A home’s sewer line is something that homeowners never think about, yet a blockage can spell disaster. Your sewer line is a lateral sewer pipe (often 4” PVC or cast iron) that connects your home’s plumbing fixture’s (such as your toilets, bathtubs, sinks, and showers) drains to either your public sewer system or onsite septic system. In most cases, it relies only on gravity so it should have a slight downward pitch away from your home. In some cases, an underground ejector pump in your yard helps the sewage reach the sewer system in the street.
The older the home, the increased possibility of hidden damage or blockage to this underground pipe. Tree roots love to grow into sewer pipes which can lead to partial or complete pipe blockage. It would be rare that a homeowner would ever have an inkling that tree roots were partially blocking their sewer line until they notice that the home’s sinks, toilets, and bathtubs all begin to exhibit slow draining. A slow drain at a single fixture often indicates a partial clog at a specific sink or bathtub. Seeing an area of bright green grass in your yard when the rest of your lawn is burnt out would be a sign of sewer line damage as well.
Sewer pipes are an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing for homeowners. Luckily, most licensed plumbers and septic professionals can inspect your sewer line to determine its condition. In many cases, sewer pipe damage or blockage can be quite expensive to repair since it often entails excavating your yard to access and replace the sewer pipe.
As part of my inspections, I always recommend my clients consider having their home’s sewer line scoped/inspected before closing, especially if the sewer line is cast iron or clay. These materials were used in older sewer lines; cast iron was still often used into the 1970s in some areas. In some cases, you may only see PVC drain pipe inside your home, yet cast iron may still exist underground. Most homes after that have only PVC sewer lines underground.
Even if there are no trees presently in your yard, it doesn’t mean there may not still be underground roots hidden from view. These hidden tree roots can still damage a sewer line long after a tree has been cut down. The plumber can access the sewer line’s interior via a drain cleanout within the home or even a vent stack on the roof. The sewer scope, as it’s often called, has a camera in it allowing the plumber to snake the camera through the underground sewer line and determine if there are blockages between the home and where the pipe connects to the city or township’s sewer line or septic tank. A sensor exists on the scope allowing the plumber to pinpoint the blockage location above ground where its visible via the scope’s camera.
Yes, I recommend this type of inspection be done with septic systems, too. Quite often, a septic inspection does not include inspection of the lateral drain pipe but includes the tank and drain field only. What you don’t know about your underground sewer pipe can hurt you in terms of an expensive repair. In some cases, a blocked sewer pipe can also allow a backup into your home where appliances and stored items in your basement could get damaged by water and sewage. Not something you ever want to come home to.
The inspection of underground plumbing (including your sewer drain line) is well outside the scope of a home inspection as defined by the Standard of Practice of ASHI (American Society of Home Inspectors). This is why I recommend my clients take the extra step of hiring a licensed plumber to inspect the underground sewer line. A sewer line inspection generally costs less than $500. If your home is close to the street, this cost may be a bit lower whereas if there is a considerable distance between your home and the street, this cost may be higher. Having knowledge now can prevent headaches later.
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© 2019 Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), an electrical engineer, and a US Dept. of Energy Home Energy Score Assessor. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.