take steps to fix your sewer line problem as soon as possible.

First, turn off the water. If you’ve reached the point where water is or may soon be causing extensive damage, locate the shut-off valve where the water pipeline from the water meter enters the house and turn the “gate valve” to the “closed” or “off” position.

Next, schedule a video inspection. Professionals are best able to diagnose your pipe’s problem when they can actually see what’s going on using a sewer inspection camera. A camera can be inserted into your sewer line to reveal the true conditions of the pipe. Identifying the precise location of failures will also allow your sewer repair or replacement team to fix your drain issues more efficiently, saving everyone time and money.

Here at Pipe Spy, we will even credit the cost of your sewer camera inspection toward the cost of a sewer lateral replacement.

Choose a Licensed Professional

The sewer line repair and replacement technicians at Pipe Spy will treat you and your home with the respect and professionalism you deserve. As licensed and certified sewer line experts, we’ve been providing the best advice and services to homeowners in the bay area since 1998.

Contact a Pipe Spy professional for more information.