roots in sewer - Man repairing pipe

How to Fix Roots in a Sewer Line (The Ultimate Guide!)

My mind was blown the first time I encountered roots in a plumbing system. 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 too many roots in too many sewer lines to count. I’m sure that some of you reading this are in the same boat that I was. 

How Do Roots Get in Sewer Pipes?

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 any crack or anything is letting out water, the roots will find their way into the pipe. 

Because root issues are inconvenient, many homeowners don’t do enough research. They simply want the problem fixed as soon as possible. We’ve heard horror stories of companies using predatory sales practices, trying to convince homeowners that their only option was a costly pipelining.

But it’s not a minor problem either. It has the potential to create costly flooding of wastewater on your property or back into your home. You need to take care of it as soon as possible.

roots in sewer infographic

How Do I Handle a Root Problem: What are My Options?

Drain cleaning, camera inspection, and repair are the 3 parts of the process for fixing a root problem. There can be multiple options for how to handle each part of the process.

Step 1: Drain Cleaning

  1. 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.
  2. There is another option for cleaning a sewer line. It’s called chemical cleaning, but we’re not fans. 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. Also, the toxic solution pollutes your water and poisons the soil around your home’s sewer main. To make matters worse, this solution rarely works.

Auger (Drain Snake) Option

A tool of many names: sewer snake; cable-, drain-, drum- or rooter-machine; and mechanical auger. And there are multiple vulgar names that I will not mention!

This picture shows what it looks like then a plumber uses a drain machine to remove roots from a sewer line.
This picture shows what it looks like when a plumber uses a drain machine to remove roots from a sewer line.
  • The auger uses a long metal cable to clear clogs. This machine is 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 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 inserted 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.)
  • This can take a 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 the roots that it meets, 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 Auguring Keep a Sewer Line Open?

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 of months. Because of how quickly the root issue can come back, I recommend that most customers use the hydro jetter (described below). 

Hydro-Jetting Option

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. 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 (if 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 is a pull-behind trailer that is larger than the truck that pulls it. It generates 4000 PSI, shoots out 26 gallons a minute, and can do lines up to 24 inches in diameter. It’s a beast!

Homeowners tend to be blown away when they see the before-and-after of jetting their sewers. A line that is completely suffocated in roots, before being jetted, is spotless afterward. (Unless the pipe is falling apart; then we must jet at a lower pressure.)

The 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.

roots in sewer before and after jetter
As you can see, tree roots in a sewer can be cleaned out perfectly using a Hydro-Jet machine.

How Long will Jetting Keep a Sewer Line Open?

You should have no root issues in your sewer line for 5 to 7 years if jetting is done properly. The process includes a sewer line inspection using a camera to make sure all the roots have been cleared from your sewer.

I have seen roots come back in as little as 3 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, jetting may be a waste of money. 

CAUTION: Some plumbers refuse to hydro jet. They fear that the homeowner won’t need them again for another 5 to 7 years. However, if the homeowner plans on living in the house for quite a while, we always recommend it because it is better for the customer. When you see the before and after of a line filled with roots that were augured, it’s 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

1-Tom-Plumber offers a complimentary camera inspection any time we run the hydro jetter. It’s nice to have and gives customers a visual look at the health of their sewer line. But it’s not necessary. If we auger a sewer line, we will camera it for an additional amount ($150). Sure, we’re biased, but for $150, 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, we do not recommend a camera inspection.

camera line inspection - looking for a leak or breakage
A sewer line clogged with roots is being inspected with a professional camera system.

Step 3: Repair

An actual sewer line repair 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. We recommend always attempting to clean the drain before replacing it. 

Pipe Lining Option

Pipelining is the process of creating a new pipe inside your old broken sewer main. Here are some pros and cons of this process:

  • Before lining a pipe, the line must be jetted and cleaned. This is hard to picture, so you might want to watch the video below. 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 recommended any time 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 because there are also 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. Over time, the ground around a sewer starts to settle. This is bad because a sewer must maintain a certain slope 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. This isn’t a big deal for most homes. However, it can make a difference when used on a storm drain, especially in 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 thin so, when installed correctly, the difference is minor. 
  • It’s expensive. Pipelining costs vary between $100-200 per foot.
Pipelining can be a good option. Here’s how it works. Just remember to weigh the pros and cons. Unfortunately, pipelining doesn’t give customers the most bang for their buck in most cases. Many times, trenchless sewer replacement is the best option. 

Digging (Excavation) Option

Digging (or excavating) a sewer line is tough, manual work. Even if you have the equipment and experience needed to handle this job, you probably won’t like it. Here are the pros and cons:

  • As stated, digging is hard manual labor.
  • Anytime you dig in the ground, you can be surprised. 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 the pipe is buried, the more expensive it is to replace.
Sewer line excavation and replacement.

Spot Repair Option

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 or repair the broken spot in the sewer line (plus two feet in either direction of the repair).

Partial or Complete Replacement Option

This is also what it sounds like. A partial sewer replacement actually replaces more than what is required, but not the entire line (unless a complete replacement is required).

To expose and repair a underground sewer main a trench must be dug
A partial or complete sewer line replacement is the most comprehensive, difficult, and time-consuming job. It requires the proper excavation equipment and expertise to do well.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, roots (especially tree roots) can be an expensive problem no one wants to deal with. They are the common culprit in wastewater damage to a home or property.

A camera inspection is our best recommendation for making sure you know what the problem is and how to handle it. It will also tell you if the problem has been resolved. In addition, many homeowners with trees growing near their sewer lines have routine inspections every 3 years to ensure no problems are brewing.

It’s also a great idea for those who are selling or buying a home. A camera line inspection can avoid problems with a buyer or help negotiate the purchase price with a seller.

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 removing tree roots and cleaning, repairing, or replacing a sewer line.

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

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