Signs of Sewer Problems–What You Don’t Know Could Cost You

By: Patrick Hooper

More than half of the sewer lines I’ve inspected for drainage issues have been for families who have owned their home for less than a year. Worse still, over half of those folks had resided in their houses for less than a month. And when I asked, “Did you have the sewer line inspected prior to purchasing the property?,” they all answered, “No.”

A comprehensive structural examination performed by a qualified home inspector is an essential step in the home-buying process. Though an above-ground visual inspection cannot determine the condition of the sanitary system, there are recognizable clues of sewer problems that can be easily identified during a routine property examination. When these signs are detected, it is absolutely essential that a video inspection of the sewer lateral be performed. The following are some telltale indicators of possible sewer line trouble:

Water stains around the basement floor drains are an obvious sign the sewer line is not draining properly. Because the floor drain is usually the lowest access point to the sewer, it provides some of the first indications of a problem.

Peeling paint around floor drain.

Cracked walls or floors suggest movement of the foundation. Shifting foundations can be caused by excess water in the soil, which could be coming from a broken sewer line. Other obvious indications of damaged sanitary infrastructure are sinkholes, and sewage odors, both indoors and outdoors.

Replaced “cleanout” plugs. Sewer lines normally have a cleanout access that is typically found on the main sewer line in the basement, crawl space, or outside the house. Prior to the 1980′s (for cast iron pipe), a brass plug was the most common cleanouot cap used in residential construction. Very often, these older brass plugs would rust and fuse to the cast iron, requiring that they be chiseled off to gain access into the line.  If the original plug has been replaced with a PVC cap or an expandable test plug, or even a newer brass plug, it’s likely that sewer work, such as auguring or chemical cleaning, has been required at some point.

Notching of the PVC cleanout access. The most common method of clearing an obstructed sewer line of roots/debris is with an auger, which is normally fed through a cleanout. The rotating cable that turns the blade of the auger will often grind on the pipe, creating a small, visible “groove” or “notch” in the PVC material, right at the access point. There may be indications of this in other pipe material, but likely most obvious in PVC plastic pipe.

The presence of service stickers on or near sewer pipes is another sign that the sanitary system has required maintenance at some point. These labels might also indicate that the property is on a preventative maintenance program for regular cleaning to prevent future backups.

An outside cleanout that is not original to the home is a possible indication that a spot repair was performed at some point, or that an additional, larger access point was required for regular maintenance, such as mechanical cleaning of the line.

Large trees near the area of the yard where the sewer line runs should always be cause for concern. This is especially true if it is known that the sanitary pipe is made from clay. Older clay pipe often has non-sealed joints every 3 feet or so (though this can vary some), which present an excellent opportunity for roots to get into and damage the pipe.

Pipe infested with tree roots.

Even if a home’s sanitary system has never shown signs of problems–it doesn’t mean there aren’t any. A mainline can be 50% to 90% restricted with no indications of problems, so long as it isn’t being used beyond its limited capacity. A family with one or more kids that moves into a home that was previously occupied by one person could experience this very circumstance. A partially or mostly blocked sewer line might be able to handle the volume from one person for quite some time. But if the occupancy number suddenly triples, it won’t take long for the sewer lateral to reveal serious problems. That’s why so many families experience sewage backups so soon after moving.

A similar situation can also happen during the holidays and at large gatherings, when a group of people comes together under a single roof, such as Grandma and Grandpa’s house. A restricted line that usually services one or two occupants can quickly become overwhelmed when the whole extended family starts washing and flushing. This can lead to an unfortunate Thanksgiving experience—and is also the reason for the significant up-tick in business for plumbers every holiday season.

The best and easiest way to find out what’s going on with a home or business’ sanitary system is a video inspection, rather than an unexpected sewer line backup. One of my customers just proved this point beautifully, so I thought I’d share his experience.

At a recent networking event, I bumped into the realtor who’d recommended that this customer contact Mainline Inspection Services before finalizing the purchase a foreclosed home. It was an older house with three large trees in the front yard. Our inspection revealed that the sewer line was in pretty rough shape. Because of the documentation we provided of the issues, the bank reduced the asking price on the property by  $7,000—the estimated cost to replace the line.

This point bears repeating: Without the inspection, the buyer would have paid $7,000 more for the house, followed at some point by a $7,000 sewer lateral replacement. And when the finance charges accrued during the term of the home loan are figured in, the total value of this customer’s sewer examination exceeds $20,000! I don’t think I could provide a better example of why it’s so important to know the condition of a property’s main sewer line prior to purchase.

With that being said, may your days be easygoing and your lines be ever-flowing.