Sewer Line Backup Warning Signs

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Sewer Line Backup Warning Signs

Plumbing systems are made up of two primary parts: water supply and waste disposal. The waste disposal part is really an amazing feature of modern society. All of that gray water and waste just gets swept away, never to be seen or heard from again. The exception to that rule is the dreaded sewer line backup. This can be a traumatic event for homeowners. If you know the early warning signs though, you can often mitigate problems before they become severe.

Where Backups Happen

The most serious backups happen on the main sewer line, which is the single common pipe that all of your drains eventually lead to. It is also the pipe that delivers that wastewater to the main municipal sewer line or private septic tank. If your clog or blockage is on the main sewer line, it’s not safe to run any water in your home or flush any toilets because there’s nowhere for that waste to escape to.

The other option is that a clog or backup can happen on a single drain line. This is typically going to be caused by human behavior. It can happen over time, like rinsing large food scraps and grease down a kitchen sink or it can happen from a single large event like a child flushing a stuffed toy down the toilet. Either way, these backups or clogs can sometimes be resolved with a smaller tool like a toilet auger or drain snake. Basic, low cost versions of these tools are available at home improvement stores. Feel free to give it a shot before you call a plumber, but don’t use chemicals. They are ineffective and corrode your pipes.

Important note! If you DO use chemicals, please let your plumber know. The machines that plumbers use to clear clogs are high powered and can cause back-spray. The chemicals in drain cleaning products are acidic and highly corrosive. It is unsafe for the plumber to get that on their skin or in their eyes. If you have used drain cleaning products, the plumber can take extra precautionary steps to keep him or herself safe.

The Cause of Sewer Backups

Sewer backups can be caused by natural events, like roots in a sewer line. For older homes with mature trees, this is very common. An aging home is usually a cause for sewer concern and may benefit from preventative maintenance. It is inevitable that some sludge will build up in the line. Also, pipes can wear out or get thin in some areas over time. Bellies, or dips in the line can happen where the earth settles below the pipe. All of these are natural effects on sewer lines over time and can lead to backups.

Sewer line backups can also be caused by human behavior, as we discussed briefly above. Hair, grease, feminine products, food scraps and all those odds and ends that can get flushed or poured down the drain over time can get caught up on ridges in the pipes, in those bellies, on roots or can simply overwhelm the system.

Warning Signs for Sewer Backups

Slow draining drains and gurgling toilets are usually the first signs of a blockage in a sewer line. It can even sound like your toilet is percolating.

You can tell if a backup is a single drain line or the main line by using another drain or toilet on the lowest level of the home. If that drain or toilet works fine, then the backup is just the single drain. If it is also slow or gurgling, then it is most likely your main line.

What To Do When Your Sewer Line Backs Up

If you suspect that your main sewer line is backed up, the first thing to do is go outside your home and look for a cleanout. This will typically be a four-inch piece of white pipe that sticks a few inches out of the ground. It will have a cap on it. Remove the cap. This releases some of the pressure from the line and also gives the waste somewhere to escape outside of your home. After all, you’d probably rather have sewage in your yard than in your bathroom floor or shower. If you can see standing water when you look inside that cleanout, that is another indication that your main line is backed up and clogged.

Drain Cleaning Service in Greenville SC

If you can’t find a cleanout, don’t panic. Not every home has one, although your plumber will likely recommend installing one. If you are having an issue with your main sewer line, chances are it won’t be the last time. A cleanout makes the plumbers job much easier. The alternative is to pull the toilet closest to the main line. So customers that have no cleanout present will likely be charged slightly more for a sewer line backup.

In addition to the extra time and effort of removing a toilet to reach the main sewer line backup, plumbers also have to bring large equipment into your home to service the line. That’s stressful for everyone.

Next, turn off the water to your home until a plumber can get there to inspect the line. This is a precaution that can pay off, especially if you have a large family. Using water in our homes is second nature. It’s really hard to remember not to flush, do laundry or wash your hands, but if that main sewer line is backed up you really don’t want to add anything else to the system until it’s cleared. There is only so much volume that pipe can hold before it backs up into your home – or yard, if you removed the cap on your cleanout.

Now that you have done emergency triage, call a plumber! They will come with a sewer line cleaning machine and get the clog to move on. It’s highly recommended that after you have the line clear, have a sewer line camera inspection. This will allow the plumber to actually see into that line and get an idea of what caused the backup to begin with. All of the things we talked about earlier, from roots to bellies, can be seen in a sewer line camera inspection.

Recommendations from the Plumber

Once the sewer line is cleared from the blockage and a camera inspection is done, the plumber might make some recommendations. If there is nothing wrong with the sewer line itself, they might recommend that you change behaviors based on their findings. For instance, if they pull baby wipes or cloth cleansing wipes out of the line, they may recommend that you cease flushing those items.

If there is something wrong with the line, like a belly, roots or a break, they might recommend further steps to repair the sewer line. The worst-case scenario is a sewer line replacement. We don’t like delivering that expensive news any more than you like getting it, so our plumbers use sewer line replacement as a last resort.

Drain Cleaning Machine

In conclusion, sewer line backups are common. Don’t feel bad if one happens to you. We have an amazing infrastructure, but it’s not infallible. If homeowners are careful about how they treat their pipes, they can go years and years without service interruption. However, every sewer system has a limited lifespan. If your home is at least 30 years old, expect that roots might cause a sewer line backup at some point and be extra careful about what you flush down the toilet and put down the drain.

If you suspect that your system is headed towards a sewer line backup because of slow drainage or gurgling, it is best to make that call to a qualified service plumber such as the staff at All Clear Plumbing. Don’t wait until you have a mess to clean up.

To schedule a sewer line cleaning and camera inspection with All Clear Plumbing, just call 864-979-7059 or submit a service request online.


Article Author: Anja Smith

Managing Partner

Anja Smith is the author behind the All Clear Plumbing blog. She also writes regularly for Plumber Magazine,, and on Medium