Got roots in your sewer line?Causes, solutions and the big picture
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Mention roots in your sewer line in a room full of homeowners, and odds are good that most of them will know what you’re talking about. A few can probably even recommend a favored plumber or sewer service, someone they see once every one or two years.
The older the home, the more likely there will be problems unless the original clay tile lines have been replaced.
“Years ago they used 3-foot sections of clay tile,” said Kyle Borg of Midway Sewer Service. “They weren’t screwed or glued, they were just laid end to end in a trench. So every three feet you have a seam that isn’t sealed.”
Add a tree or two to the mix, plus a few cycles of freezing and thawing, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a huge homeowner headache.
“Tree roots grow toward water, and there’s water in your sewer pipe,” Borg said. “So every three feet, you might have tree roots coming in, then they grab onto solids, basically everything people flush down the toilet. It causes a backup and that’s when we come in with our snake and cut the roots out.”
Some folks prefer to skip the part where the sewage water backs up into their home and simply schedule an annual visit from the sewer snake (a number of area businesses offer this service).
A foaming agent, such as RootX, is a chemical alternative to hiring a sewer technician to run a snake through the lines. Many experts recommend copper sulfate crystals, which create a poison zone within the soil outside the pipe. Roots can’t get into the pipe, as they die trying. A foaming agent like RootX will coat the root masses that come down from the top of the pipe like fingers from a web, rather than just traveling through the bottom of the pipe. One treatment is supposed to kill off and prevent roots from coming back for a year.
For frequent sewer backups, some sewer services offer TV video inspection and recording. For a fee, around the $200 mark, workers send a tiny video camera down the length of the sewer pipe so the homeowner can actually get a better idea of what’s causing the problem. Perhaps the entire line needs to be replaced, maybe it’s just one section.
Bear in mind the line that runs from the home – known as the service line, or lateral line – to the main sewer line under the street is the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain and repair.
Caleb Peterson, Cloquet assistant city engineer, said he’s not surprised to hear of an older home having roots in the sewer line. He noted that the majority of calls the city gets about sewer backups are because of problems with the service line – whether from grease, roots or offset pipes – and not from the city’s main line.
“There are homes around town where people deal with continuous root issues,” Peterson said. “Most of them don’t go to the expense of digging until they have to.”
Roots in a sewer line are a double whammy, a problem for the homeowner at one end and the wastewater treatment plant at the other. That’s because those leaks in the sewer pipe also allow rainwater and snowmelt into the sewer line, sending water that doesn’t need to be treated to the wastewater treatment plant.
Duluth has had a program requiring the worst culprits to fix leaky lateral lines, because a heavy rain has been known to overwhelm the sanitary sewer system, which then floods above ground. In the worst cases, and there have been many, that untreated mixture of sewage and stormwater has run into Lake Superior.
Peterson said Cloquet also has a program to address the issue of stormwater entering the sanitary sewer system, but the focus is more on sump pumps and foundation drains that are wrongly hooked up to the sewer line.
“Our goal is reducing clear-water connections into the sanitary sewer,” Peterson said.
Homeowners who lack the average $7,000 cost of replacing the entire lateral line do have options, he said.
Less expensive than digging up the pipes (and possibly part of the street) and replacing them is having the pipes lined, something Peterson said the city does with some city sewer lines.
“It’s a pretty common practice in sewer mains and it’s cheaper to line and rehab than to dig up and replace,” he said.
Many homeowners choose to continue to have the roots cut out every year, or as often as needed (which varies tremendously and must be learned from experience).
One thing is certain, it’s a problem that can’t be ignored when it happens.
As Chris Oestreich of Midway Sewer and Service so aptly stated, as he explained why he went from being a cook to being a sewer technician: “The sewer business is one that will never fail, because everyone’s gotta go to the bathroom."