Help! Is My Main Sewer Line Blocked?

A home’s main sewer line after it has been blocked and damaged by extensive tree root penetration and growth

Of all the things that can go wrong with your plumbing system, a main sewer line blockage has got to be one of the very worst. It's disgusting, unsanitary, unsafe, and highly disruptive to your household—and did we mention disgusting?

You might think you know exactly what a main sewer line clog looks like a nightmare of raw sewage flooding across the floor of your basement or bathroom. While that horrifying vision can happen, it's basically the worst-case scenario. The catastrophe is usually preceded by a series of clues that something is definitely not right and you have a dysfunctional plumbing issue, but those symptoms often go unnoticed or ignored. If you know the signs and causes of a blocked main sewer line, you can get help from a licensed plumber before your house turns into the most revolting swimming pool imaginable.

This guide from expert local plumbers answers some key questions about main sewer line blockages, including how to tell when it's happening, why it's happening, and what to do about it, along with expert advice from the professionals at Mr. Rooter Plumbing.

What Are the Signs of a Clogged Main Sewer Line?

It's important to know the symptoms of a clogged sewer line so you can catch it as soon as possible and get help from your local plumbing professional before it spirals into a huge, nasty mess. Here are some key signs that all homeowners should be aware of.

  • Frequent, Stubborn Clogs: Do you cross your fingers every time you flush, or plunge a drain only to have it clog right up again the next time you try to use that fixture? Clogged drains that just won't go away are an indication of a deeper problem that requires main sewer line repair.
  • Multiple Affected Fixtures: One clogged drain is common. Two clogged drains could be a coincidence. But if every fixture in your house seems to be affected by clogs or other drainage issues, the likely culprit is your main sewer line.
  • Unusual Reactions from Fixtures: When you use one fixture, another should not react. For example, if you run water in your bathroom sink and the toilet bubbles, or flushing your toilet causes water to back up in your shower drain or floor drain, that means there is something wrong with your sewer system.
  • Wet Spots on Lawn: Are there mysterious patches of soggy grass on your lawn, even though it hasn't rained recently? Or maybe your once-even lawn has a noticeable indent in the grass, or one part of the lawn is suddenly a lot greener and lusher than the rest. These are all signs that a buried pipe is leaking wastewater and raw sewage under your grass.
  • Sewer Backup: This is the one we all hate to even think about. If you see a raw sewage backup in floor drains or low-lying fixtures such as a shower, bathtub, or toilet, you obviously know something is very wrong. But it might not actually look or smell like sewage—it could just appear to be murky, grey wastewater. Either way, it is a serious issue, and you should not use your sewer system until a plumber has taken care of repairs.

What's the Difference Between a Drain Clog and a Blocked Sewer Main Line?

These two very different problems are often mistaken for each other or treated as if they are interchangeable, and that's understandable—on the surface, they can seem to have a lot in common.

Everyone has dealt with a clogged drain or clogged toilet at some point in their lives. It's a clog in the pipe right below a slow drain, usually caused by clumps of hair, food scraps or an overfilled toilet. While it may not be exactly pleasant, it can typically be handled with simple unclogging methods such as a plunger and some elbow grease, or a drain snake.

A mainline sewer clog is a more serious (and thankfully less common) problem. Typically, sewer pipes that lead from fixtures such as your toilets and sinks are connected to a main drain stack that then drains wastewater into your buried pipe and out to the city's sanitary sewer. With a main sewer line blockage, your stack or pipe beyond it is blocked—and it may not be a clog at all. The problem could be caused by a damaged pipe or even tree roots growing inside your line. This is a huge issue because every plumbing fixture in your house is relying on that one main line to dispose of wastewater, and if it is out of commission, so is every other plumbing fixture.

What Causes a Main Sewer Line Blockage?

There are a few different factors that can cause your sewer main line to become blocked, but the most common scenario is that something was flushed or rinsed down your drain lines that shouldn't have been. But there are other potential causes as well. Here are the four biggest problems your local plumber has discovered lurking in a main drain line:

Fat, Oil, and Grease

Fat, oil, and grease are a plumber's number one enemy. They are so notoriously bad that they have their own acronym in the plumbing industry: FOG. A lot of people think it's okay to pour FOG down their drains because it's liquid when it goes into the pipe. But as it cools, it coats the interior of your lines and creates a slimy, solidified mess that holds onto other items that follow it down the drain. That eventually creates a big, immovable clog that partially or completely cuts off the flow of wastewater.

Other Debris

Your sewage pipes are only really meant to dispose of three things: wastewater, human waste, and toilet paper. You may be able to get away with some food scraps if you have an in-sink garbage disposal, but everything else is a “no” for your sewer system. That includes stuff like:

  • Paper towels
  • Tissues
  • Wet wipes (they're not really flushable!)
  • Sanitary products
  • Hair
  • Q-tips
  • Cotton balls
  • Dental floss
  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells
  • Other food scraps

It also includes small items that may fall down your drain accidentally or be flushed by curious children, such as small toys, bottle caps, razor blades, and more. The easiest way to prevent that from happening with your sinks or shower drain is to install drain covers.

Damaged Pipe

Whether or not you are scrupulous about keeping foreign substances and items out of your pipes, your main sewer line problems may not be the result of anything you did wrong. There are a lot of factors that can create a damaged sewer line, especially around the part that is buried.

For example, the freeze and thaw cycle can cause groundwater to expand and constrict until you have a broken pipe, or your pipe might still be intact but sagging due to erosion in the soil that was holding it in place. That prevents wastewater from being able to make it all the way through to the city sewer or your septic tank. When that happens, wastewater has nowhere to go but back up into your house.

Tree Root Intrusion

Tree roots are a major issue for buried pipes. Even trees that aren't on your property can have far-reaching roots that wrap themselves around buried lines and squeeze as they grow bigger, slowly choking the pipe until it cracks. Once roots touch wastewater inside the pipe, they grow rapidly and can fill long stretches of your main sewer line until the flow of wastewater is completely blocked.

What Should I Do If My Main Sewer Line Is Blocked?

When your home is suffering from main sewer line problems, there are three key steps you need to take to get on the path to getting it resolved as quickly as possible.

  • Clean Up (or Call Biohazard Cleaners): If you were unfortunate and ended up experiencing the worst, a flood of raw sewage and wastewater, it needs to be cleaned up. However, this might be a bit beyond over-the-counter cleaning products and a pair of rubber gloves. If it was pretty severe, the safest option is to call in biohazard cleaners who have the right training and safety equipment to take care of the mess without contaminating themselves or other parts of the house.
  • Shut Off the Water: Next, you should shut off the water. Even though the problem isn't related to your water line, you can't let any water go down the drains until the issue is resolved, and it is really easy to forget and turn on the tap or flush the toilet without thinking. shutting off the main valve will prevent that from happening.
  • Call a Professional Plumber: Lastly, you need to call a professional plumber who is experienced at handling main sewer line blockages. This really isn't something you can fix on your own unless you happen to be an experienced plumber. Your sewer line can cause all kinds of serious damage to your home and property if it isn't handled correctly, and having a professional repair it will give you peace of mind that everything is functioning properly again.

How Will My Plumber Repair the Main Sewer Line?

If you have checked out the signs and causes above and you're pretty sure you are dealing with a main sewer clog or broken sewer line, you may be feeling stressed about what needs to be done to get it repaired. Don't panic! Chances are good that it won't be a big, property-damaging headache you are picturing. The team at Mr. Rooter Plumbing has access to a number of non-invasive, highly effective tools that can help us take care of your main sewer line repair quickly and efficiently.

Video Camera Inspection

The first thing your plumber needs to do is figure out the nature of the blockage and its exact location. That's not an easy task, since most of what happens with your plumbing system is completely hidden from view behind your walls or floors, or buried in the ground—but sewer camera inspection is a big help. A small video camera is attached to a flexible cable and lowered into your drain, then maneuvered through your main drain line while it records footage. Once it has been pulled back out of your drain, your plumber can play the footage back and interpret it to discover what's going on and where.

HydroScrub® Jetting

If the issue is an actual clog and the sewer pipe itself is not damaged, we may be able to take care of it with the main sewer line cleaning. That involves an advanced drain cleaning technique called HydroScrub® jetting that is extremely effective at dislodging blockages. With hydro jetting, high-pressure water jets blast away built-up FOG and other debris that is blocking your drain line. Because the jets scour the inside of the pipe clean, they leave the interior walls smooth and help to prevent clogs from forming so quickly in the future.

Trenchless Sewer Line Replacement or Repair

If you are dealing with broken sewer lines that were damaged by tree roots, freezing and thawing, or other factors, your system is going to need a more heavy-duty sewer repair intervention than just cleaning. The conventional method of pipe repair or replacement was to dig a huge trench across the yard or cut open drywall to access the lines. The difference between trenchless and traditional techniques is that, as the name suggests, trenchless methods are far less invasive and eliminate the need to dig a trench. Usually, only two small holes need to be dug, and the pipe is either fitted with a lining that cures in place or a new pipe is threaded into the space left behind by the old one.

Rely on Mr. Rooter Plumbing to Clear Your Blocked Main Sewer Line

When you have a major plumbing problem like a blockage in your main sewer line, you need trustworthy, effective plumbing service to get it resolved right away—and that is exactly what you get when you contact the service professionals at Mr. Rooter Plumbing.

Give us a call to schedule an appointment for drain cleaning or plumbing repair and we'll get your plumbing system back in perfect working order quickly and efficiently.