Sewer Main Replacement – What you Should Know

I recently had a situation with a sewer main replacement (a partial replacement actually) pop up, so I thought I would tell you the story, and see if maybe it will help others to make good decisions when faced with similar circumstances.  Out of all the types of emergency plumbing repairs that are made, sewer main repairs are one of the most common.  The situation that I am about to describe is also very, very common.

About a month and a half ago, I received a call from an old ex-girlfriend of mine (yea, it happens to the best of us).  She could not figure out why the shower was taking so long to drain, and while draining, it was making the toilet gurgle.  Well, if you read the post on this blog about “Residential Drain Plumbing”, you likely know that if any other fixture affects the toilet, it is a sewer main back up.

Sewer main replacement fullSo, I gave her advice on what she should have the plumber do when he got there, and wished her the best.  The plumber came over; she had him do what I said to do and left her with a “cleared” sewer line, and a warranty.  He did recommend running a camera, but she did not like the plumber, so she declined… besides, he left no incentive for her to run the camera that day, rather than waiting.

Well, the other day, it backed up again.  This time she called for a manager to come by.  He came over, cleared the line under warranty, and ran a camera.  It turns out that the roots had infested the plumbing so badly that there was a major break in the line just barely under the sidewalk.  They gave her a quote for $2800 to replace the section of damaged plumbing.  She approved the quote without consulting me first, and the work began.

Now, it turns out that they did a pretty good job making the repair, and left the yard looking pretty good, considering the scope of work that was involved.  So what went wrong?  There are a few things, all of which I explained to her after the fact.  I am hoping you get to read this before the fact.

Where I live, the sewer line is divided into sections in front of the house.  The property owner’s line actually ends at the easement, which is five feet back from the sidewalk, or ten feet from the curb, if there is no sidewalk.  The city’s line begins there and runs to the connection to the city main, in the street.

If there is a problem with the connection within that easement, AND there is no approved cleanout within the easement, the homeowner is responsible for the repair.  This was the case in this situation.  The plumbing was broken within the easement, and there was no sewer main cleanout there.  The problem is that she should have had them install one.

In order to install a cleanout, and have the city take responsibility for the sewer line from that point out, the plumber (or the homeowner) must pull a permit, install the cleanout, and have the cleanout inspected before backfill.  In fact, whenever making a repair within the easement, permits need to be pulled and the work inspected.  They did not pull permits, not did they install a cleanout there.


sewer line replacement complete

Finished sewer line replacement with cleanout

The most popular place to have a main sewer problem is in the area where she had it.  The second most popular place is the connection form the lateral to the city main, in the middle of the street.  So what happens of there is a break there?  Well, if the line can be cleared, I recommend putting in a cleanout at the property line easement; so that the city will take responsibility for it next time there is a problem.  Once an approved cleanout is in place, it is the city’s problem, and they will fix it at no charge to the homeowner.  The line has to flow, however, to pass inspection (in most cases).

If the sewer line will not clear, a repair has to be made in the street.  The cost for a plumbing repair in the middle of the street can cost upwards of $20,000 or more.  In some cities, the permits alone cost around $5,000.  I would have liked it if I was consulted prior to the contact being signed, so I could have warned her about this.  There are also other things that could have gone wrong that would have cost her a lot more money.  Fortunately, all went well.  My concern now is what might happen if the connection to the main proves bad in the future.

This is all research she could have done on her own prior to getting the repair done.  She told me that she felt as if she was under the gun due to the nature of the problem.  She could have, however, had the line cleared again to restore flow temporarily, had the camera run, done some research, and collected some bids.  She could have likely had the work done with a cleanout and permits for the same price.

The moral of the story here is that, when dealing with your plumbing, always do your homework.  Many plumbers will try to make you feel like you are under the gun to make a decision right now, but the situation is seldom as dire as they make it seem.  Listen to your gut.  If it tells you that you have a day or two to do due diligence, listen to it.  It could save you a lot of money and headaches in the future.

Another bit of advice – it is a point of fact that if you have a sewer line blockage, the chances are better than not that you will have a problem with it again, unless there is a repair made.  Running the line with a sewer cable (even with a big blade on it) will NOT fix the problem.  It is a temporary solution at best.  Expect the problem to get worse with time, and prepare for it.  Get a camera survey done to asses the nature and location of the damage, and prepare, prepare, prepare.  If you stay in that property for long enough, you will likely need either a full or partial sewer main replacement eventually.

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