How do roots get in sewer pipes?
The first time that I encountered roots in a plumbing system I was mind blown. I vividly remember it because of how shocking it was to me. It was a cast-iron line and I remember thinking, “That’s not possible!” However, that was a long time ago and since then I have seen roots and too many sewer lines to count. I’m sure that some of you reading this are in the same boat that I was.
A tree can grow on the side of a cliff. As hard as cast-iron is, it still has weak points. Clay pipe has way more weak points than cast iron pipe and PVC has way less, but it doesn’t matter. Your home’s sewer main carries hundreds of gallons of extremely nutrient dense water (aka sewage) so if there is any crack or anything letting out water, the roots will find their way into the pipe.
A root issue can be extremely inconvenient and homeowners typically want to get this taken care of as soon as possible. Because of this, many homeowners do not do their research. They simply want their problems fixed as soon as possible. I’ve heard horror stories of companies using predatory sales practices and convincing home owners that their only option was a costly pipe lining.
What are my options?
Step 1: Drain Cleaning
- Cleaning the drain should always be the first step. It is almost impossible to know if the sewer line needs repaired until the line is open and a camera inspection is performed. In most cases, cleaning the drain is the only step that is necessary. Most lines with a root issue are perfectly operational and just need a good cleaning.
- There is another option for cleaning a sewer line- chemical cleaning, but I’m not a fan. Removing roots with a chemical cleaning uses a strong base, such as Drano, or a poison, such as copper sulfate. These strong bases can damage your already weakened plumbing system and the toxic solution not only pollutes your water but also poisons the soil around your home’s sewer main. Not to mention, they rarely even work.
Auger/Drain Snake- A tool of many names: cable machine, sewer snake, drain machine, drum machine, rooter-machine, and mechanical auger. (There are multiple more vulgar names that I will not mention)
- The auger uses a long metal cable to clear clogs. This machine is really old so it’s acquired a lot of nicknames over the years. The drain snake has proven itself to be a simple, incredibly reliable tool for clearing drain lines and sewer vents. It might not be the most beautiful thing in the world, but a skilled operator can open just about any drain with sewer auger.
- The drain snake is the gold standard of drain clearing tools! The auger is typically the least expensive tool for the job and in a lot of cases it does just as good of a job as anything else. However, with roots specifically in the sewer, the auger really just isn’t all that great.
- When clearing roots out of a line with a mechanical auger, the plumber will use what is called a cutter head. It is exactly what you are picturing. It looks like a saw blade that is rounded on the sides and scrapes the outside of the pipe, cutting as it goes through. This cutter head will be attached to the auger’s cable. The cable will be ran through the line, back and forth, pulling out roots each time. This should be done until no more roots come out. (If done properly. Some plumbing companies will simply just punch a hole through the roots.)
- Sometimes this can take a really long time. If being charged by the hour, the auger may not be the best tool for every job.The auger can do a pretty good job, but there will still be quite a few roots in the sewer line when you are done. It cuts all of the roots that it comes in contact with, but it’s a piece of metal going through a pipe. There are many parts that the cutter head cannot cut and pushes them aside.
How long will augering the sewer line keep it open for?
In most cases, this should solve your root issue for about a year. Unfortunately, I’ve seen roots grow back through sewer pipes in just a couple months. Because of how quickly the root issue can come back, I recommend that most customers use the hydro jetter (described below).
Before we get too deep into this, I’m going to warn you. The sewer machine/drain snake is my favorite piece of equipment. It is the #1 go to for clearing most clogs. My drain cleaners use the heck out of their sewer machines. However, when it comes to roots, the jetter is a vastly superior tool. (We also wrote a whole other blog with frequently asked hydro jetting questions if you’d like to learn more!)
Hydro jetting or jetting is the process of cleaning a sewer line with a hydro jetter. (I know. Not very helpful. Don’t worry. I’m about to explain what a hydro jetter is.) Hydro jetting may be more expensive than using a sewer machine to clear a sewer main. However when it comes to roots, the sewer will stay open for much longer.
A hydro-jet or jetter is a cross between a sewer machine and a pressure washer. Sewer machines (described above) are more or less all created equal(as long as they have the same thickness cable). With hydro-jets, this is far from true. My plumbing company, 1-Tom-Plumber, has two hydro-jetters and they are total opposites. One of which is a pull-behind trailer that is larger than the truck that pulls it. It generates 4000 PSI, shootout 26 gallons a minute, and can do lines up to 24 inches in diameter! It’s a beast!
When homeowners see before and after camera inspection of when we hydro jet their sewers, they are blown away. A line that is completely covered in roots, before being jetted, can be spotless afterwards. (Unless the pipe is falling apart then we will have to jet at a lower pressure.) This hydro-jetter goes into the line and pressure washes the line from the inside. It is powerful enough to disintegrate roots up to a quarter of an inch. It also removes a lot of scale and debris from the outside of the pipe.
How long will jetting keep the sewer line open for?
When hydro-jetted properly, and a camera inspection is performed afterwards in order to make sure that all of the roots have been cleared from your sewer. You should not have a root issue for about 5-7 years. I have seen roots come back in as little as three years, but this is rare. Because of this, if you are going to own your home for at least 3 years, the hydro-jet is the way to go. It will save you a lot of money in the long run. However, if you’re about to sell your home in the next year or so, this may be a waste of money.
- Some plumbers refuse to hydro jet, because then the homeowner doesn’t need you for another 5 to 7 years and they totally forget about you. However, if the homeowner plans on living in the house for quite a while, I always recommend this because I think it is better for the customer. When you see the before and after of a line filled with roots that was just augered, it’s really not that impressive. On the other hand, when you see a line before and after it was jetted, it is night and day.
Step 2: Camera Inspection
My company, 1-Tom-Plumber, offers a complimentary camera inspection any time we run the hydro jetter. It’s something that is really nice to have and can give you some insight on the health of your home’s sewer. However, it’s not necessary. If we auger a sewer line, we will camera it for an additional $150. I understand that I’m a plumber and there’s definitely some bias, but for $150, I think it’s a no-brainer.
Keep in mind, this is only when roots are discovered in a plumbing system. For the vast majority of clogs, I do not recommend a camera inspection.
Step 3: Repair
This is Plan B. If your sewer is unable to be cleared, then it needs to be repaired. However, there is no reason to replace a perfectly good sewer. I recommend always attempting to clean the drain before replacing it.
- Pipelining is the process of creating a new pipe inside your old broken sewer main. Before this is done, the line must be hydro jetted and cleaned. This is hard to picture, so you might want to watch a video. When the liner first goes into the pipe, it is soft and flexible. It is then inflated with air, causing it to fit the exact size of the pipe. After an hour, the liner has cured and is good to go.
- This is awesome technology and I recommended any time that digging is not feasible. It’s quick, it’s not intrusive, and it doesn’t leave a big mound of dirt in your front yard. However, it is not all sunshine and rainbows.There are some serious downsides to pipelining.
- It might be called trenchless sewer replacement, but it’s not a full blown replacement. It will keep out roots and keep the pipe from collapsing, but that’s all it does. Overtime, the ground around a sewer starts to settle. This is bad because a sewer must maintain a certain slope in order to drain properly. This settling causes a belly or a dip in the line. Non-sloped sewer lines will cause debris to build up. The line will clog if this debris is not regularly cleaned out.
- It also reduces the volume that your sewer can handle. For most homes this is not a big deal at all. However, it can make a difference when used on a storm drain. Especially when there is severe flooding. Because the liner goes inside the existing pipe, it reduces the size of the pipe by the thickness of the liner. These liners are pretty thin so when installed correctly, the difference is minor.
- It’s expensive! Pipelining varies between $100-200 per foot!
When you weigh the pros and cons, I feel that pipe lining doesn’t give the customer the most bang for the buck, in most cases. However, there are a lot of times when trenchless sewer replacement is the best option.
- Digging can be rough. Anytime you’re digging in the ground, there can be surprises. There can be wires, rocks, or large roots in the way of the main sewer drain. It’s not pretty, but grass does grow back. You are also able to avoid a lot of the downsides of a trenchless sewer repair.
- The price of digging and replacing a sewer main has less to do with length and more to do with depth. The deeper of pipe is, the more expensive it is to replace.
- A spot repair is exactly what it sounds like. When performing a spot repair, a plumber will dig up a small section of dirt and only replace the broken spot (plus a couple feet).
Partial or complete replacement
- This is also exactly what it sounds like. A partial sewer replaces more than what is required, but not the entire line unless a complete replacement is required.
Thank you for reading. Roots are an expensive problem that no one wants to deal with. I hope you enjoyed this blog and have all the information needed to make an educated decision about your home’s plumbing system. Feel free to browse around my 1-Tom-Plumber’s website and blog. We’ve got a lot of info about other plumbing topics.