Saturday, July 08, 2006

Repairing a Clogged Sewer — and Preventive Maintenance

I hate sewer clogs.

Inevitably, it seems, our sewer backs up only on weekends or when I'm at work. Either way means maximum inconvenience. Flush a toilet, or start the clothes washer ... and all of a sudden nasty stuff makes its way back up into our shower and bathtub. It's not a problem a homeowner can take lightly.

This seems to happen about once a year for us, although my wife assures me the last time was three years ago. Maybe the supreme annoyance of the whole thing is just so stark that it sticks out in my mind. Sort of like a really, really bad movie.

In any case, the Roto-Rooter guy was out yesterday. I spent $118.95 for roughly 40 minutes of his time (and folks say auto-service labor rates are high!). But that's okay, because he fixed the problem. Our house is fully flushable once again.

What did I learn this time? I learned that my 25-foot auger / pipe-snake thing is no longer long enough. I've replaced it with the 50-foot variety (~$26). Next time, perhaps, a sewer clog beneath our backyard won't require outside assistance from plumbers who charge skyhigh rates.

Also, from talking to the very congenial Mr. Roto-Rooter, I learned that:

  • Since our sewer drain is constructed from PVC pipe, using Drano or any other sort of commercial acidic clog remover is a big no-no. (Not that we've ever used it, anyway.) Such chemicals, aside from being environmentally yucky, apparently are great at dissolving the cement used to bond PVC sections together. That's not what you want to happen — unless, of course, you enjoy replacing whole chunks of sewer line yourself.

  • The so-called "flushable" baby wipes now on the market (see Pampers Kandoo wipes) are indeed flushable. Oh, they'll go down the toilet all right. But after that, all bets are off. According to the plumber, they don't deteriorate much at all. In fact, he said, once they snag somewhere in the drain system, they will actually expand as time passes. In our case, he told us, they were likely the cause of our latest sewage mis-adventure. (And yes, we had made a point to flush only one wipe at a time. No more!)

  • What auger-work I'd done the previous night pulled up only a small bind of roots from our pipe system. I know there are chemicals you can pour in your sewer clean-out that will kill any intruding roots in the system, and I asked Mr. Rooter about these. His response? Just use rock salt. That's right: He could install some Root-X foam root killer for $40 if we wanted, but he wouldn't recommend it with good conscience. Periodic (every 5-6 months) treatment with 1 cup of rock salt poured into the clean-out, followed by running roughly 1 gallon of water through the system and then allowing it all to "soak" overnight ... this would accomplish the same thing. As he so eloquently quipped, "Forty bucks will buy you a whole lotta rock salt."

Update: You'll probably want to read my "Sewer Line Repairs, Part 1" and "Sewer Line Repairs, Part 2" posts also, as they're an "addition" of sorts to this story!


— Posted by Michael @ 6:19 PM


I love it when you get a repair person that will tell you the simple, cheap ways to get something done rather than a snow job on how I "really need" their $40 add on. I always try to send a letter or call and let their boss know that their Mr. X's customer service was excellent.


After we had a sewer backup (primarily due to roots), we had the line roto-rooted every other year as a preventative maintenance routine. About $100 every two years and never a problem after that. A lot cheaper than having to deal with a backup once in a while.

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 12:51 PM, July 12, 2006  

Sounds like, with all of his advice and labor, the price wasn't too bad, especially if what he's told you keeps the problem from returning.

I work in computers and thought I got a decent salary. Then, when I see some of the rates that get charged for services like this, I realize that these guys can make pretty good money doing it. (I'm thinking more of the low overhead independent than I am big company employees)


You are SO right that these things NEVER happen at a convenient time. This happened to us TWICE in our last house - once on New Years Eve, the other on Easter. Sheesh.

The first time, the sewage only backed up into toilets and tubs. It was caused by the sewer pipe disconnecting from the house. Unfortunately, we cheaped out on the fix (found cheap guy with backhoe and sewer pipe experience), which led to our second occurrence.

The second time, it backed up into the toilets, then overflowed. The entire bathroom floor and cabinets needed to be ripped out, gotten rid of, and replaced. We didn't cheap out the second time, that's for sure. Lesson learned.


I hate them too. I live in the basement and every 5-6 months, the sewer gets clogged with roots. Doesn't matter much to me because I found out that the town will fix it for nothing.

Anonymous Russell Boynton
, at 4:01 PM, March 17, 2007  

Just wanted to say thanks for the information. I had a clogged sewer drain today. Instead of calling Roto Rooter, I searched online and found your page. I ended up going to Lowe's and getting an 40ft auger for $25 and a couple drain opening chemicals. The Auger pretty much did the trick (for now) as I got in there and jammed out the clog. Not sure what exactly was causing it, but I suspect it may be roots because I found an old receipt for some root killing product on a shelf in the basement after buying the place. Before closing things up, I went ahead and dumped rock salt down there just in case it is roots. Something that would not have crossed my mind if not for your post. So thanks again for that.


Where do you put the rock salt?



We poured the rock salt into the PVC drain clean-out in our backyard.


If you don't have access to a PVC drain pipe, can you pour the rock salt down the toilet or kitchen sink? Will that have the same effect?



Afraid I don't have the answer for you. I don't know what it would hurt -- but then, I'm no plumber, either!


Although most toilet bowls clear perfectly (showing the so-called flushability....), wet wipes cause many problems further down the wastewater transport system, sometimes in-house or on private property, but mostly in (public) sewer pumps, treatment plants and other equipment. Therefore, consider them solid waste and use the bin!!!

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