Sewer lines - camera line inspection of residential home through roof vent

Sewer Lines: The Essential Homeowner’s Guide for Inspection & Repair!

Make sure to have your sewer lines inspected before purchasing a house!

Most sewer lines are located underground in your yard. The damages caused by a broken sewer line often need an excavation crew to repair and replace the pipe. A sewer repair can cost thousands of dollars in repair and replacement. Make sure to have your sewer inspected before purchasing a house!

With that in mind, we’ve developed this guide. It includes everything essential for homeowners to know about the inspection and repair of their sewer lines.

What is a Sewer Line Inspection?

This sewer line inspection camera shows a large grease blockage.

A sewer line inspection is a service provided by plumbers and drain technicians to identify problems inside sewer pipes. They do this by using a small camera attached to a cable. This process is also called a camera line inspection or scoping a sewer line.

The camera is attached to the end of a drain snake cable. It is also waterproof, has its own lighting system, can auto-focus, and will maneuver in and out of tight spots.

These features enable the technician to locate and fix issues like pipe breaks or cracks, tree roots, clogs and backups, grease buildup, corrosion, and uneven pipes.

While camera technology has become a great diagnostic tool, the diagnosis still needs to be made by a qualified, experienced professional. While obvious or large breaks are easy to identify by a homeowner, finding a leak is difficult for even the most experienced plumber. More on that below.

Reasons for an Inspection

These three are the most obvious and common reasons for homeowners to call or schedule an inspection with their local plumber.

  1. Prevention ­– Regular maintenance is the key to preventing larger disasters. We recommend that sewer lines are inspected once every two years.
  2. Warning Signs ­– Schedule a line inspection immediately if you’re experiencing higher-than-normal water bills, an increase in insects or rodents on your property, any musty sewage smells, or mold or mildew on walls.
  3. A Water Backup ­– If you have grey water or blackwater (water from toilets, washing dishes, or laundering clothes) backing up into your home or pooling on your property, you need a camera line inspection urgently.
  4. Buying or Selling a Home – To help ensure getting the full price on your home, get your sewer line cleaned in advance. A damaged sewer line will stop a house sale immediately. Conversely, always get sewer lines inspected if you’re considering buying a property. They simply cost too much to repair or replace to not do so.
  5. Prevent Excavation – A camera line inspection can detect problems that otherwise would require more expensive digging and excavation.
  6. Evidence – We’re not trying to say you shouldn’t trust your plumber’s word. We are saying that visual proof beats a plumber’s say-so every day of the week.
  7. Second Opinion – If you’re not sure about an expensive sewer line diagnosis and estimate, get a second opinion. This is especially helpful if the first estimate did not include a camera line inspection.
  8. Retrieve Lost Items – Believe it or not, we’ve found a lot of items, including diamond wedding rings, in a sewer line using a camera inspection.

What an Inspection Tells You

A sewer line inspection is a great diagnostic tool for your plumbing system. Here’s what it can tell you and your plumber or drain technician:

What an Inspection Won’t Tell You

Unfortunately, sewer line cameras only see what’s on the inside of the pipe. They won’t show you anything on the outside of the pipe.

This simple fact has a lot to do with what a camera line inspection won’t be able to find. And it makes using a professional much more important if you’re having sewer line problems.

  • If you have a leak – A sewer pipe leak is the most difficult problem to identify. In fact, it is impossible with the camera alone. Why? Because it can only show the inside of the pipe wall. Even if the operator has the experience necessary to detect water leaving the pipe, there’s no way to confirm that it’s a leak (such as from a pinhole) without seeing the outside of the pipe wall. Digging will be needed to confirm the problem.

How Much Does a Sewer Line Inspection Cost?

Most sewer line inspections cost between $100 and $800.

Prices can vary based on quality and experience of plumber or geographic location (L.A. and Manhattan certainly will cost more than camera line inspections in Cincinnati, Columbus, San Antonio or Greenville SC!). Other factors include current fair-market rates, the length of the sewer line being inspected, and any out-of-norm challenges of a particular job.

This camera inspection footage shows a collapsed PVC pipe. The only way to repair this line is to dig it up and perform a spot repair.

How to Perform a Sewer Line Camera Inspection

Let’s assume that you have all the equipment you need, which a professional plumber will pay thousands of dollars for. Here’s how you would handle the inspection.

  1. Find the access to your sewer line (usually the cleanout in your yard)
  2. Turn on system, including your monitor
  3. Make sure you are recording
  4. Insert camera into the cleanout
  5. Feed the snake into the sewer line while watching the monitor
  6. Watch closely for any cracks, misaligned pipe, obstructions, or corrosion
  7. Feed the camera snake until you come across the problem area
  8. Measure the exact footage of cable from clean out to problem area
  9. Make a note of the problem and pertinent information, like the type of pipe material
  10. Remove camera

Sewer line inspections are handled by professionals for a reason. It’s as much art as science. And the art comes from years of experience. Being able to push the camera snake around a bend into another branch of pipe, or around a clog, takes a lot of practice.

Pipes Used in Sewer Lines

Sewer pipes come in five different materials. Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Some are no longer used, some are rarely used, and others are used only in new homes.

Cast Iron Pipes

camera line inspection - cast iron pipe
Camera line inspection of a cast iron pipe.

The cast iron sewer lines has been around as a drainage or sewer pipe for the longest time. For good reason: it’s extremely tough and long-lasting, which is why you still find them in old homes today.

The problem is that, after many years, cast iron corrodes. The resulting rust leaves pinholes in the pipe, causing leaks. Or it finally breaks down, weakens, and breaks. When we’re called to a job with a cast iron sewer system, we know it will have to be replaced.

Another issue with cast iron is that it’s heavy. Real heavy. That makes it much harder to work with and increases labor costs during replacement.

Clay Pipes

Video of a collapsed clay (terra cotta) sewer pipe.

If you think cast iron is old-school, you haven’t seen a clay (terra cotta) pipe. Examples of clay pipes go back to 4000 BCE. They’ve been used well into the 1900s.

Unfortunately, clay pipes are fragile. Just think how easy it is to break a typical clay flowerpot. Now consider that the ground beneath us is constantly shifting for natural and unnatural reasons.

This shifting leads to cracking and breaking. It also allows tree roots easy access to the pipe, creating sewer blockage.

Like cast iron, when a problem occurs with clay pipes, you’ll want to have them replaced with modern, durable materials.

Orangeburg Pipes

We don’t come across Orangeburg pipes very much. They are made from ground and compressed wood pulp fibers.

Orangeburg was a popular source of cheap material invented during WWII, when iron and steel were in short supply. After the war, it gained popularity during the housing boom.

The good news is that it doesn’t corrode. The bad news is they begin deteriorating after about 30 years.

That means lots of homes have sewer lines made from a material that’s literally decomposing. Again, this pipe material needs to be completely replaced.

PVC Pipes (Plastic)

Most homeowners have heard of PVC pipes and even know what it looks like. But few know why it is a modern solution to cast iron, steel, clay, and Orangeburg pipes.

PVC is a white plastic material that is lightweight, flexible, easy to cut, and won’t corrode. These qualities make it fantastic for use in plumbing and construction.

The disadvantages of PVC sewer pipes are its sensitivity to extreme temperatures. It gets brittle in extreme cold. Despite this weakness, it is extremely popular today as a sewer pipe solution.

ABS Pipes (Plastic)

ABS pipe is like PVC pipe. The only visual difference is that it’s black. Yet there are practical and important differences.

Although PVC is more flexible, ABS is stronger and more stable. PVC doesn’t do well in extreme cold, but ABS will warp if placed in sunlight. Connecting PVC pipes takes two steps, while ABS requires just one. Prices for each are about the same.

Common Problems with Sewer Lines

Homeowners face many problems, from leaky windows to leaky pipes. But when sewer lines break, they could be facing a financial and emotional disaster.

At stake are your health, property, and possessions. For those reasons, you need to be aware of the most common sewer line problems:

Tree Roots

Tree roots are devastating to pipes. Sure, they grow slow. But they’re incredible strong. And they don’t need much to break into a pipe. Tree roots seek moisture. So, even the slightest pinholes can create the access point for roots to do their damage.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “water always wins.” Well, tree roots always win too. If your pipes run alongside any medium- to large-size trees, there’s always a chance they’ll break into your sewer line and create a serious backup.

A common treatment for a tree root diagnosis is to use a hydro-jet to cut away the roots and clean out the pipe. But a treatment isn’t a cure. Eventually, the roots will grow back, and you’ll have to do this again. But it’s less costly than excavating and replacing the problem area.


“I felt the Earth move under my feet.” Ever heard that song? You don’t need an earthquake to experience it.

The ground under your feet moves a lot for multiple reasons: from natural events (i.e.; earthquakes, freezing) to man-made events (i.e.; construction issues, heavy objects). And sewer pipes move because of them.

Over time, or quite suddenly with larger events, this causes sewer pipes to crack, break, or even misalign (where one piece of pipe no longer aligns perfectly with the pipe it’s connected to). Larger events can even cause the sewer pipe to collapse or be crushed.

Old Age

As you might imagine, sewer line pipes can deteriorate for many reasons. The biggest reason is age, and everything deteriorates in time.

Age causes wear and tear. Depending on its material, your sewage pipe could be showing signs of deterioration, breaking, or corrosion. This could be in the form of fractures, cracks, thinning walls, corrosive rust, and a multitude of other problems.

This sewer line inspection shows heavy corrosion, rust buildup, and deterioration of a cast-iron sewer. Camera line inspections are essential in order to assess the health of your sewer line.

If your home was built prior to the 1980s, or if it’s not made out of PVC or ABS plastic, consider having your sewer line checked as soon as possible. You don’t want to be sitting on a ticking sewage bomb.

Blocked Pipes

Blocked pipes are incredibly common. You might first notice it if you have water that drains slowly. Or it might be a complete toilet overflow which happens suddenly.

Misuse of your drainage system is often the culprit: toys, baby wipes, or cat litter clumps flushed down the toilet.

In other cases, it’s a cumulation of grease or other sticky materials that line the inside walls of your sewer pipes. Over time, it builds up until your drain system can’t handle it anymore. Water flow begins slowing down, and eventually you have a wastewater backup flooding your basement or home.

Leaky Pipes

A leaky sewer pipe is difficult to diagnose and pinpoint, even with a camera line inspection.

The only way to confirm the suspicion of a leak, especially a small one like a pinhole from corrosion, is to excavate and look at on the outside of the pipe.

Many leaks are caused by damaged pipe connections (the area where two pipes are joined and sealed together).

If your water bills have been increasing for no obvious reason, there’s a good chance you have a leak in your sewer line.

Belly Aches

A belly is what plumbers call the low point — the portion that sags — of a sewer pipe.

This low point obstructs the natural flow of water. Waste and debris in the water get caught in the belly and don’t flow away. The sediment then hardens and grows as more debris is collected. Eventually, a blockage has been created.

A belly should always be fixed. It doesn’t mean you need to replace an entire sewer line. But it does mean that low point, however long it is, needs to be repaired or replaced. Otherwise, greater damage can occur from a burst pipe.

Repairing Sewer Lines

Let’s assume you’ve had a camera line inspection and your plumber recommends repairing or replacing your sewer pipe. We’ll also assume you’ve received a second opinion confirming the diagnosis.

What causes a broken sewer line - plumbers repairing clay sewer line
The process of replacing or repairing a sewer line is labor intensive and often requires two technicians and excavation gear.

Do I Need to Do This?

The first question that comes to mind is, “Do I need to fix this now or can I wait?” When it comes to your sewer line, waiting is rarely a good option. There are three reasons for this:

  1. The financial cost of repair or replacement is far less than the potential and likely cost wastewater damage from broken sewer line. It’s like the old adage says, “Pay me a little now, or pay me a lot later.”
  2. It is incredibly difficult to predict when a sewer line will cause a problem. But one thing is for sure; it eventually will cause a problem.
  3. Finally, to diagnose the problem requires camera line inspection gear that will do the job in any situation. This will cost anywhere from $1,000 – $15,000. Frankly, that’s much more than the cost of an actual inspection by a certified plumber.

Can I Fix It or Should I Hire a Pro?

Okay, we’re certainly biased. But yes, use a professional plumber or drain technician with at least 2-3 years of excavation and sewer line experience.

Even if you decide to take this on yourself (my, my, you’re quite the ambitious one!), don’t underestimate the job at hand. A sewer line repair or replacement is a really big job, even for professional plumbers. And the stakes are high.

We recommend you find a trusted, experienced plumber with sewer line inspection, drain cleaning, and excavation experience. It’s highly likely that you’ll spend far less time, money, and frustration with a pro.

How Much Does It Cost to Repair a Sewer Line?

Repairing a sewer line has an even wider range of pricing. To get an accurate estimate, a plumber or drain technician needs to review the problem on-site. Repairing a sewer line is less expensive than replacing a sewer line.

However, depending on the severity of damage and preferred solution, repairs start at $900 and go way up from there. In fact, when excavation or replacement are required, the cost is almost always thousands of dollars.

Maintenance of Sewer Lines

Most people only get their sewer line checked when they’re having a problem.

However, regular maintenance — perhaps one inspection and cleaning (if necessary) every year or two — will prevent sewer line breaks, water damage, and even health issues.

In addition, the little you pay now, will prevent thousands of dollars being spent in the future when you least expect it.

Final Thoughts

Sewer lines are simple in concept, but difficult to inspect, repair, and replace. And because they’re so incredibly vital to the functioning of your home, it’s important that we learn all the basics.

We hope this sewer lines guide for inspection and repair gives you the knowledge to keep your wastewater drain system from backing up into your home.

Call 1-Tom-Plumber

Don’t hesitate to contact us here or call us at 1-Tom-Plumber (1-866-758-6237) if you need help with your sewer lines — whether it’s inspection, maintenance, repair or replacement.

1-Tom-Plumber’s certified team of plumbers and drain technicians respond immediately to any emergency plumbingdrain, or water damage problem, including excavation of underground water lines and sewer main lines. Our immediate-response team is available every day and night of the year, even holidays.

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