Most of us don’t give a second thought to our sewer system. That is, until something goes wrong. Some basic knowledge about your home’s sewer system can help you maintain its health as well as identify signs of potential issues.

To get the scoop on sewer systems, I spoke with Bill Knox and Donta’ Hodges of Atlanta-based Estes Services, a full-service plumbing company that also offers a variety of other services, including heating and air, electrical, and insulation. The company has been in business since 1949. Bill manages the plumbing division, which has been around for almost a decade and continues to grow. Donta’ is a master plumber with 25 years of experience.

How Residential Sewer Systems Work

A residential sewer system consists of sewer lines that bring waste from various sources in the home to the main sewer line, which then takes the waste to the city’s sewer line.

Sewer systems constructed in the 1980s and later include a sewer cleanout—a place where the main sewer line can be accessed outside the house. If you’ve seen a small round white PVC pipe with a cover in your yard, that’s your sewer cleanout. However, your cleanout may look different depending on where you live and how your house was constructed.

These modern cleanouts enable plumbers to “take off the cap and try to clean out the sewer line from there instead of having to go inside the house and try to clean out your line from the toilet,” Bill explains.

Signs You Have a Sewer Problem

plumber removing tree roots from old terra cotta sewer line

Donta’ warns homeowners to pay attention to these two signs:

  1. Gurgling in toilets
  2. Drains working slowly

If you hear a gurgle in your toilet, that’s a sign there’s a restriction in the line. If that gurgle is accompanied by sluggish drains, that’s an even stronger indication that there may be a backup.

If these signs appear, Donta’ suggests finding your sewer cleanout and removing the cap until a plumber can come out and check on your sewer system. This way, if your sewer line does back up, the mess will come up through the cleanout in your yard instead of up through drains inside your home.

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Common sewer line issues

“The most common problem is roots,” Donta’ says. Tree roots are always seeking out sources of water, and they can grow into some pipes, causing blockages and leaks.

Newer pipes, which are typically made of PVC, can develop bellies, or sagging spots, where the area underneath the pipe was not filled in properly. As a consequence, “water sits in that one area of the pipe, causing blockages,” Donta’ explains.

Sewer issues in older homes

Homes built during the 1970s or earlier typically have cast iron, clay, or terra cotta sewer pipes. Donta’ explains that these materials are prone to collapsing, deteriorating, and root intrusion. If sewer backups are occurring in an older home, Donta’ recommends a camera inspection to determine the condition of the sewer line.

Sewer Repair and Replacement Process

plumber performing camera inspection of residential sewer line

Before a sewer line can be repaired, Donta’ says that Estes Services does the following:

  1. Perform a camera inspection of the line
  2. Locate the line in the yard, where it enters the home, the sewer cleanout, and where the line connects to the county or city’s tap
  3. Locate underground utilities

Once these steps have been taken, your pro can begin the repair work.

Traditional sewer repair vs. trenchless sewer repair

Some companies offer trenchless sewer repair while other companies stick with the traditional method of sewer line repair and replacement. Make sure to familiarize yourself with both methods so that you can ask your plumber which options they provide.

Trenchless sewer repair can be done using two different methods:

  1. Trenchless pipe lining: A liner soaked with resin is run through the old pipe. When it dries, it solidifies into what is essentially a new pipe within the old pipe. This method is also known as cured-in-place piping.
  2. Trenchless pipe bursting: A pipe with a larger diameter is drawn through the old pipe, breaking the old pipe and pushing the pieces into the surrounding soil as the new pipe is put in place.

Conventional sewer repair involves digging into the yard to expose the sewer line in order for work to be done on the line. Some repairs will require an excavator to do the digging, and other repairs will require more hands-on and careful digging with shovels.

Estes Services provides traditional sewer repair. Bill explains, “We, as a company, made a decision. Whenever we lay a new sewer line down, we want to be able to put our eyes on it.”

Donta’ explains that during conventional sewer repair, it is important to make sure the sewer line has the proper fall or angle to it, or else water and other things can lay in the pipe and create blockages. It’s also important to ensure that the backfill is done right and the soil is tamped down, so that the pipe does not develop bellies later.

Traditional sewer line repair or replacement can be messy, but Bill notes that “we can make it almost look like we weren’t there.” If your plumber is using conventional methods, ask about the work they will do afterward to restore your yard to its original state.

Ultimately, it is up to you to do your research, get quotes, and decide which method to go with. There are plenty of companies who do both, so feel free to explore your options and get second or third opinions.

How long does sewer repair take?

“It all depends on what you run into while you’re digging,” Donta’ explains. It also depends on how deep the plumber has to dig: “If you’re talking four feet, it could take you three to four hours.” Pros also have to take into account where utilities are located. Some repairs have to be hand dug because the sewer line is located close to utility lines.

How to Maintain a Healthy Sewer System

Here are some tips from the experts at Estes for maintaining a healthy, clog-free sewer system:

  • Don’t flush “flushable” wipes
  • Don’t put grease down the drain
  • Periodically pour vinegar and baking soda down your drains to keep smells away and clean the walls of your PVC piping
  • Chemical drain cleaners can damage cast iron pipes. Donta’ doesn’t recommend using chemical drain cleaners in general but says that it’s OK for PVC pipes. If you’re not sure what type of pipes are in your sewer system, opt for natural cleaners.
The Bottom Line Your sewer system is an important but unseen part of your home. Take care of your system and keep an eye out for signs of a problem. Don’t neglect your sewer system until there’s a backup in your home! Here’s how:
  • Schedule a sewer line camera inspection if you have an older home and want to find out if there are issues to watch out for, such as roots beginning to grow into your cast iron or clay pipes.
  • Prevent clogs by knowing what shouldn't get flushed or rinsed down into your sewer lines
  • Locate your sewer cleanout, open it if you see and hear signs of a backup, and call a Best Pick professional right away.

This article was crafted with the help of Estes Services, a Drain/Sewer Cleaning & Repair Best Pick in Atlanta. While we strive to provide relevant information to all homeowners, some of the material we publish may not pertain to every area. Please contact your local Best Pick companies for any further area-specific advice.