A sewer backup is many homeowners’ worst nightmare. When water is pushed into the sewer pipes, it can cause sewage to flow the wrong way up to your sewer lateral and into your home. This is usually caused by a blockage somewhere in the sewage system. If sewage overflows in or around your home, it can be not only be unpleasant to deal with but expensive to boot.
This guide will walk you through how to look out for the signs of a sewer backup, common causes of sewer backups, how to prevent them, and how to deal with the aftermath if the worst does happen.
SIGNS OF A
Because the cost of repairing or replacing sewer lines can be so large – not to mention so unpleasant to deal with – you need to be vigilant when it comes to monitoring the signs of a sewer backup. The following are all signs that your sewer may be backed up – in which case it’s time to act.
More than one drain is clogged
While it’s fairly normal for one drain in your home to be clogged, more than one being clogged at the same time is usually a sign that something is seriously amiss. If the clogged drains are ones that you seldom use – such as a guest bathroom – then it is unlikely to have been clogged by you, and more likely to be a sewer backup causing problems in your system.
Water backs up in other drains
Although the various parts of the plumbing and sewer system in your home are all connected, the sections are designed to operate independently. If you flush your toilet and can hear water gurgling in the shower, or backflowing into another toilet, then there is a clog somewhere in the system and water is looking for another way out.
You notice bubbles
Bubbles are usually a sure sign that a clog has either formed or is forming. When water rushes past a blockage, it creates air bubbles. Listening for bubbles or gurgling in your system is an easy way to check for potential clogs.
If you have noticed bubbles before, run a test by filling up your bathtub and then letting it drain. Watch the water leaving and see if bubbles rise up from the plug.
Repeat this with your sinks and toilets. Sometimes you can narrow the problem down to a specific drain.
You can also take more proactive steps when it comes to sewer backups. By looking at the root causes, you can understand how things like overgrown tree roots or old sewer pipes can have secondary effects when it comes to your sewer system.
Clogs and Blockages
The majority of sewer backups are caused on some level by clogs and blockages. A small blockage in your sewer pipe will quickly get larger and once the pipe is blocked, then sewage will flow back into your home.
Tree roots can grow through a sewer pipe and thereby cause a blockage. Even a small tree root will be enough to catch debris, which then snowballs until you have a major problem.
Whoever owns the tree that causes the blockage is responsible for the cleanup – potentially leaving you with a major repair bill, particularly if a tree on your land damages the city’s pipes.
The sanitary main is the city’s central sewer pipe, into which all the private sewer laterals flow. If there is a blockage in the main pipe, then it will back up into several homes and businesses, and generally cause chaos.
The good news in this instance is that the city is responsible for the cleanup if this happens.
Some cities have combined storm drain and sewage pipes. Naturally, in times of high water flow (such as during a flood or storm), this can cause sewage to back up in the system.
The volume of water, combined with the potential for standing water or flooding elsewhere, can require a major cleanup operation.
Of course, the sooner you catch a sewer backup, the less damage it can do. However, even better than this is to prevent a backup from happening in the first place. In some of the causes listed above, there is little you can do in advance. But you can take active steps to keep your lateral and your plumbing free from debris, and thereby greatly reduce the chances of a backup.
The following steps should be part of your regular home maintenance process:
Dispose of Waste Products Properly
Many people pour items down the drain or flush items down the toilet that should not be there. Even if these items are small, they can get trapped in your drain. Other items then become attached to them, which eventually leads to a full-on blockage.
The following items are examples of what should NOT go down your sink:
Fats from cooking are one of the worst offenders. Because fat is a liquid when it is hot (i.e. when you cook with it), most people assume it is safe to pour down the sink. However, as it cools, it solidifies, resulting in clogs and blockages. In the case of fats, oil, and grease, you should dispose of them in the garbage rather than down the sink.
Similarly, paper products other than toilet paper should not be flushed down through the plumbing.
Cut Tree Roots
As mentioned above, tree roots can be a primary cause of blockages. Make sure to regularly cut tree roots to keep them from entering your sewage pipes.
Install Plastic Pipe
If you don’t have the time or the inclination to cut your tree roots, then you can install a plastic pipe on your sewer lateral. Plastic pipes prevent tree roots from entering and generally are more robust than older pipes.
This will require some installation and excavation, meaning the cost can be high (for a full breakdown of costs, see our guide on the average cost of sewer line repair and replacement).
Install a Backwater Prevention Valve
A backwater prevention valve contains a flap that doesn’t allow water to flow back into your home. The cost of installing these types of valves onto an existing system is $500 to $1,000.
This won’t totally solve the problem, as a major flow of water that comes up against a valve like this will likely leak elsewhere – the valve prevents that from being inside your home.
WHAT TO DO
FOR A SEWER
So, let’s assume the worst happens and you do have a sewer backlog. It can be a traumatic experience, although acting quickly can make a real difference when it comes to the extent of the damage.
Note: If there is standing water in your home and the power is on, do not attempt to deal with the problem, but instead leave the area.
Find the blockage
The first thing to do is to try and find the blockage. Check the toilets and sinks for signs of a blockage. If you find one, clear it immediately – if you can’t do it, call a plumber to do so.
Don't use the toilets or sinks
If you do have a blockage, using the toilets or sinks will simply cause more sewage to back up into your home. Wait until the problem is cleared before you use any plumbing.
Check the cleanout
If the backup has leaked into the basement of your home (chances are it will be) then check the cleanout cap. The plumber or cleanup team will need to drain the backup through the clean out. Make sure that you know where it is and that it’s accessible.
Assess the risks
Sewage is a biohazard so it can be very dangerous to come into contact with. If you are in any doubt as to whether you can handle the problem, leave it for a professional to handle. The viruses and bacteria in sewage can cause infection, so you should ensure you have full protective clothing on if you do decide to clean it up yourself.
As mentioned above, be careful of sewage coming into contact with any electrical items, as this can be extremely dangerous.
Organize a cleanup
When the immediate problem has passed (i.e. there is no additional sewage backing up), you will need to organize an extensive cleanup. This may require professionals because of the biohazard element. You may also need to remove any (and potentially dispose of) soft furnishings that have come into contact with the sewage.
Professionals will be far more adept at removing odors, bacteria, and residual damage. For a sewage cleanup service, you can expect to pay between $2,000 and $10,000.
A sewer backup is not something you may want to think about as a homeowner – but it’s important that you do.
Being able to spot the signs can save you having to endure a truly unpleasant situation; knowing how to react if it does happen will also help the cleanup and repair process run much more smoothly.