What To Do When The Sewer Backs Up

What is the best way to deal with a sewage drain backup in your home building drain?

Basement flood becomes a yucky pond

It usually begins with a gurgling... or a slow drain. If you notice either, your number may be up. When confined to a single drain, you probably don't have anything to worry about - break out the plunger or pull out that hair clump. But if the tub is backing up when the toilet's flushed, or the kitchen sink appears to drain straight to your basement, you could have a major problem. The sewer drain could be backing into your building drain.

A study by the Civil Engineering Research Foundation found that the rate of sewage backups is going up by 3% annually, largely due to an aging infrastructure (the average age of US sewer lines is 30 years). With older lines, especially those constructed of cast iron or clay (yes, clay), pipe breaks and collapses are all too easy. Small cracks can give entry to tree roots, which feast on the plentiful water and nutrients constantly running through. When these things happen, it becomes that much easier for a backup to occur. But even in the newest pipe, the wrong things going down the drain can be all it takes for the nightmare to unfold.

Did you know...

  • The most common causes of sewer backups are tree roots clogging pipes, FOG (Fats, Oils, and Grease) going down the drain, and connecting things like french drains, sump pump discharges, and other flood control systems to the sanitary sewer system (which is why such connections are usually not permitted). Blockages in main sewer lines can also be caused by soil settlement over time or collapsed pipes.
  • "Flushable" wipes aren't so flushable: utilities around the country have found them to be the chief culprit in many a clogged main sewer drain. Trash them!
  • Municipalities with combined sewage and storm water systems are at a higher risk of being inundated by severe rainfall, resulting in backups.

Should you be the victim of a sewer drain backup...

  • The sewer drain line is the main drainage piping starting two feet outside the outer foundation wall of the structure to the sanitary sewer main. If you know where your sewer drain cleanout is, you're ahead of the game. If you don't know, then it's time for you to find out. Normally it will be located on the lateral line (between the home and the sewer main) about one to two feet away from the house. Check for standing water in the cleanout by removing the cap. If you don't find any water, the backup is somewhere between the cleanout and the house, and must be dealt with by you. Should the cleanout be full, the stoppage is likely in the city main sewer line - contact them immediately for repair.
  • While shutting off electricity to the entire house is the safest route, if it's clear there's no risk to the area(s) affected, you should be fine turning the power off only to those areas. Think about investing in a generator for future emergencies. Shut off water and gas supplies, as well.
  • If there's any possibility sewage may have come into contact with your home's forced or central air-conditioning system, call the professionals for cleanup. Likewise, if you were away from the house and sewage has been inside for over 24 hours, the job has moved beyond your scope. Get it taken care of properly and professionally.
  • Depending on the severity of the backup, it is entirely possible for you to deal with the cleanup yourself, with the proper safety precautions. Whatever you decide, be nimble and be quick: the longer wastewater sits, the greater the chances of illness and severe water damage.

If you do choose to brave the waters...

  • You'll need rubber gloves, protective eyewear, and rubber boots, at the very least. Contact your local waste facility for the appropriate way to dispose of these and any other items after you're finished cleaning up.
  • Stay away from drain cleaners and other chemical options: they won't do anything for a sewer backup, and could even make things worse by further damaging already-compromised pipes. The only thing to be done at this point is to clean up and dry out - dealing with the clog will have to come later.
  • Getting the water out as soon as possible is key, and can be accomplished in several ways. Pumps are great for larger volumes of water, and wet-dry vacuums deal easily with solids. If water is shallow, but has a lot of debris/solids, a good push-broom may do the trick.
  • With pumps, an ordinary sump or utility pump may work fine, but for large volumes of water with a lot of solids, look into an effluent or sewage pump that can pass them more easily.
  • If you have a pump, or plan on using one in this kind of emergency, be sure to check with local authorities on where to drain the contaminated water.
  • Most large equipment like generators can be rented. Be sure to inform whoever you're renting from that the equipment is to be used for a sewer backup so the necessary disinfection measures can be taken afterward.

Once the water's out...

  • To get things drying, use dehumidifiers and/or your air-conditioning (if ductwork is uncontaminated) with the windows closed. If these aren't available, turn on fans and open windows and doors to get the air moving.
  • Discard anything that's been saturated: carpets, rugs, furniture, etc. Important papers, photos, and books can be sealed in a bag and put in a freezer - this will inhibit mold/mildew growth, and buy you time.
  • Move anything that appears salvageable out of the contaminated area, preferably outdoors and onto a plastic barrier.
  • If water has reached the walls, or you see a water line or staining, you'll need to cut the drywall well above that point and replace it. If your walls have vinyl wallpaper, remove it to facilitate drying.
  • An initial disinfecting can help reduce the gross-out factor, and puts a dent in microbial growth. Using a bactericidal disinfectant (bleaches, etc.) diluted to manufacturer specifications, wipe and mop down contaminated surfaces. Follow this up with a deep-cleaning using detergent and water (the only way to physically remove contaminants and ensure safety). Let everything dry out (this could take a while), and follow that with a "real" disinfection, letting the bactericide sit for 15-20 minutes before cleaning.
  • Depending on the severity of the clog, you may be able to clear it yourself using an auger (or "snake") inserted through the sewer cleanout. If you don't have any experience using one of these gadgets, or it fails to clear the line, call a plumber.

There are several things you can do to help prevent backups in your service line, and minimize your role in any main line clogs:

  • Plumbing codes have required new homes to have a backflow prevention valve installed for some time now, but older homes can remain vulnerable. These valves prevent water from running through your pipes in the wrong direction, and are one of the best defenses against backups. We offer a variety of PVC and ABS backwater valves or PVC check valves, to keep you protected. Once installed, check them out at least once a year to ensure they're unobstructed and operating properly.
  • Flood-Guards are like a check valve for your floor drains, and are an easy way to keep your basement clean and dry. Also worth considering are water alarms, which can be placed anywhere and let you know when water is somewhere it shouldn't be.
  • Since it's unlikely that backup water will accumulate more than a few inches, simply setting appliances, equipment and other important, sensitive items above ground-level can potentially save you thousands.
  • Be sure that the downspouts from your rain gutters are directed away from the house, towards a lower elevation.
  • Once or twice a month, fill up every sink and let them drain - the increased pressure can help dislodge blockages and move debris out. Check out our page on preventing clogged drains for more simple tips.
  • Many insurance companies offer coverage for sewer backups for an additional premium. If this is within your budget, it's a good idea - backups can happen at any time and are often out of your control.

Yes, sewer backups are smelly, awful, terrible things - but not unmanageable. A river of poo flowing around one's feet seems like the stuff of nightmares, but the possibility is all too real. Should misfortune come your way, clear, safety-minded thinking and quick action are vital, despite the horror of the situation.

We have a variety of products that can help you deal with a sewer backup!

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