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Your sewer line is the plumbing line that carries wastewater and sewage from your home to the larger wastewater system in your area. If this line stops working properly, your household may experience serious related issues, including contamination of your fresh water supply. Sewer line problems don’t occur that often. However, when they do happen, they frequently involve leaking in one or more sections of the line. If you suspect a sewer line leak on your property, three important signs can help you reveal the presence of this issue.
Why Do Sewer Line Leaks Happen?
First, it may help if you understand exactly how sewer line leaks typically develop. One relatively common cause is the gradual breakdown of the material used to manufacture the line. The two traditional materials used for sewer pipes are clay and cast iron. However, for several decades, plumbing contractors have also installed pipes made from heavy-duty PVC or other highly durable forms of plastic. All of these materials last for extended periods of time, but will fail sooner or later.
Another common source of sewer line leaks is the infiltration of roots from nearby trees. This happens because trees naturally seek out ready water sources and have roots strong enough to break down sewer pipe material over time. Some lines leak as a result of damage caused by the mineral content in water. In some cases, the damage comes from groundwater outside a line; in other cases, it comes from hard water flowing through a line. Nearby construction or excavation can also trigger a sewer line leak. In addition, if you live in a region that experiences extended bouts of very low temperatures, ongoing exposure to extreme cold may lead to line leaking.
Sign #1: The Pooling of Septic Water in Your Yard
If you notice the presence of unexplained wet or soggy spots in your lawn, you may have a leaking sewer line. However, these spots also have other potential sources, so you’ll have to do a bit of close investigation. First, does the wet or soggy area produce an obvious foul smell? If so, this is a strong indicator that you have a sewer line problem, not a problem with the line supplying fresh water to your home, or with a leaking irrigation system. Similarly, if you notice obvious waste products in the soggy/wet areas of your lawn, you can direct your attention toward sewer problems and away from other possible issues. It’s important to note that, in a house equipped with an onsite septic system, septic tank damage or a clogged drain field may also produce the same basic symptoms as a leaking pipe leading to the system.
Sign #2: Telltale Indoor Plumbing Problems
Several problems with your indoor plumbing may point toward the presence of a leak in your household’s sewer line. One telltale issue to look for is unusually slow draining that affects multiple parts of your plumbing system (either drains or fixtures) at once. In your bathroom, look for sloshing or bubbling in a toilet bowl that only occurs when water drains out of the sink. Similarly, look for a toilet that only overflows when your washing machine purges water at the end of a wash or rinse cycle.
Some household plumbing systems are equipped with a clean-out pipe (also known as a drain cleanout) in a basement, utility room, or crawl space. This short section of pipe is intended to provide easy access to the main drain leading to your sewer line. During an active sewer line leak, you may notice unusual dampness around the opening to the clean-out pipe. You may also notice a more obvious flow of wastewater.
Sign #3: Unusually Green Spots on Your Lawn
The fecal materials and other substances in your household wastewater can provide an unusually high amount of nutrients to the parts of your lawn near a leaking sewer line. For this reason, a line leak can produce abnormally lush and green spots in your lawn. As a rule, these spots appear quickly and only produce concentrated growth in small areas. (It’s worth noting that, in the long term, bacteria found in septic water will ultimately kill your grass and nearby plants.)
Additional Signs to Consider
There are several other possible indicators of a leak in your home’s sewer line. The list of these indicators includes ground subsidence, unexplained buckling of your driveway or sidewalk, moist or spongy spots in the flooring on the bottom floor of your house, cracks in your house’s foundation, the sudden appearance of rats or mice inside or outside your home, and an unexplained boom in the population of cockroaches or flies inside your home. All of these potential signs have other causes, so you’ll need to investigate further to determine their true source.
What to Do Next
If you believe you’ve uncovered signs of a sewer line leak, call your local plumbing professional to arrange a sewer line inspection as soon as possible. This inspection can verify the presence of a leak and pinpoint its location. If you have a confirmed leak, your plumber can recommend appropriate next steps. In many cases, it’s possible to repair your damaged sewer line with a technique known as trenchless repiping. In a trenchless repiping procedure, your plumber will make two small holes in your lawn and use these openings to install a specialized liner inside the affected section of your sewer line. Once in place, this liner essentially acts like a pipe-within-a-pipe and stops leaks from occurring. Crucially, you don’t need to pull up the entire damaged line or cause extensive yard damage in order to make this type of repair.
In some cases, your sewer line may be too severely damaged for a simple repair to be the best option. If this is true for you, your plumbing professional will recommend a complete line replacement. Inevitably, this is a relatively expensive procedure that will lead to significant yard damage. On the plus side, once you have your sewer line replaced with modern materials, you probably won’t need to worry about future leaks unless you continue to own your home for many decades to come.
John Flynn is the owner of Orange Coast Plumbing, the premier residential and commercial heating and plumbing company in Huntington Beach, Ca since 1977, providing services for a wide range of customers who’ve come to depend on our high quality professionalism, superior workmanship and unsurpassed level of customer service.