Sewer Line Snag Or Drain Dilemma? Here’s How To Tell The Difference

If your home's wastewater is outstaying its welcome, you can be forgiven for wishing for the "good old days" of outhouses, wash buckets and chamber pots. You're most likely looking at one of two problems -- a clogged drain (which you may be able to fix yourself) or a malfunctioning sewer line (which requires the aid of a professional plumber). Here are some ways to tell which problem is plaguing your home.

Overflowing Toilets

Anybody can cause a toilet to overflow by simply stuffing it with too much material or the wrong type of material. The material generally ends up stuck in the S-shaped trap connecting the toilet to the drain line. Enthusiastic use of your trusty plunger will usually resolve this problem. Sometimes, however, the material makes its way past the S-trap and into the drain line itself. Your plumber can eliminate this blockage by feeding a flexible metal wire called a toilet auger (or "plumber's snake") through the trap and into the drain. If you attempt this job yourself, make sure to use a proper toilet auger and not a hand auger, which can damage the toilet.

Toilets clogged by a sewer line blockage may exhibit their own specific symptoms. Your toilet may overflow with every flush for no obvious reason, for instance, or it may make odd gurgling noises when not in use. Check to see if your plumbing vents are blocked up, since poor venting can create gas bubbles in your toilet water. If the vents aren't obstructed, then your culprit is the sewer line.

Following Your Nose

A blocked kitchen sink drain may not smell like roses, but it should never smell like raw sewage. Your kitchen sink is most likely connected to its drain via an S-trap or P-trap, a pipe designed to prevent sewer gas from wafting up into your home. If you kitchen sink smells, try to identify the odor. A garbage-like smell may simply indicate that you've got some old food blocking your drain, in which case a commercial drain cleaner or hand auger can probably remove it. Sewer gas, however, generally means either a damaged trap or a blocked main sewer line, which means you need to call in a professional sewer and drain cleaning service.

Isolated Incidents vs. Chain Reactions

For better or worse, all the plumbing appliances in your home have one thing in common -- they're all ultimately connected to the main sewer line. One of the clearest ways to spot the difference between a drain problem and a sewer line problem is to notice any "chain reactions" of symptoms that occur between two or more plumbing appliances. If a slow drain or blockage in one appliance has no apparent effect on any other appliances, then that appliance's specific drain line is clogged, leaking or otherwise malfunctioning. But if running the water in one appliance affects another appliance's performance, you've got a sewer line issue. Examples include:

  • Bubbles coming up in your toilet when you run the sink positioned next to it
  • Water backing up in the bathtub when you flush the toilet
  • Toilets that overflow or won't flush at all while the washing machine is running

Springtime Sewer Woes

If your home's plumbing system suddenly fails in the springtime, then you've got reason to cut right to the chase and suspect a sewer line blockage -- especially if you have big trees in your yard. Trees and other large plants tend to extend their roots at this time of year, in some cases cracking their way right through your main sewer line. (Older clay pipes are particularly vulnerable.) Low water flow is a telltale early sign of a partial blockage or leak caused by this problem.

Fortunately, you can take a proactive approach to stay ahead of a catastrophic sewer line failure. Have your sewer line inspected every year by a plumbing service equipped with fiber optic technology. By running a video cable into the line, the plumber can identify the problem, take corrective action and get your home's water flowing normally again.

Knowing the difference between a probably drain problem and a likely sewer line blockage can help you perform the right corrective procedure as quickly and cost effectively as possible. This in turn can make all the difference between a single sewer and drain cleaning bill and comprehensive restoration of a flooded home. Good luck!

For more information, contact a company like A Absolute Plumbing & Heating